Book review: France En Vélo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds

June 2, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in books, cycling | Leave a comment
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Francophilia oozes from this book. Part travelogue, part tour guide, it takes you on an idiosyncratic, 1000-mile journey through the authors’ favourite bits of France, with plenty of historical, cultural and culinary detours along the way. Hannah and John know France very well, and their route is largely off the beaten track; I was tickled to see the stunning yet little-known Gorges de la Nesque included, for example.

You get the feeling it would be a giggle to go on holiday with these two. Their enthusiasm for good riding in gorgeous scenery is matched by a healthy interest in the local tipples and a penchant for serendipitous exploring (the list of Picnic Essentials includes swimming gear, and one of the Useful Phrases is Could you fill my bottle with red wine, please?).

france en veloThe book is beautifully laid out. All the pictures of spectacular vistas, inviting streets and architectural gems will induce hopeless nostalgia in anyone who’s visited France, and send readers who haven’t scurrying off to Tripadvisor. Ideal for dreaming over on wintry evenings, you can practically smell the lavender and taste the Sauternes, and the loving detail gives you a real sense of what you’ll experience when you’re there.

It’s a terrific read, then. But would it work as a holiday guide?

Hannah and John suggest ways of adapting the route to your preferences, including dividing it up into different stages depending on how far you want to travel in a day, or doing parts of the route as short breaks. There’s plenty of practical information about each town, including where to shop, stay and get your bike bits from, and I can see all the tidbits of historical and cultural information really enhancing a holiday.

However, the vivid detail that’s so enchanting in your living room might weigh a little heavy in your pannier. The book includes turn-by-turn route descriptions, which would work in a walking guide, but I’m unsure I’d be hauling it out at every junction to check I was going the right way. For me, a different format would have worked better – perhaps a narrower, slimmer volume with directions that would fit in a back pocket, and an accompanying text with the local colour, for route-planning over pizza in the evenings.

I was expecting fold-out maps, and was a bit surprised to find schematic route plans only. So you’ll need to get hold of a set of Michelin maps (not a bad thing, in itself), and spend some time beforehand translating routes from book to map.

The very specific local recommendations in the book may mean it’ll suffer from Lonely Planet syndrome, whereby you arrive in a town to find none of the places you were hoping to eat/ drink/ stay at exist any more. There’s an accompanying website, which isn’t very developed at present – this would be a great place to post up-to-date recommendations, e.g. from travellers using the book. Ideally, the book would have its own app, so you could check directions and local information while on the move.

All in all, though, this is an inspiring read for anyone dreaming of cycle touring in France. Maybe the best approach is to let it stimulate your imagination, and then do as Hannah and John would do – pack a few maps and your swimming gear, fill your bidons with vin rouge, and see where the Mistral blows you.

  • France En Velo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds. Wild Things Publishing, 2014. Rrp: £16.99

I was kindly provided with a free copy of this book for review by Wild Things Publishing.

Book review: Faster, by Michael Hutchinson

March 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Posted in books, cycling | 2 Comments
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my tweet re. fasterWell, 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:

khan-kirk

Khan: Because I am… BETTER.
Kirk: At what?
Khan: EVERYTHING.

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.

* 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.

Book review: How Cav Won The Green Jersey: Dispatches from the 2011 Tour de France (Ned Boulting)

February 10, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Posted in books, cycling | 5 Comments
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This ‘digital short’ consists of (at least, according to Brian of the washing machine post) the final chapters that never made it into How I Won The Yellow Jumper. If you’ve read Yellow Jumper, then the style is familiar, and so is the general approach: events from the race are woven together with sideways observations on the mundane, behind-the-scenes life of the Tour. The text is punctuated with pictures, as in Yellow Jumper: happily, you can actually see them clearly this time, thanks to the ebook format.

This isn’t Yellow Jumper part 2, though. Yellow Jumper covers eight years of reporting on the Tour de France: what changed (Ned’s development from a neophyte into an obsessive), and what didn’t (laundry, hotels, food, toilets). How Cav Won The Green Jersey, by contrast, is a detailed description of highlights of the 2011 Tour. Yellow Jumper’s pretty structured, given that it’s a set of anecdotes organised around themes, without much chronology to support it. It has a narrative arc; a beginning, middle and end. It feels measured, and conscious, and planned. Green Jersey feels looser, wilder and woollier; more like a breathless phone call from a friend who just got to go backstage and met the band and OH my ACTUAL GOSH!

There’s a lot of lively discussion of the riders and teams, from Ned’s perspective as a reporter and (sometimes) as a fan. His portrayal of the Vacansoleil team, with their maverick, aggressive approach to the race, is tied into a vision of ‘real’ Vacansoleil holidays:

The beating heart of Hoogerland Holidays is very different. There is, if you listen hard, Lou Reed blaring from a distorting beatbox across the road, where the parents have collapsed on half-deflated lilos in the pool with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a bong and a bargain bucket of fried chicken.

Ned does write very well. It’s like listening to him talk – particularly like his scripted segments on the telly, where you can be misled by his jokey, blokey approach into assuming he isn’t saying anything very complex. There’s a lot packed into the observations here, and Ned has a way of bringing in his considerable knowledge and insight without coming across as pompous, or lecturing anyone. Quite a feat.

There are plenty of proper laughs (like a beautiful description of Chris Boardman’s superhuman ability to be simultaneously awake and asleep, and a lovely account of mutual incomprehension in an interview with Samuel Sanchez), and characters like Chris, Liam, Matt and the infamous Carno are succinctly and affectionately drawn. It’s not just a romp, though. Room is made for reflection, as it was in Yellow Jumper, although the self-deprecating voice is never quite suppressed, so there is nothing in this book that quite matches Yellow Jumper’s surprising and moving chapter on Glenn Wilkinson.

More than anything, Green Jersey is a celebration of the heroes and characters of the 2011 Tour. It’s needed more than ever now, in the midst of incredible betrayals, crashing disappointments and bare-faced cheek. I’d started to feel that the Tour was that flamboyant, sexy exchange student who whisked me off my feet, promised me an exotic new life in the sun, sweet-talked me into a quick knee-trembler and ran off with my handbag. This book reminds me why it’s still worth being a cycling fan.

P.S. Like Ned Boulting? You might like Gosh, yes! Ned Boulting… then. From those lovely people at the @INBFC (International Ned Boulting Fan Club).

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