I did quite a bit of reading over Christmas, although a staggering portion of that time was consumed by Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin. I wouldn’t change that, but there is some sort of strange reckoning with super long books where you forgo reading lots of books in favour of something much more expansive and hope it’s worth the investment.
Rapha and Blue Train have been releasing very shiny books for a while now, even bagging the WH Sports book prize for Andy McGrath’s Bird on a Wire. I haven’t read it – mainly because at the moment I don’t really want to read more stuff about Tommy Simpson even though I will regret when eventually I do read it – but I have read their Paul Fournel Cartes du Tour slab, although ‘read’ is probably the wrong verb, more become completely immersed in the maps and images. I am also a super-fan of the EF annual from 2 years ago and was disappointed this hasn’t become an ‘annual’ thing. I love that book because it brings me joy.
The combination of Isabel Best and Blue Train therefore is a good one, and it’s road-tested. Her previous book, Queens of Pain, is essential. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve revisited it, either for research – the chapter on Marguerite – or pleasure, just wanting to re-read the stories. The new book is all about Raphael Geminiani, a colossus of bike riding and team management. It has a simple cover, embossed gold on red leather, and reminds me of my school hymnbook. We had hymnbooks back then. We used to deface them but worry, silently, that somehow God might strike us down. It was Tiverton, we didn’t know a lot about the outside world. I wouldn’t deface this one, it is austere and beautiful.
The book explores a ‘heroic age’, from 1947 to 1964 and then beyond. There is something compelling about this era; the rise of sponsorship, the shift into televised sport, from monochrome to colour. This sense of a visual sport is emphasised by lovely pencil drawings, bike riders on ice, folded shirts, all pencil shades and chiaroscuro. It is book of memory, but also about fact and myth and the way they blur – never more so than in the recollections of those involved. I felt a pang of empathy; I wrote about Alf Engers and it became hard to know where the myth ended, the legend, and the reality began, which version was true, the voice of Alf, or the news story, or the mediated version, the story told by others time and again, before I realised that it is all truth.
The book is full of aphorisms – ‘no-one can climb a mountain on your behalf’ – waves of anecdote and tales, and stronger for that. Isabel Best has captured cadence and voice, but also the character. In fact, the voice is far more up front in this book than it felt in Queens of Pain, where at times I wanted to hear more talk, less reported speech. It’s deceptively simple, maybe I’d call it a ‘neat book’, in the most generous sense of the word, because it allows the lot to sit tight and then coalesce, it doesn’t overwrite. In addition, the past and present are intertwined because of the thematic focus, which as an author, is a hard trick to do; once you begin moving back and forth chronology can come unhinged very quickly. When starting a project I sometimes have stupid thoughts, like ‘ooh wouldn’t it be great to write this backwards’ but then i try and it’s a sheepdog’s breakfast, except the sheepdog is dead before it is alive and the breakfast hasn’t even been taken out of the tin and I’m asking the reader to grasp that it will be taken out and the sheepdog will reanimate. Something like that. So it takes a deft touch – and Isabel Best has it.
The text contains echoes of the words of other cyclists, those who have had their day and are no longer turning the pedals in anger, the recurrent motif that somehow things were better then, that the modern world has it wrong, for example that specialisation is reductive and panache is everything, and it’s hard to argue with that from an emotional point of view. It is a warm, romanticised view of the past, but it’s not beyond reproach; for all the joys and the myth, there is realism and at times the comments are there to provoke discussion, not limit it. This is what Best does so well, allow the voice to breathe, the character to emerge, through gentle asides, a bit of prose here and there, and then end result is that it’s a lovely book, and unlike a lot of other cycling books for all the right reasons. I liked it very much.