I’ve written two books about cycling. You can get them from the usual outlets, both online and in bookshops – although you might have to order from the bookshop, I doubt they carry it in stock.
Better still, you can buy it directly from me. I get more money and so does my publisher, amazon get none. This is what works best and means I’m more likely to write more books.
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“A Corinthian Endeavour: The Story of the National Hill Climb Championship”
The best hill climb book in the world ever.
“I Like Alf: 14 Lessons from the Life of Alf Engers”.
Signed copies available, use the button below and you’ll get an email confirmation from me!
I like Jonathan Vaughters. I like how he dresses and I liked his oddly sharp sideburns back in the day. In my head I think he would be engaging company. I think I project certain things onto him, that somehow I imagine him to be quirky, cool, and committed to making things work in a different way. He’s the indie music fan’s DS of choice. I reckon he listens to the National, which I can overlook for now because lots of other interesting people have a bizarre affection for this most boring of bands. I’m sure he’d like other stuff, like early REM or perhaps Deerhunter. Maybe not. Maybe he loves Counting Crows. I doubt it though.
It’s a book about bike racing, so it appeals straight away. However, I was also drawn to the complex sponsorship issues which threatened to unstitch his cycling team at various times. Lastly, there is the Lance thing. He’s an American cyclist who grew up in the same peer group, rode the same junior races and ended up at US Postal for a time. He was a protagonist in the rise and fall of Armstrong, a walking shadow; who fretted his hour upon the stage, and appears in the narrative of The Reasoned Decision.
All of which meant I was very excited when Quercus sent me a copy of his new book. I put aside my other bedtime reading and pretty much ripped through it in a day or so. It’s an easy read – as most cycling books are, and the chronology means you’re always reaching forwards to race to the bits you know, the USPS stuff, Bassons, Wiggins, what happened with Millar, the sponsorship sagas. Which is a shame, because these aren’t the best bits in the book. The writing is linear, conversational and straightforward, meaning this book lives or dies on the strength of the anecdote.
The first third or so is a classic tale, part American Flyers, part Breaking Away. It taps into the mythology of cycling in the US, the open spaces, huge journeys between races and sense of geographical and cultural dislocation from cycling in Europe, leading to an inferiority complex. It shows Vaughters’ determination and desire to win, even when losing heavily. All the key protagonists are there, from the Dad with his words of wisdom; “if you start something you damn well finish it…“, to the bike shop owner dispensing sage advice and fancy kit. Gradually the narrative shifts, as other key people emerge; Hincapie especially, but then Lance.
The second bit amplifies the first section, this time on the bigger canvas of continental cycling, with Vaughters, by now accustomed to winning, having to get used to losing all over again, yo-yoing off the back with Greg Lemond, wandering what the fuck was happening and experiencing a pervasive sense of disillusionment. The descent into PEDs is framed in the same way as other accounts, well, the more open of them. A sense of right and wrong being eroded, with noble choices being punished, and of institutional practices which carry a weight far greater than the individual, with a few notable exceptions. By 1997 Vaughters had cracked; “give me the damned chemicals, doctor, give me all of them.”
He got quicker, he took more drugs. He felt empty when winning but felt that it was the same for everyone; “We all knew what we were up to at the time… We were all just flawed humans trying to make the best of a short life.” He’s right, and there isn’t any point in throwing cant at the wall in the hope that some of it might stick. If, by some quirk of madness I had ridden in the peloton in the late 1990s I don’t doubt for one second that I would have ended up in a similar position. The pressure to take PEDs, the normalisation of the process, the lack of an alternative at that time, all point towards an endemic and systematic problem.
The book doesn’t break new ground in this respect. It flags up the issues. It summarises the difficulties. It does it with candour. However, it also does it from a resolutely singular perspective. In the middle third the book shifts away from straightforward PED-memoir, into a bit of score-settling. The reader is left in no doubt of Vaughter’s role in the ‘Reasoned Decision’ case, the interviews and contributions made to tackling the mess. It’s intertwined with lots of bad blood (no pun intended) between him and Armstrong which is never fully resolved. We find that Vaughters really doesn’t like David Millar; “…I never felt he was interested in what was best for the team, but what was best for David. However, I’m a forgiving guy and David was a damned talented rider, so we didn’t leave him out in the cold due to his turncoat ways“. He sticks the boot in a couple more times. He doesn’t like Wiggins, and devotes a whole chapter to the Brad-Sky debacle, “the child was once again throwing his toys out of the pram.” Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like Brailsford either. There is a sense of someone who holds a grudge, often with good reason, but holds a grudge nonetheless. Some of the comments still seem sharp, even after some years. They also get a lot of words, at a point when as a reader and cycling fan I was looking forward to some joyous stories from the team car, watching Dan Martin being chased by a giant panda as he takes home a monument. Some of these are conspicuous by their absence.
The final third is devoted to the sponsorship wrangles. It’s mostly an illuminating insight, covering the current model of funding and the difficulties this causes. As with the first section, I felt admiration for Vaughters, his drive and determination. I admire him because he sticks at things. He is still there, celebrating with his riders, bringing on new ones, having faith in neo-pros, seeking to chip away at the edifice and do things his way. There is something to be said for those attributes, maybe because I feel I don’t have them.
Perhaps the most telling – and therefore bizarrely late – bit of the book is his reference to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. It adds an important element of context; the obsession, the failure to forgive, the determination to do one thing to the exclusion of others, and at times – the lack of empathy or awareness of social causation, but it comes so late in the book as to be almost irrelevant. Maybe this is an editorial decision, I don’t know. For me, it’s vital, and a real missed opportunity.
I liked this book in the same way I liked The Secret Race, or Racing through the Dark, or any other story of second chances. It’s not The Rider (nothing ever is) and it’s not in the top echelon of cycling autobiographies (think Fignon), but it is a story worth reading. It’s a shame the prism of Asperger’s isn’t mentioned earlier; it’s a significant part of the story, and a significant part of Vaughters. It makes him more sympathetic and his decisions, quirks and grudges more understandable.
Part of the narrative of the new book is ‘experiential’, for want of a better phrase. Maybe ‘narcissistic’ is the better phrase I’m for want of. I’m doing the End to End in a couple of mighty chunks in order to get a greater sense of the challenges, but also the topographical and cultural changes across the UK.
The first step is a big stage across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, planned for half-term. It comes in at about 200 miles, give or take. I was quite impressed with this as a projected distance, right up until audax season kicked off and my stravr feed was suddenly alive with the sound of ultra-nutters carving out 300 mile rides across Wales and back, at which point I felt inadequate.
However, I’m doing it, and because I’m doing it I felt it might be a good opportunity to try and raise some money. And I’m utterly un-ultra-nuttery so it has all the hallmarks of being an absolute catastrophe.
I’m raising money for Off the Record, a group who work to support young people who are struggling with their Mental Health.
They work closely with the NHS and help vulnerable people.
I’m sure in 30 years time when we’re all burning up in post-BladeRunner 2020 dystopian furnace, we’ll all remember that at least we had that February week when it was 20 degrees and everyone was frotting around in shorts. What a time to be alive.
Except I’m barely alive because of this vile ‘flu which has crept into the house like a medieval pestilence. And I haven’t ridden my bike in four weeks. It’s possibly the longest lay-off in 15 years.
The only silver lining is that by not eating I have somehow lost a tiny bit of weight.
I neglected to update the details, but Alf is back in stock. We shifted about 1100 copies in three months, which was pretty amazing for an independent publisher and a niche, unmarketed book, aside from my slightly haphazard efforts.
I’m now embroiled in the details for my new book which is all about the insane, psychedelic horror and joy of the End to End. I’ve even managed somehow to get a literary agent to represent the book, which was definitely more luck than judgement, and I had the first of I’m sure many flat-out rejections.
Other things I have done:
I went to Champions’ Night and presented the Bidlake Award to Michael Broadwith, was theatened with legal action by Martyn Roach, ate breakfast with Michael Hutchinson. He said he liked the title. I got drunk and chatted with amazing people like Dan Bigham and Rachael Elliott and Dick Poole and Graham Huck and many many others.
I managed to convince my local bookshop to stock Alf and ACE. They took two, and sold them both in two days, so took four, then sold those, and then when I went back they’d taken to ordering it in from their distributor and were selling them too.
I hurt my neck somehow so haven’t been riding.
I sold my time trial bike.
My mum made a limited run of two pottery mugs with ‘I Like Alf’ on them. I gave one to Alf and it now has pride of place in his house.
It’s been a slightly demented few weeks. From a standing start, suddenly a job lot of reviews dropped in, almost all positive. None were negative, I guess what I’m trying to say is some reviews weren’t very good as reviews. I think maybe there should be a threshold for people writing reviews; possibly starting with functional literacy, then moving on to reviewing the text, rather than the reviewer’s ego or ideas of what should be in a text that they didn’t actually write.
As per usual, some of the loveliest words of praise came have come from readers, who have been very open in sharing their opinions of the book. For this, I’m always grateful and it means a huge amount. Sometimes, in the dark of winter, when you’re trying to finish a tricky chapter and failing, all writing seems like a ridiculous exercise. By the time the book comes out you’re so close to it you can’t even see the words anymore, it all just seems like so much hot air, wasted paper. It is therefore lovely to be told otherwise, especially when people use phrases like, “a wonderful cadence”, or “lyrical, flowing prose”, or even better still, “a magnificent achievement”.
The best of the formal reviews has come from Feargal McKay; he’s very much the reviewers’ reviewer, by dint of the fact that he takes his time and gets into the book like an archaeologist, looking for layers of meaning. He’ll then tell you if it’s there or not.
There have been other reviews, but I’m not going to link to those right now, I’m sure they’ll come up in a google search. They are all fine. Simon Smythe at Cycling Weekly ran a super three page spread on Alf Engers, then linked it to my book with some really lovely comments. I’m informed it’s getting a second look this Thursday coming as well:
The Comic has stepped up a gear this off-season with a string of really well-written articles, including this week’s Michael Broadwith special. Highly-recommended, particularly for the brilliant photos…
William Fotheringham, The Guardian, author of “Put me Back on My Bike” and “A Sunday in Hell”, general cycling sage and good egg, tweeted about the book recently, which was a fantastic and formative moment.
And Herbie Sykes, author of Race Against the Stasi, a really great book, mentioned that it was on his Christmas list. What a treat!
All in all, a great couple of weeks. I’m now fully immersed in a new project and have spent the past few weeks putting together a proposal for a new book. It’s done, and sitting on someone’s desk, leaving only the incipient fear of rejection. Someone will publish it. I think.