Cycling books are pretty generic. They start off with a gentle preamble through the early days of the hero (or antihero) by looking at the moment when they got their first bike and it all rolls along happily from there. I’ve read just about every single cycling book in current publication. This includes Nicolas Roche’s journal thing. I came to the conclusion that he needs to ride a bit more and possibly win something before he writes another book. Anyway, there are some exceptions to the rule; some cycling books seem to tiptoe towards a more erudite and elegant form of prose. The highest point of the genre is The Rider by Tim Krabbe. It’s a work of understated genius and needs no further comment from me. Tomorrow We Ride is also a subtle and eloquent account of bike racing. I also really liked Laurent Fignon’s book. Outside of the professional peloton there are some gems; Nick Hand’s Conversations on the Coast is beautifully written and presented, a book about the great outdoors, craftsmanship and the significance of the journey as a metaphorical and literal process.
The sometimes uneasy mix of cycling and literature has another worthwhile addition; Scarlett Parker’s The Srampagmano Tales. Whilst it’s not unexpected that someone might write a book about the various different types of cyclists, it’s probably not expected that such a book should be written entirely in rhyming couplets and loosely (or fairly closely) modelled on the Canterbury Tales. It also has beautiful illustrations, etched in monochrome. For all these factors I urge you to get a copy. It’s cheaper than a pint of mead and available to download. It’s also funny and unerringly precise. Scarlett’s book really tickled me, and being a fan of Chaucer, by Godde’s digne bones, I tracked him down for a few quick questions…
I bought the book. I had to install kindle on my phone. i don’t have one of them things. Where did the idea come from?
I’d written the odd poem about cycling in the past, and in the early days of the lfgss forum(a small forum back then, now a frighteningly huge internet phenomenon) I contributed to threads for cycling haiku and limericks. It was fun, and people enjoyed what I’d written, but ultimately it was all a little insubstantial and frustrating. While those thoughts were rattling around my head, I was doing my usual thing at the time of riding up and down the short sharp climbs that criss-cross the Pilgrims Way just beyond Biggin Hill, and then I think I picked up a translation of Chaucer’s text one day to see where the pilgrims started their journey, and to scan a well known example of a certain poetic meter. A vague concept was formed.
Why the Canterbury Tales as a model?
It begins with a prologue. It describes people from a fairly broad spectrum of society, but with a common interest. It involves a journey. It begins in my home town. It involves myth, the sublime, the ridiculous. My original working title was ‘The Campagnolo Tales’, but in the end I wanted to avoid legal ramifications and tedious accusations of being a componentry partisan. I’m not a big Chaucer scholar or anything.
Regarding the couplets, do you sense a link between the metrical certainty of the iambic (largely) couplet and the mechanical rhythm and cadence of cycling?
Yes, definitely. I’d not really tried writing iambic pentameter to any great degree before, but it seemed the go-to choice for a more narrative project. Writing and performing lyrics was something I’d done a lot in the past – I spent over a decade recording solo music and playing in bands – and despite eventually getting sick of all that, I still have a very musical brain. When I got back into cycling as an adult, I quickly realised that rhythm was the main thing that propelled me further or faster. I devoured literature on training and technique and so on, and certainly made conscious efforts to implement much of what I read, but it was always those moments where the hypnotic movements of the automaton kicked in, orchestrating the engine, that I’d find myself riding most strongly. The same thing happens with writing verse. You practise, neurological connections are primed, you flounder, you focus, and then suddenly the rhythm’s driving you along, like a stoker. You just sit up front and decide when to change direction or put the brakes on. And what else but heroic couplets could do justice to the noble feats of strength and endurance synonymous with cyclesport. Or something.
You identify a number of ‘tribes’ or ‘groups’…. do you feel that this reflects the plurality of cycling culture at the moment?
I realise it’s natural for readers to ascribe themselves (or acquaintances) to the groups in my book, but I’m slightly bored with the ‘cycling tribe’ rhetoric that’s been floating around the wider cycling media for a while now. It’s no doubt a result of the cycling resurgence in countries where it’s been suppressed by car culture for such a long time, and the need to seek or assign identity within the amorphous whole. Humans clearly like belonging to a group, but would prefer it to be a ‘reasonably sized’ group. The tribes that I saw described, however, tended to be driven more by fashion than cycling heritage, and so I decided to go with the latter when deciding on a set of characters. Some have been around longer than others, but I think they’re all more about how they ride than what they wear.
Is there a group that didn’t get in?
Originally I thought about doing 22 characters – I think that’s how many Chaucer had; but he died before writing all of the ones he wanted to, and I don’t really have the temperament to plod along on a single project for the rest of my life. Others that I toyed with were ‘poloistas’, ‘nightriders’, ‘charity riders’, ‘commuters’, ‘tweedies’ – stuff like that. I also quickly made the decision to limit it to road riding. I’ve done some singlespeed and fixed mountain biking, and dabbled in cross and BMX, but I think I lacked the insight for those disciplines, and ultimately lacked the interest too.
I’m keen on all the characterisations, but have a clear affinity with The Tester’s Tale; “a float day on a fast course would be nice… just one within my lifetime would suffice’, not to mention the marshalls in the rain… Which one do you feel closest to?
Well, as the narrator of the piece, my identity isn’t fully divulged, but ‘puncheurs‘ get a brief mention, and that’s what I am. The moments when I really come alive on a bike are short sharp climbs, sudden inexplicable accelerations, putting the hammer down on twisty undulating terrain. Too slight to be an out-and-out sprinter, too heavy to be a mountain goat, too impulsive to time trial well. Having said that, I’m also made up of all the characters, just like many other cyclists. It’s a broad church, and people like to experiment. I tend to ride how my mood takes me, and I’m a bit schizoid.
it strikes me as a celebration of the bicycle, as much as the people that ride it…
Yes, and no. We decided on a ‘no bicycles’ rule for the illustrations, aside from a bit of wheel on the cover. This was partly because my wife hates drawing them, but also because I think there’s enough other stuff out there fetishising the object. It’s always there, facilitating, but I wanted to keep the focus on the riding as much as possible. It’s about who we are in the context of riding, but of course the bicycle’s the conduit. I’m not immune to the aesthetic, or the technological, but I like bicycles best when they disappear beneath you, and all that’s left is the rhythm and the road.
What do you hope people take away from the tales?
A sense of fellowship, and a desire to ride their bikes and collect tales of their own.