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Culture of Cycling
The Best Books to Celebrate the Cycling Boom
"Can’t get hold of a bicycle due to the surge in post-lockdown demand? Here are five books for cycling fans and newcomers alike"
By Hannah Ross/The Guardian
October 2020

In these strange past few months there has been a bicycle boom, as lapsed cyclists have pulled neglected machines out of sheds and new converts have rushed to get hold of their own two wheels – a surge so great that bicycle suppliers can’t keep up with the demand. Cycling is a safe and practical way to get about in the pandemic, but it also offers freedom and pleasure. The lure of the open road has never been more keenly felt, and those of us used to spending a lot of time in the saddle are longing for the day when we can pedal further afield.

Dervla Murphy with her bicycle.

Photo by Conde Nast Traveler

The Irish writer Dervla Murphy knows all too well the frustration that results when events outside your control force you to wait for an extended bicycle trip. In her memoir Wheels Within Wheels she describes how, on her 10th birthday, she decided she would cycle to India. But the solo journey from Dunkirk to Delhi she made famous in her travelogue Full Tilt had to be put on hold until she was 31. From the age of 14 she cared almost single-handedly for her mother, who was all but paralysed by rheumatoid arthritis. Murphy’s memoir vividly recounts the years of stifling confinement in her “domestic cage” and her longing to be free. After her mother’s death, even the coldest winter in living memory couldn’t get between her, her bicycle Rocinante and that icy road east.

Simone de Beauvoir learned to ride during the Nazi occupation of Paris, delighting in the sensations of weightlessness, physical freedom and independence. In her wartime diaries (published in The Prime of Life) she records how she would smuggle herself, a tent and a bicycle into the “free zone” of southern France – often alongside Jean-Paul Sartre – to spend the summer pedalling hundreds of miles, from the Alps to the Pyrenees. Wartime privations meant they barely had enough sustenance to keep the pedals turning, or stop Sartre fainting, but she was insistent nothing would “deprive me of my pleasure”.

The Victorian writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell was equally determined: she wanted to become the first woman to cycle across the Alps. Her 1898 travelogue, Over the Alps on a Bicycle, describes the five weeks she and her husband spent slogging up and flying down nine Swiss alpine passes. She revels in her status as a female pioneer and crushes under her wheels the Victorian concept of women as the weaker sex. She’s also an inveterate snob, dismissing the other tourists in terms that can make you laugh out loud.

British Library digitised image from page 53 of “Over the Alps on a Bicycle”.

Illustration by J.Pennel

In Pursuit of Spring describes the more modest journey taken by Edward Thomas in March 1913, but more than makes up for it with the beauty of his meditative prose. The poet, heading west to meet spring, evokes the tranquillity of empty roads and peaceful villages. His close observations of nature bursting into life are a balm for the soul, and one of the greatest evocations of the quiet joy and immersive quality of cycle touring. Each spring I head west as well, following much the same route, a cycling ritual I’ve sorely missed this year.

French teenagers Mireille, Astrid and Hakima make for noisier and more vivacious companions as they pedal 500km across France in Clémentine Beauvais’s YA novel Piglettes. Victims of a vicious bullying campaign at school, they become media darlings as they journey to Paris to gatecrash the president’s garden party. This energetic holiday adventure shows how we can transform our lives by pedal power.

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