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The greatest 50 cycling books of all time

We spent a long time reading them, then even longer arguing about the order we should rank them. There have been some superb books written about the sport of cycling. Here they are, from the accepted classics to some hidden gems.

Words by the Cycle Sport team

Robin Magowan, author of Kings of the Road, put it best: “Bicycle racing differs from every other sport I know in being the only one to have been created by writers.”

He’s right. Before radio and television took over, the Tour de France was already established as the most epic of sports, with writers dispatched to the six corners of France, like war correspondents, to report back with breathless accounts of faraway heroic deeds. The Tour de France caught the public’s imagination because it was specifically designed to be reported in newspapers.

The legacy of this is a rich array of cycling books. We’ve identified what we think are the best 50 cycling books ever written. We’ve risked our eyesight by reading late into the night, debated long and hard over our favourites, and ultimately been amazed at the richness of cycling’s relationship with the written word. Read on, then read these books.

The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 40-31
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 30-21
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 20-11
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 10-6
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: the top five

50. Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape
Paul Howard, 2008

Some good detective work by the author and a title with a touch of genius, this is the story of by far the most peculiar man to have won the Tour de France five times.

‘In typical Anquetil style, even a good old-fashioned menage à trois was too conventional. Only if it involved his stepdaughter as well as his wife could his desire for control be fulfilled.’


49. Inside the Postal Bus
Michael Barry, 2005

An evocative account of life as a domestique. Although sold on the idea that it will take you to the heart of Lance Armstrong’s team, you get a strong feeling that Barry was part of the outer circle looking in.

‘Team room lists are posted in the hotel elevators… why a team would want the entire hotel, and anybody wandering through the lobby, to know where everybody is sleeping is beyond me.’


48. A Century of Paris-Roubaix
Pascal Sergent, 1996

Slightly clunky translation means some of the poetry has been lost but this is a weighty tome every bit as imposing as one of the great race’s cobblestones.

‘Since his entry into the professional ranks in 1969, the observers were unanimous: if a Mr Paris-Roubaix existed, as he did in the heroic times under the name Gaston Rebry, the only one in modern times it could possible be was Roger De Vlaeminck.’


47. The Unknown Tour de France
Les Woodland, 2000

A rare thing. A history book that is not covered in an impenetrable layer of dust. Some of Woodland’s anecdotes may have a dash of artistic licence but the tale is all the better for it.

‘He gets a phial from his bag. “That, that’s cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums…” “That,” says Ville, emptying his shoulder-bag, “that’s horse ointment to warm my knees. And pills? You want to see the pills?” They get out three boxes apiece. “In short,” says Francis [Pelissier], “we run on dynamite.”’

46. In Pursuit of Glory
Bradley Wiggins, 2008

Velodromes and Westmalle. A little lightweight, but Wiggins’s ghost has done a good job of getting behind the public persona to show a complex and contradictory character. Illuminating in that it shows that being a world-class sportsman doesn’t necessarily escort you directly to the first-class lounge.

‘In my post-Athens binge I would sit around the house for a few hours after Cath had gone up to bed, mulling it all over and, of course, started reaching for my Belgian friends.’

45. Le Tour
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 2003

As close to a definitive account of the Tour de France as it’s possible to get. It’s clear Wheatcroft is not an afficionado, he’s a journalist and fine writer who has sifted through a century of material to pick out the need-to-know stories.

‘If he could be marked out so that no spectactor could fail to see him, it would add to the thrill of the race. It would add a new lustre to the leader himself. And it would be a brilliant promotional coup for the paper. Desgrange telegraphed to Paris to ask for jerseys to be run up in the l’Auto’s distinctive yellow.’

44. Tour de Lance
Bill Strickland, 2010

Strickland gets close to Lance. Perhaps a little too close – the writer begins to lose clear sight of his target. This is a slightly soft-focussed portrait although it does a good job of getting to the heart of why the Armstrong story has been so compelling for so many. It makes our list because Strickland is an excellent writer, who can describe the immediacy of bike racing in a way that few others can.

“He knows how to mind-fuck better than anybody,” said a close member of his personal staff. “He knows every nook and cranny of the Tour de France, and over the years he’s done so many mind-fucks there you can’t even count them. Ullrich, Beloki, Basso: mind-fucked. Every one of them.”

43. Roule Britannia
William Fotheringham, 2005

An anecdote-driven account of Britain’s on-off love affair with professional cycling, told with the insight of the men who made the journey across the channel to take on the Continentals. You get a strong sense of just how hard it was to make it in a foreign world.

‘By this time, there was no mistaking him. No other cyclist had a vast mass of varicose veins that looked as if a plate of spaghetti had spilled on his lower right leg. No other pro rode his bike with his pulled half way up the thigh. So what if the sponsor’s logo could not be read: that was how Sean Yates wore them.’

42. Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees
Graeme Fife, 2008

A coffee-table book with some stunning photography. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but Fife’s prose goes some way to banishing that cliché. Fife’s rich, style writing dovetails perfectly with the dramatic scenery he is writing about.

‘On the Col de Marie Blanque: Suddenly, as if to emphasise its harsh, bucolic origins, the road narrows to not much more than a car’s width and, at last, gets some life: a jink of hairpins before the slight hummock of the col hoves into view. The summit clearing is no more than a swatch of tarmac tossed onto the bare earth.’

41. The Agony and the Ecstasy
Stephen Roche with David Walsh, 1988

An autobiography of Roche’s life up to the end of his remarkable 1987 season, when he won the Giro, the Tour and the rainbow jersey. Walsh lifts it well above the level of most first-person accounts and links the major events in Roche’s life together with some evocative race reporting.

‘“Tell the boys to stop riding, it’s not right to ride after a team-mate. I’ve been the joint leader in the Carrera team for two weeks and now when I have a chance to win, you’re telling me to stop.” That ended our conversation. I asked Patrick what he thought. He looked at me with a bit of a smile: “Steve, if you have balls, now is the time to show them.”‘

The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 40-31
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 30-21
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 20-11
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 10-6
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: the top five

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport December 2011

Follow Cycle Sport on Twitter: www.cyclesportmag.com/cyclesportmag

6 Comments

  • Ed W says:

    How did you completely leave out the only true #1?:
    Need for the Bike
    Paul Fournel
    I remember the dog very well. It was a yellow dog, a boxer.I remember I was the last to see him alive because I was the one who hit him…

  • wilfried WILMS says:

    Dear Sir,

    I am close to finalising a bibliography of (English language) books on cycle racing. This explains why your top-50 attracted my attention and I intend to make a reference to it in my blibliography (and to other similar top-50 lists).

    Would it be posisble to tell me more about a “story” behind the top-50. Is it being updated on a regular basis? Who sits on the selection committee? Etc. Many thanks.

    Best regards,

    Wilfried WILMS
    Tiensesteenweg 314
    3000 Leuven
    Belgium

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