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The greatest cycling books of all time: 20-11

Continuing our countdown of the best cycling books ever written.

The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 50-41
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: 10-6
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: the top five

20. The Fabulous World of Cycling
Winning Magazine, 1983-1991

The closest cycling fans got to a Christmas annual. All the year’s big races told in words and pictures, accompanied by an acerbic question and answer session with Eddy Merckx, who always sounds frustrated at the failings of the modern riders. It’s as if he wants to shout: “It’s easy. Why can’t they just do what I did?”

Winning: You’ve had saddle problem like Sean Kelly had at the Vuelta a Espana. Does it make it impossible to finish a race?
Eddy Merckx: Yes. After a certain stage in the infection the pain just spreads with each movement, and you end up being able to think of nothing but that pain. When you think about it, riders stay in the saddle for more than five hours on stages that aren’t really difficult in themselves. But you start seeing stars.

19. Bad Blood
Jeremy Whittle, 2008

A personal account of the toll doping has taken on the sport but also a revelation of how unwilling the media were to raise the blinkers until the Festina Affair forced the inevitable.

Lance would obtain home or mobile phone numbers of his critics and call them unexpectedly, out of the blue, before launching into bitter tirades. “It’s Lance,you won’t need your pen,” the Texan would hiss at a hapless journalist, cooking Sunday lunch for his family, before launching into an expletive-peppered denouncement of his work. At the same time he revelled in reminding them of his status, of how much they relied on his name to sell magazine or newspapers. “Whaddya gonna do when I’m gone?” he’d taunt in his inimitable growl.

18. Put Me Back On My Bike – In Search of Tom Simpson
William Fotheringham, 2002

A reader hoping to find out the definitive cause of Simpson’s death will find there was so much more to Simpson’s life than his death.

As the name domestique implies, the relationship between star and two-wheeled helper was feudal. Colin Lewis had a brand new cotton racing cap with Great Britain on it, of which he was very proud. Riding along one day, Simpson asked him for the hat, and Lewis asked why. Simpson replied: “I want to have a shit in it.”

17. Boy Racer
Mark Cavendish, 2009

For those who think 24 is a bit young to write an autobiography, rest easy. This book is like being hard-wired into the brain of the world’s fastest sprinter. As a book it is self-aware enough to recognise that Cavendish’s career is a work in progress but there are some gems within. The closest to finding out what it feels like to be in the midst of a bunch sprint.

My front wheel sliced through the finish line. And the silence ended. First came the noise, then the emotion. Six million volts of emotion – like an electric shock. For the first half of the race, I hadn’t entertained a single emotion. I was in the zone. Crossing the line was like turning on the power switch.

16. From Lance to Landis
David Walsh, 2007

The definitive manifesto for The Case Against Lance Armstrong. Assembled with a prosecution barrister’s zeal, Walsh spoke to everyone who mattered.

One heartbroken fan, identifying himself as Matthew from Brussels, sent an email to Hamilton’s website. “Oh no, say it ain’t so Tyler.” Tyler would spend a lot of time doing just that. The thing about Tyler Hamilton was that what you saw was not what you got.

15. The Great Bike Race
Geoffrey Nicholson, 1977

One of the first English language accounts of a Tour de France in a book, and Nicholson is exploring virgin territory in his coverage of the 1976 Tour de France. When you read about the Tour’s iconic places, they are often riffs on Nicholson’s original descriptions. A real historical artefact.

If Alpe d’Huez was a rigorous climb, with its mathematical progression of tight corners and steep inclines, the Izoard is far more awesome, a rocky wilderness at 7,743 feet, which needs only a few bleached skulls at the roadside to complete its sense of desolation.

14. Breaking the Chain
Willy Voet, 2001

The confessions of a dodgy soigneur, a man who turned a blind eye as the madness escalated out of control until the police intervened. Voet goes into staggering and depressing detail but one is left with the feeling that everyone involved thought it was someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem.

Behind my seat were two refrigerated bags, one red, one blue. They contained 234 doses of EPO, 80 flasks of human growth hormone, 160 capsules of male hormone testosterone, and 60 pills call Asaflow, a product based on aspirin, which makes the blood more fluid.

13. In Search of Robert Millar
Richard Moore, 2007

The search for one of the sport’s most enigmatic characters. With scant access to the hero of the piece, Moore has taken the contents of the cuttings file and produced an accomplished picture of the man but you are inevitably left frustrated because so many questions remain unanswered. The result is the best advertisement yet for Millar to put together an autobiography in his own words.

When, in 1997, he guest-edited an edition of Cycle Sport devoted to his career, Millar penned articles on all his teams, each accompanied by a picutre of him in action. The exception was Fagor, where instead of a picture there was a purple box with the message: “There was supposed to be a Fagor picture here, but they don’t deserve one, and there won’t be one of P. Munoz either – Ed’s decision.” Munoz was “not a bad rider, but was a complete plonker,” was Millar’s blunt assessment. “To this day, I’ll never autograph anything to do with Fagor. They wasted my time and everyone else’s too.”

12. We Were Young and Carefree
Laurent Fignon, 2009

At its conclusion you have the feeling that Fignon had the attention span of a butterfly. He would land on one subject before flitting off to another. He might return to the original point or he might not but what shone through was his desire to portray the sport of cycling as a definitive test of character.

On two wheels people always have to show their true colours. You can never cheat the world for very long. It is nothing to do with glory: it’s more a matter of fulfilment. Cycling allows us to mine the deepest recesses of our souls.

11. The Hour
Michael Hutchinson, 2006

A brilliant and amusing insight into the peculiar world of cycling and its personalities and conventions. Hutchinson does a great job of playing gonzo, feigning incredulity for the benefit of the reader. One senses he knew the obstacles and humorous situations he might encounter before he set out on the journey to tackle the Hour Record but he kept that nicely hidden from the reader. Really it could have been a reality programme, spread over several weeks. Television would have messed it up, of course, but as a book it’s a delight.

In the passenger seat was David Taylor, a semi-retired cycling journalist. He’d spent years on the staff of Cycling Weekly, but now just did the odd race report to fund an unquenchable urge to buy second hand books and old jazz albums. He cleared his throat and said: “Why don’t you have a go at the Hour Record?” I think he said it in the hope it would shut me up. I’m afraid it did exactly the opposite.

The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: 50-41
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: 10-6
The greatest 50 cycling books of all time: the top five

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport December 2011

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