So. The book is now published. It’s been a busy fortnight, gearing up for things, but now people can buy it and read it and hopefully like it. Ultimately, I want people to really like it, that’s what it is about. During my best, most confident moments I just think I’m fine with whatever because I know it’s a really good book and it reads well and it has some prose in there I think works well and the interviews come alive. At my worst moments it’s just anxiety and a horribly tense relationship with the fact that anyone can read it and anyone can say anything and people ask me things which aren’t about what I was writing.
But so far, it’s been good. Of all the places I never thought I’d see my name in print, let alone a picture of me winning the Cheltenham Hardrider, the Spectator magazine would be right at the top of the list. But lo and behold, they ran a lovely review courtesy of the brilliant Graham Robb who writes great books. There are things, incidentally, in this review which are completely on the nose and had me reframing a couple of things. Ergo, it’s a great review. Here:
Jack Luke at bike radar also said the most amazing things about this book. He read it fully (in my experience, about 50% of reviewers have actually done a front to back, and of those 50%, around 50% realise they are reviewing a book and not telling people about themselves) and he is generous in his praise. Again, he’s picked up on the threads here, the different strands and what I am trying to say about stuff. I had a lovely chat with him last week and it is worth a listen.
It has cropped up elsewhere. I did BBC Radio Devon which was peculiar but nice. I am on Radio Cumbria this Thursday at 8pm for quite a lengthy stint and looking forward to it. The Rouleur podcast was good. To be honest, these are mostly life ambitions that are getting ticked off, being interviewed by these people. The reality is it’s quite nerve-racking, I’m used to it being the other way round so when someone drops the “silence” technique on you, as Jack Thurston did yesterday in a long and quite intense chat, it’s a bit disconcerting. I found the bike show interview the most stressful of all, partly because I’m so invested in this show, a lifelong fan, but partly because Jack came at things from an angle outside the book and I felt a bit overwhelmed. There is a wider thread here in that when you write a book about a *thing* people then view you as the definitive expert in that *thing* but in reality all you did was research and write a book, sometimes in a pretty selective way. I think the bike show is up in about ten days or so. I hope it comes across well but I did feel like I was floundering at times.
So, a busy few days, but I’m thrilled by the response and I’m excited. I’m reining in my impulsive, over thinking side (read the book if you want to know what this side is like in full and unencumbered glory) and I’m staying positive, even if everyone who I know is saying things like “hello esteemed local author” instead of “hi pj” and my mum is asking who will play her in the film and critiquing the interview on radio Devon, her “it got better” is up there with “this one is better than your last one which was a bit boring to be honest” in the realms of constructive maternal criticism.
Lastly, for the three long suffering readers of this blog, one of whom is mum, there are still some signed copies at StorySmith and at rare mags. Keep the comments coming, stay safe, and see you up the road.
The book is out in 27 days time. It’s squeaky bum time, or that’s what I said to the publisher, he said ‘my bum is feeling secure’ so I think we’re ok. It has been out and about in ‘heat-bound’ proof form, people have been reading it, and so far they have liked it.
The common thread people are picking up on is the three-pronged narrative; I sort of saw as it two-pronged but everyone else sees a third thread, the bit in my head I guess. Paul Fournel really liked it, and probably put it best:
“A brilliant book, a triple trip : one on the road, one in History and one into the author’s mind. Cycling is about all that.”
I can’t really fault this because a. it’s Paul Fournel and b. it’s Paul Fournel. He wrote Anquetil Alone, a genuinely brilliant book, but cut his teeth in the french literary cafes of the Oulipo movement with some of the big beasts like Queneau, Calvino and others. So yes, a lovely bit of praise to receive. Similarly, Emily Chappell liked it very much. She said:
Again, will take that. Totally will take that, it’s Emily Chappell FFS. She read my book, she liked my book. (insert hands up in awe emoji).
Max Leonard liked it too, he said;
“Captures so much of what ties us to the land, and the obscure forces that push us all to do inexplicably difficult things.”
Which again, I’ll take, because it’s Max Leonard who wrote Lanterne Rouge which is in my top 5 of best cycling books ever. And he is Mr Isola of Rough Stuff Archive fame and he is a GOOD EGG.
Felicity Cloake also likes the book, it was in a pile she said she ‘enjoyed immensely’, there were six books and she said 4.5 of them were AMAZE and from the replied I deduced that mine was one of the 4.5 and not the 1.5 so I can say with certainty that the mighty food queen loves my book.
So far so good. If you want a signed copy, order it from StorySmith. They did have postcard editions (four highly limited cards) but these went super quick and apparently they’ve had more pre-orders than they did for Barack Obama.
For Northern folk, the amazing Rare Mags will have some special Stockport editions with a set of four postcards and signed bookplates. I think their pre-order link will be up any day now. I think they have about 10 or so of the super limited postcard editions so contact them if you want one.
The uncorrected proofs started cropping up last week and over the weekend. It’s terribly exciting, in a straightforward way – i feel a clear sense of terror that people might actually read this now and form an opinion, whilst also feel excited at this prospect. People currently get ready to read it are Emily Chappell, Will Fotheringham and Max Leonard, so no pressure there either…
There is a bit of work to do on the cover – it’s amazing how much more difficult it is to proof certain things when everyone is far away and there is no artifact to gaze at. I have always struggled with on-screen proof. Anyway, it’s pretty much done, the book is due out in 59 days time.
If you want to pre-order, the best place is probably storysmith. You can then get a signed copy for definite. And you’d be supporting a lovely bookshop.
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.
I had noble intentions to carry on writing things, along with a similar imperative to carry on riding. I think I managed the latter, just about, but not the former. My commute is lovely, lots of fog and encroaching darkness seeping into the mornings, countered by mind-melting sunrises of transcendent beauty.
I set up a fixed hack for the timebeing; the Bob Jackson needed some remedial work on a very stuck seatpost so disappeared to Argos for about 12 weeks. I feel like a bit of a throwback with my fixed commuter, but in many ways I can’t see that there is a better bike for this kind of trek. I extended my miles and have been putting some bigger base rides at the weekend, again on fixed, and it’s been joyous. I might reach 5000 miles for the year, which isn’t that much compared to some, but is a big increase on a few years ago, and has led to a lot of weight loss and a generally elevated sense of physical and emotional well-being.
This has been undercut slightly by the exhausting reality of secondary school teaching. I don’t have much to say about this, apart from Nick Gibb is morally bankrupt and the obsession with exams is completely bogus, and teachers will carry on doing amazing things and no-one cares what Rod Liddle has to say anyway. I will be glad come Friday to have got through a term that has collapsed into a modernist poem where time and space seem to have melted together and at least a year has rolled unchecked through the past 16 weeks.
Lastly, I did this amazing talk thing with Martin Hurcombe of Bristol University all about cycling and writing. Isabel Best was there, as was Ian Walker and Marlon Moncrieffe, and I felt very lucky to be on the panel. I don’t think I disgraced myself and I said some stuff about voices and people. I’m up early on – the first person to be quizzed – then there’s quite a lot of Q+A a bit later where I talk about books and stuff with everyone else. It was a lot of fun. Isabel has a gorgeous new book out, all about Raphaël Geminiani which is currently sitting in the stack by my bed whilst I finish an enormous book about Philip Larkin, but would make a lovely christmas present for someone if you’re short of an idea (Isabel’s book, not the Larkin, unless you want that person to read about death and unresting death and nothing to be done).
This weekend there is a seminar at Bristol University about cycling and writing. It’s organised by Prof. Martin Hurcombe at the School of Languages.
It is a fantastic opportunity to hear some really great people talk about cycling and writing about cycling. Isabel Best is the author of “Queens of Pain”, a brilliant book. Marlon Moncrieffe is the driving force behind “Black British Champions”. I’m the last bit of the jigsaw and my writing tends to focus on amateur sport within the UK, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Tickets are free and available below. I will bring the virtual white wine and work hard to arrange some sort of ‘epic’ backdrop.
I find it hard to cope with the different competing narratives around this year’s championship race. There is that really big thing, the season-wrecking global pandemic thing that destroys livelihoods, health, families, schools and leaves us all lurching from day to day, and week to week, hoping that at some point things will return to normal. And the longer they go on not being normal the more any sort of normal becomes essential, even the form of normal we hoped would be swept aside by the force of change, well, maybe we’d quite like that normal back again, that will now do. People are anxious, Rob Borek, organiser of the biggest hill climb in the South West™ at Burrington, was anxious three weeks ago about our club hill climb, and we all equivocated about what was the right or the wrong thing. I saw clips on BBC Wales of Ed Laverack, reduced to tiers alongside Rebecca Richardson, making the straightforward but horribly difficult decision that they wouldn’t travel. Dissenting voices said it shouldn’t go on. It’s not a national. But it is, and it should, and it’s a shame people can’t come but the race goes on, if anything, for these very reasons, because life goes on for everybody.
I think about Christina Gustafson and her team at Reading CC, abetted by the Cowley Road Condors, Didcot Phoenix, and everyone who has thrown a leg over a bike in the home counties somewhere, along with their nearest and dearest. They resolved, sometime back in the mists of pre-pandemic time, to put on the best time trial there has ever been. They never asked for any of this. They asked for one significant thing: for women to sign up in record numbers. This last request was accompanied by an unprecedented level of effort from lots of people. A groundswell of feeling, of wanting to be a part of a sport that sets out from the word go to ensure that both the opportunity and the outcome are the same for men and women, and not subject to curious fractional divisions of small amounts of money and endless chuntering about how things used to be. Laurie Pestana and Estrella Bikes are at the core of this effort, bringing others in and continually moving it forwards.
I am slightly freaked out by the sheer numbers involved in hill climbing these days. I am old and I can remember when a full field was unheard of and 120 for the National was not a given. In my more self-aggrandising moments I hold myself a tiny bit responsible, having glamourised this most violent of disciplines to the extent that people now see it as a grand day out, somehow ‘life-affirming’, something to be tried on fixed wheel just for shits and giggles, until your eye pops out and something wrong occurs in the duodenum halfway up a hill in Berkshire.
And so it goes. 158 women line up for the start. It seems to prove the adage that “coverage creates interest, then more coverage, then more interest”. Who knew? Well, me, actually, when I wrote that 7 years ago, lolz. And I’m thrilled and excited that the event looks like this, and that the organisers have reversed the order, running the women’s event separately and last because… well, because why not? Articles pop up on influential websites, Alice Thomson writes an op-ed on Cycling News, gets flamed to death in the comments by the men, all of them somehow blundering into an elephant trap of monumental obviousness – what’s that? You don’t think we should have equality? Oh. Well done chap. I post the links, first to Alice, then to Haddi Connant, or Becky Hair in Rouleur, as a useful way to flush out any remaining mysognists from my internets.
So, in all shapes and forms, not a normal race, or maybe it is a normal race, this is what normal is, this is the most normal we can be. I have a secret pass to the hill from the crack team because they liked my book and in turn I liked the cut of their jib. I rode to Reading for a slap-up meal at Zizzis to speak at their club dinner about how hill climbs are vital and beautiful because they are unlike everything and anything else. They happen in extraordinary places. They are as real as anything can be in a world where most of our lived experience is no longer real, but mediated. I park up in the secret photographer’s car park then walk through the lovely/ a bit frou-frou Goring-on-Thames. The river seems huge, running in sluggish spate under the trestle bridges, frothing between weir and boathouse, watched over by frighteningly expensive houses. A red kite slants and shimmies sideways above the road, a spiralling, feathered chevron. There are marshals everywhere, and they are uniformly helpful, friendly and welcoming. Antony Atkin is in charge here, Christina is running the HQ.
My secret pass says I’m a photographer, which I’m not, but I dig out my 40 year old Olympus OM10 – bought from a second hand-shop in Exmouth in 1996 – just to give weight to the lie. I also take my XA2 point-and-shoot because all the photographers I’ve seen always have two cameras. Larry Hickmott has two cameras. He’s like Keith Emerson hunched over a keyboard; first a telescopic lens shot with daylight flash then a quick flick to the other one for the close up. I am not these people but armed with my two cameras I at least took like I might be taking a picture whilst not threatening the people who are actually taking pictures, the ones who like and laugh at my scarf until they see it appear in eleventy billion of their photographs.
The first thing I notice is that there are two start gates. This is how you run an event with 400 riders at 30 second intervals. The calling is off the scale, like demented bingo: number 149 COME IN 149 your time is NOW LAST CALL 149. Regimented lines shift through tunnels, along the markings, socially distanced, sanitised from head to toe, temperatures already checked at the HQ car park a good 2 miles socially distant. And at the crux, in the last minute, the tones of Laurie Pestana are there to welcome the rider, alleviate the stress, ask a question, put them at ease, before the count and launch. It runs like a military operation, but friendlier, with less civilian casualties.
I grab my branded cowbell and analogue photographer’s bib, sneak through the gates and onto the hill. It is a decent cowbell with a crisp, sonorous ring which cuts through the eerie quiet. I think back to Pea Royd or the Rake – other short, sharp snorters like this one, the ones with good lines of sight and a brief walk to the top – and recall the ribbon of people walking up, a constant funnel of noise which increases, up and up, until it presses in at the edges in pinked serrations and a wall of noise and cowbells. And it is absent, there is no question, and I am sad about it because this climb is perfect for the wall of sound. There are marshals at intervals, photographers, lots of photographers, and here and there the odd competitor. The top of the hill crosses The Holies, a beautiful walking path across to an iron age fort. Families stroll across to the road in innocence, only to be confronted by the unwonted sight of people in varying stages of distress and degradation, the rasped death-rattle of competitors, and on occasion, the pained, quasi-orgiastic grunt – the generic features of a good hill battle. It’s not long before interest is piqued and people stop and stare, marvel, and ask questions.
I catch the last of the juniors ripping up the climb. I confirm all my favourite curmudgeonly stereotypes, the one that goes when I was young I was lucky to have a butcher’s bike whereas nowadays it’s a seamless toray ladder from carbon bongo balance bikes to hill-killing weaponry by the age of 12. I find a space and wait for the men to do their bit. I don’t have to wait long, this is a tight ship, there are no gaps. There are also not many who haven’t started. The tier 3 has affected the field, but it is not noticeable. The seeding is brilliant, with a vets event within the main event, the first 95 or so.
Simon Warren has a go, it’s number 24 in his book. He has his race face on. By race face, I mean jaw hanging open, spittle flecked downwards, eyes on stalks, pulmonary embolism etched on the forehead. It makes for a compelling spectacle; for every supervet, the likes of Phil Stonelake, or Glyndwr Griffiths, the ones who wage war on the climb and somehow emerge victorious, there is another who seems to be at risk of imminent death. Knees and cranksets bend and creak in sympathy, lungs collapse and tear, eyes roll back and spectators look away in horror. In amongst the dappled sunlight an elegant figure in white appears. Tejvan Pettinger is the first of the returning champions, back in the saddle after a difficult few years affected by injury and it’s great to see him. In the end, it’s a clean sweep for Bristol of the vets categories. We might not have the fastest cyclists in the all the land, but we have the fastest old cyclists.
The seniors are quick. It is hard to call, but no-one bets against Andy Feather. Murmurings suggest Tom Bell has the legs, that Adam Kenway is there. But the form book says Feather. The pace quickens as we head towards the end. Joe Baker floats over the line, he smiles. Since Pea Royd he has given notice of his potential. His day will come. He always smiles and he seems to have a cheer squad with him, all at suitable distances. But it is Callum Brown who raises the bar by lowering the time. He has his string wheels and his legs are carved from teak, that’s all we care about. At 2.12 it looks tight, until Adam Kenway does what Adam Kenway does and slices a chunk of time off the top. Did I mention the chip timing? It works beautifully. It isn’t about the accuracy – although that is handy. It is about the theatre, knowing as soon as Tom Bell crosses the line, the second his wheel hits the mat, that he has taken the lead by a second. It causes a ripple of excitement and roar from the officials, the timekeepers, the marshals, and me.
And we wait for Andy Feather, we know he is thirty seconds away, and he does it, for the second time. He affirms the notion of the ‘nicest winner in sport’ by being super friendly. I walk over and let him know, casually, that he has won, confirming it with the time – you know, as if I was the actual timekeeper – and the relief and joy creeps across his face, you can see it. His shoulders would relax but to be honest he is absolutely ripped, lean sinews like steel hawsers, so they sort of shift down a little bit. But he smiles, a real, heartwarming smile, the one that says ‘I’m living my best life here’. And in this moment I’m deliriously happy that the race happened, because it enabled this moment to take place, amidst a sea of complexity and anxiety, of stress, not-knowing. This thing – a win – a real, pure win – surged out of the fog and everyone was happy.
But we’re not done; the men were merely the aperitif for this year’s headline event. I walk back down the hill because I want to speak to people and see the women racing and get more photos. Sheila Hardy is here. She is always here. I don’t think she has moved today; stood quietly supporting, talking to the competitors, a gentle word here, a warm welcome to Emily Meakin who arrives just as I walk past. It’s Sheila’s fifth weekend on the bounce away from home in this truncated season of national championships stacked one on top of the other like the world’s most niche game of jenga. Such is her commitment to the world of time trials.
The weight of numbers, the flipped running order, or even if you go beyond the numbers, what this many women lining up to race looks and feels like – these are all amazing things, and it feels brilliant, but at the same time entirely normal. This is the biggest victory. I don’t have to write how wonderful this feels in patronising mansplain, because the best outcome is that it is completely natural and right to flip things and do it this way because women are bike riders and yet have gone last for the past 99 years of time trials. As Michelle Walter heads out to begin her effort the world keeps turning, the hill remains horrid, the effort is amazing, the stars shine still. Everyone is eager to be sated by more violent efforts against the clock, the gradient and our limitations, watching vicariously as we hurtle towards the point where Wilkinson and Jones, sounding every inch the joint manufacturers of stainless steel blades – get set to fight it out.
I loiter so I can speak to Becky Hair and Haddi Conant, because I want to say something to them, even if I’m not quite sure what it is. I feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m thrilled by what they have done, the efforts put in to raise participation and get women riding, how they have put their names out there, in byline form, saying things that need to be said, ignoring the trolls, gathering support and making things happen. I’m angry the conversation still needs happen but I’m absurdly glad that they are having it. I am stopped in my tracks because the rain has lifted and I see three members of the Liv AWOL team, bathed in light, ready to ride, to race and support each other.
I watch Kate McTear fly upwards. I see Alice Lethbridge head uphill, giving it everything, glad to be here. I wait for Bithja Jones and I am left open-mouthed by a display of purest power and souplesse. Mary Wilkinson follows on, chasing at a 30 second interval, two very different hill climbers with one similar outcome: brutal efficiency and frightening speed, but it’s Bithja who edges it with a new course record.
The race is over. Everyone goes home, immediately. The gazebo is moved, hi-viz thrown in a green builder’s bucket. I pause for a moment, just enough time to feel a bit awkward, then walk back down through Goring to the car, taking the time to process the event in my mind. My thoughts are abstract nouns; authenticity, camaraderie, joy, community. The process is unspeakably hard, the outcome beautiful. It is the end of the hardest season anyone has known, the most anxiety-ridden, fitness and form-destroying season of all. But I am grateful that I can watch people race, live in the moment, celebrate their achievements and anyone and everyone else’s.
Somehow Christina Gustafson and her team have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Everyone is saying that the biggest hill climb or time trial ever, in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic, with no spectators for an event which is supposedly predicated by the gladiatorial galleries screaming ‘encouragement’, has somehow been the best one ever. And they are right, because this year is more than an event; it’s a statement of the human spirit, of why we love time trials, of life as it supposed to be lived, of co-operation and mutual support, and of joy as an act of resistance.