Cycling Books That Have Inspired Me

books

I recently thought about my favorite books. There are many, and they span a wide range of topics, from Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince to The Art of the Motorcycle. Here are six of my favorite cycling books, in no particular order. This is not a “recommended reading” list; it’s a personal list of books that have inspired me. In any case, many of these books are difficult to find or written in French or Japanese.

repack

From Repack to Rwanda was a gift from Jacquie Phelan. It’s a catalogue for an exhibit by the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. From Repack to Rwanda chronicles the development of the mountain bike and shows great studio photos of dozens of pioneering machines. It starts with the Schwinn Klunkers, then the first Breezers and Ritcheys, Cunninghams, the 1981 Specialized Stumpjumper, as well as wonderful machines like the Ibis Bow-Tie with its pivot-less Sweet Spot suspension. It’s by far the best book on the subject, and the fact that it was given to me by a mountain bike pioneer makes it all the more special. Thank you, Jacquie!

deon

Bernard Déon’s Paris-Brest Et Retour really turned me on to the history of French randonneurs and their wonderful machines. I met Déon at the finish of my first PBP in 1999 and ordered the book shortly thereafter. The book’s reports from the early races and later randonneur events were fascinating, but I was equally impressed by the bikes. I realized that if riders like Roger Baumann had completed PBP in 50 hours through rain and wind in 1956 on René Herses, then the bikes must have been very good, and not mere show-pieces, as many assumed at the time.

I became determined to learn more about this event and these bikes. In a big way, this book was at the start of Bicycle Quarterly, Compass Bicycles and even my own randonneuring. Unfortunately, this book was printed only in a small run, so it’s almost impossible to find. And Déon’s style requires greater-than-average proficiency in French.

toei

The Japanese have been excited about French cyclotouring bikes much longer than I have even been alive. They have published many wonderful books on the subject. My favorite is this gorgeous tome about Toei, the famous builders from Tokyo. Unfortunately, I cannot read the Japanese text, but the photos alone make this a favorite. It shows in great detail how Toei’s style developed over the years, until it reached close to perfection in recent decades. This book still is in print, and we may be able to import it and offer it in the Bicycle Quarterly Bookstore.

burney

Simon Burney’s Cyclo-Cross is a great how-to guide for aspiring ‘cross racers. It was strongly recommended by a friend in the 1990s, who was the Master’s Women national champion. I tried to absorb every line of it, and if I had any success in cyclocross, it was thanks to Burney’s clear advice. Mine is the first edition, with Graham Watson’s action shots that add to the appeal of this excellent little book.

My copy of Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike doesn’t have a jacket, so there is no photo here. Originally given to me by its English translator (and Bicycle Quarterly reader) Allan Stoekl, I greatly enjoyed this little book. Fournel is a philosopher, who writes about why we ride. On every page, I smiled and nodded my head. For example, Fournel writes about a spring on a descent. He’s never seen it, but he knows it’s there because he feels the cool air as he rides past it. This sustains him for miles afterward.

I lent my copy to a friend who was very ill and never got it back. I finally managed to track down a hardcover copy from a library sale. Need for the Bike is the only book on this list that is currently available in the U.S. (paperback).

risques

Routes, Risques, Rencontres translates to “Roads, Risks, Encounters”. Its author, Lily Serguéiew, was an artist who decided to ride from Paris to Saigon in 1938, on her aluminum Caminargent bike. She took her time, learning the language in every country she traversed, drawing, and meeting the local people. Her adventures are both breathtaking and sweet.

In the former category is her trip through the desert of Turkey, despite being denied a visa, which led to her being chased by the police for several days. The sweet moments included being invited to participate in a wedding in Greece. Her trip ended prematurely when World War II started while she was in Aleppo (Syria). She returned to France, where her book was published in 1943. If you read French – the language is less complex than in Déon’s book above – I recommend trying to find a copy.

ease_elegance

The final book here is Hilary Stone’s Ease with Elegance. This story of Thanet Cycles, the makers of the famous Silverlight machines, lives up to its name. Different from so much “cycling history”, it’s a well-researched yet engaging read. The “guv’nor” (Les Cassell) must have been quite a character! It’s a truly charming book that had me dream of a Thanet for years. I got my book directly from the author, Hilary Stone, and I believe he has some copies left.

What are your favorite cycling books?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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25 Responses to Cycling Books That Have Inspired Me

  1. sisyphus says:

    I hope that you do offer the Toei book for sale soon. I will purchase a copy from you.

    Cheers,
    Bill

  2. Rando Theo says:

    I purchased Need for the Bike on your suggestion at a handbuilt bike show in Oregon a few years ago. I later purchased a copy in French and found that I enjoyed it even more, sometimes reading it aloud to better experience Fournel’s beautiful writing. And then I found (and bought) another copy in English, with a hard cover, that is currently in publication by Roleur: re-titled “Vélo” this edition features additional essays by Fournel as well as illustrations by Jo Burt. This is the only book I own three copies of and each is distinct and appreciated. Here is a link to the Roleur edition: http://rouleur.cc/shop/books/v%C3%A9lo?cur=USD

  3. marmotte27 says:

    More recently I have been most inspired by your own books (I’ve got ‘René Herse’ in the French edition, ‘The Golden Age…’ in German and ‘The Competition Bicycle’ in English…).

    A part from ‘Besoin de Vélo’, I really appreciate another book by Fournel, ‘Méli-Vélo. Abécédaire Amoureux du Vélo’, an alphabeth book of cycling terms and names, funny and insightful both at once; and, also by Fournel, a short story called ‘t.m.t.’ that was published a few years back as a supplement by ‘L’Equipe’, about the ‘autobus’ in the Tour de France.

    Tim Krabbé’s ‘The Rider’ is another favourite of mine, as are Matt Seaton’s ‘The Escape Artist’ and Paul Kimmage’s ‘Rough Ride’.

  4. “What are your favorite cycling books?” – Well, the one I wrote, of course🙂
    Besides, “Du soleil dans mes rayons” isn´t bad. Captures the spirit of randonneuring. Lost/Mislaid/lent my copy, sorry, can´t be more precise.

  5. Giovanni Calcagno says:

    In no particular order:
    “The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles” (J.H.)
    “Journey to the center of earth” (Richard & Nicholas Crane)
    “Ultimate high-My Everest Odissey” (Goran Kropp)

  6. jimmy says:

    I’ve found The Data Book fascinating.

  7. anniebikes says:

    Miles From Nowhere, Barbara and Larry Savage.

  8. thebvo says:

    I received Eben Weiss’ “Bike Snob Abroad” as a gift, and I really love his style. If the topic is of interest to the reader it is quite easy, I think, to keep the pages turning. However, Eben Weiss has a great way of leading you through his insightful, witty, and provocative thoughts about the cycling world, that I think could hold the interest of the uncycling world.

  9. Jonathan Gehman says:

    My absolute favorite cycling book? “The Big Loop”. I found it in my middle school library in 6th grade and read it at least 3 times over Christmas break in 1976. Written in the very early 50s, for young teens, it’s the story of a poor French boy and his friend who dream of being bike racers and riding the “The Big Loop”, the Tour De France. Of course the hero, after trials and difficulties that all of us that have ever lined up for the start will recognize, eventually rides and wins the Tour. And his best friend, less talented but just as inspired, becomes a journalist and covers the race as his friend perseveres and conquers it.

    I don’t have a copy and haven’t read it in 37 years but it sparked the fascination and love I have for bikes(especially old road racers), racing and that special period of post-war racing in Europe. It might have been poorly written and technically lacking(I don’t remember it that way however), but it had that magic that good books have. I liked bikes and rode a lot before I read that book but after I found that copy in the school library, I was off on a different path. I was thinking about it a week ago while getting through the hilliest part of a 200k and feeling like I was experiencing just the kind of joy and satisfaction that story had promised me back then.

  10. Stephen Brown says:

    There really are some great books out at the moment, I am collecting books at the moment & am inspired by “Custom Bicycles. A passionate pursuit” by Christine Elliot & David Jablonka. “The Competiition Bicycle. The Craftsmanship of Speed.” by Jan Heine. Enjoy

  11. Emmanuel says:

    I like “The Bicycling Book” from John and Vera Krausz. It is one of the rare books about bicycling (got it?) where you can learn something even though you are not a complete beginner.

    I saw it first mentioned while researching Mercian Cycles : http://www.classiclightweights.co.uk/mercian.html

    • TimJ says:

      When I first saw this post I started thinking about my favorite bicycle books and couldn’t get “The Bicycling Book” out of my head. To think I picked it up used about 30 years ago and have read it dozens of ties since, it remains one of the books that most influenced my thinking about bicycles. Racing trikes, how to improve a three speed, US wind patterns, turn a t-shirt into a bike shirt, track racing basics, “The Bicycling Book” is a favorite.

  12. “The Rider”, Tim Krabbe.

  13. Scott G. says:

    “Tomorrow, we ride” by Jean Bobet
    Lovely writing.
    For cycling history, David Herlihy, Bicycle

  14. David Feldman says:

    “The Man Who Loved Bicycles, memoir of an autophobe” by Daniel Behrman. Bought it when it was published forty years ago and re-read every few years since. Last year I found a book at a garage sale for 25 cents that I’d always wanted to read–Dervla Murphy’s “Full Tilt.” Highly recommend both!

  15. alliwant says:

    I also must recommend “Need for the Bike.” I remember the passage where he mentions the cool air, and my immediate thought was that it might be a cave rather than a spring. That’s about as much quibble as I can find with the book, a nice little meditation on the joys of biking.

  16. Rob Wilkes says:

    “The Joyous Wheel : Being a Collection of Observations and Experiences During Bicycle Journeys” by James Arnold (1940) – a wonderful glimpse of the UK cycle-touring scene before WW2 illustrated by the author’s woodcuts – a few copies currently available on UK Amazon; and, “Touring Bikes : A Practical Guide” by Tony Oliver (1990) – still informative after all these years.

  17. Bob McHugh says:

    Martin Ryle’s evocative – almost pastoral – descriptions of rural Ireland from the perspective of a cyclist: “By Bicycle in Ireland – a personal guide to the landscapes of the Irish Republic”. This book first captivated me over 10 years ago and I drew fresh inspiration from it during a long flight to Ireland to participate in a 1200km randonnee. Wonderful book! Wonderful ride!

  18. Frank B. says:

    A gem I found through a BQ review is Jacques Faizant’s “Albina” series. “Albina et la bicyclette” etc. I’m not sure there is an English version, I read the German one “Albina und das Fahrrad”. It’s a very charming book full of little stories, that is surprisingly up to date in many aspects. I love the culture clash story about Faizant’s visit to Amsterdam where to his great shock he has to realize that the Dutch have no love at all for bicyles – why should one “love” something so mundane and commonplace as a bicycle? A question that still makes me think …

    A very interesting occurrence of a bicycle in a book is in Frank Norris’ seminal 1901 novel “The Octopus: A Story of California”. It’s about the conflict between wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and the Pacific and Southwestern railroad in the 1880s.

    The novel begins with one of the main characters, the poet Presley, , riding his bicycle across the countryside. It was months after I had finished the book that I realised, that in 1880 it was not common at all to ride a bicycle. Everyone else in the book either is a farmer riding a horse or driving a horse-buggy, or he is involved with the Railroad, thus going by train. The poet is the one in the middle of the conflict between these two parties, and of course he’s the one riding a bicycle! Brilliant!

    And the third recommendation would be “The Third Policeman” by Flann O’Brien.

  19. TimJ says:

    In addition to “The Bicycling Book” mentioned above and avoiding repeating terrific but already mentioned books such as “Need for the Bike” and “The Rider”, the cycling books I most often reference are:
    “The Dancing Chain” Berto, Shepard, and Henry’s OC look at the bicycle derailleur.
    “Glenn’s New Complete Bicycle Manual” 1987. This book taught me how to ride in traffic and rebuild a coaster brake.
    “Bike Cult” by David Perry, a thorough and exhaustive look at bikes and bike culture in all its variations.
    And finally “Lisa und Tim auf Fahrraden” a coloring book I found in a hotel in Germany, the title describes me and my wife!

  20. B Van Baush says:

    Read “The Bike Stop”, by Sam Braxton and Gary MacFadden; all you need to know about how to work with a frame builder, pick a bike shop, your gear selection, and components that do work.

  21. marmotte27 says:

    By the way, does anyone know a text by Albert Schweitzer on bicycles and cycling, other than his childhood memory about a cyclist stopping at the local inn and being gaped at by the population, mainly on account of his wearing shorts…?
    Schweitzer seems to have been quite a keen cyclist and there are numerous mentions of trips by bike in his letters. However, someone told me about the existence of something more substantial on cycling in his writings but I haven’t been able to trace it (if it actually exists); even at the Schweitzer archives just down the road from where I live they could not help me, no-one there being especially interested in cycling.

  22. Dave Hunter says:

    ” One more kilometre and we’re in the showers : Memoirs of a cyclist ” ( 2004 ). Tim Hilton grew up in Birmingham, England, and went to Oxford in the early 60s. He could not find another undergraduate racing cyclist at Oxford ; the town had two cycling clubs, but there was some hostility by the townspeople towards the university students, and so he didn’t feel that he would be welcome at either club. The book talks about cycling in England and on the continent in the 50s and 60s. He writes about the classic races in Italy, France and Belgium. He writes about the Tour de France,and introduced me to Raphael Geminiani, and another rider from an earlier time named Rene Vietto. I loved their stories. He writes about some women cyclists in England from the 50s and 60s : Eileen Sheridan and Beryl Burton. I especially enjoyed reading about the Tour de France, whose history I was unfamiliar with.

  23. nellegreen says:

    Highly recommend “Across Asia on a Bicycle: The Journey of Two American Students from Constantinople to Peking” for tales of adventure riding of early cycling exposure for the Orient.

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