Book review: Faster, by Michael HutchinsonMarch 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Posted in books, cycling | 2 Comments
Tags: book, cycling, faster, michael hutchinson, review
Well, I was nervous about reading this. I love Hutchinson’s first two books to distraction*: they’re warm, funny and fascinating, and they seamlessly integrate factual explanations with autobiographical detail in a way that is deft and unobtrusive. It’s only when you read other books** that jump awkwardly between personal anecdote and technical or historical exposition that you realise how skilled he is at this.
Faster, though, threatened something different from the familiar ‘year in the life’ of The Hour and Missing The Boat. A treatise on physiology, technology and aerodynamics, in the service of finding out what makes some people ride faster than others? This was going to make me feel stupid, wasn’t it.
Happily, it didn’t (well, no more than life in general does). The book is detailed, and packed with revelations – I was murmuring ‘Gosh!’ at something every other page – but it wears its scholarship lightly; I can see I’ll be going back to it when I forget what lactate threshold is, or the relationship between turbulent and laminar flow, or the exact definition of ‘raw grunt’. No, really. It’s all there, but even dim arts graduates like me can understand it.
The book focuses on the elite end of the spectrum; this isn’t a training manual, or a cookbook of tips for the average Jo(e). Instead, it’s an absorbing dissection of what, exactly, makes a pro a pro, and a curious insight into a combination of physiology and mindset that is foreign to most of us. Before I started reading, my conceptualisation of what differentiated Hutchinson and his ilk from the likes of me was along the lines of this exchange from Star Trek: Into Darkness:
Faster explains how this is both true and not true; how you can be naturally endowed with some crucial characteristics and not others, and how modern training, nutrition, psychology and equipment tackle the challenge of making up the deficits and exploiting the advantages.
To my relief, Hutchinson hasn’t abandoned his trademark style – self-deprecating, sometimes acerbic, but human and warm. He’s also very funny. The personal tales I loved in the previous two books are still included:
Here, they offer an glimpse into the mind of a man who’s found, almost by chance, something he’s really, really good at, and has committed the full force of his obsessive nature and natural geekiness to making the most of it. At times it’s almost spiritual: I’m reminded of Liddell’s lines in Chariots of Fire, ‘I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.’ Hutchinson’s not ascribing his talents to divine intention, but some of what he says has a similar ring: ‘it’s what you’re for.’
As a fairly rubbish bike rider, my approach to training is to try not to get distracted by sheep, and remember I’m supposed to be trying a bit harder than usual. I turn up to races with the fervent hope that I might eventually beat that bloke with the mesh insert in his shorts. Hutchinson’s attitude is so alien to me that he and I might as well be from different planets***. Nevertheless, his book manages to make the monomaniacal pursuit of faster at this level seem both entirely understandable and completely bonkers. So, somehow, I think it’s fulfilled its purpose.
- Faster, by Michael Hutchinson. Bloomsbury, published 27/03/ 2014.
* I stealth-market these books by snorting involuntarily at them on trains. More than once, someone’s leant over to ask me what’s so funny, so it works.
** List available on request: to paraphrase Reg in Life of Brian, I should know, I’ve wallowed in a few.
***I also found myself wondering about living with this kind of obsession. Sean Yates’ autobiography famously includes a chapter by his ex-wife; with any luck, Hutchinson’s partner is negotiating a book deal of her own.