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The best books about cycling

25 Mar 2020
Verdict:

A breakdown of some of the best books for cyclists

Anyone who has popped in to puruse the cycling section in Foyles over the last decade will have seen it grow from an armful of books to a whole shelf to almost its own nook. 

Cycling’s literary canon now has something for everyone, from ghost-written pulp biography, to rigorously researched histories of long-dead riders. Cookbooks, how-to books, photobooks, training guides, and memoirs.

With lots of great manuals, easily digestible cultural histories, and a host of dull, or selectively amnesiac biographies, I’ve laid most of them aside.

Instead, each of the 12 books here has been chosen according only to my own subjective opinion of its literary or journalistic merit.

Feel free to disagree or suggest alternatives in the comments or over on social media.

We've provided links to retailers, but you could also contact your local independent bookshop which should be able to order any in for you.

The 12 best books about cycling

The Rider, Tim Krabbé

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£6.23 for Kindle) | Buy now from Waterstones

Apparently championship chess player and novelist Tim Krabbé didn’t intend The Rider as an allegory. Still, it’s hard to read this perfectly self-contained novella about the fictional Tour de Mont Aigoual without looking for some deeper meaning.

Perhaps that’s just the nature of bike racing, of which this book is by far the best ever account. This hardback edition, with a cover design by Holly Ovenden, is also particularly lovely.

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£6.23 for Kindle) | Buy now from Waterstones

The Death of Marco Pantani, Matt Rendell

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£6.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Rendell has written several excellent books, including the biography Olympic Gangster. The Legend Of Jose Beyaert and Kings of the Mountains about Colombia’s unique racing culture.

I’ve gone with this portrait of cycling’s archetypal lost boy Marco Pantani. Doping, celebrity, and the complicity of the viewing public.

This tale of the flawed but supremely gifted Pantani synthesises the ambiguities of its protagonist and his era to uncomfortable effect.

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£6.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Put Me Back on My Bike, William Fotheringham

Price: £10.04 for paperback (£8.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

In search of Britain’s first cycling superstar. Tom Simpson was a complicated rider, freely admitting to the presence of doping during an era when almost the entire peloton rolled on amphetamines and brandy.

Heading to make his way in France, he was also the first English rider to fully understand the game, both in terms of racing, and how to play the media.

A working-class kid come good on the continent, Simpson knew how to live it up and was beloved by the fans. Yet it was the pressure to continue performing at the top level that led an ill Simpson to push himself to the point of collapse on Mont Ventoux.

Having grown up with the legend of Simpson, Fotheringham is studious, objective, and affectionate in his portrait of the man and his times.

Price: £10.04 for paperback (£8.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy

Price: £8.67 for paperback (£6.64 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Travelling solo across parts of the world now almost inaccessible through war, in 1963 Dervla Murphy set off on her bicycle armed with a small revolver and the intention of riding to India.

Eschewing hotels she manages largely on the hospitality of the people she meets. Crossing France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan her impressions of these countries, often in a state of flux, make for fascinating reading, while her faith in people locates her in the society of each.

Always practical, several extremely dicey moments are navigated with unflappable pragmatism. A great manual for adventure.

Price: £8.67 for paperback (£6.64 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Racing Through the Dark, David Millar

Price: £6.98 for paperback (£6.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The rise, fall, and afterlife of one of British Cycling’s great talents. From wearing the yellow jersey to finding himself in a French jail, Millar is self-aware enough to make this story of young optimism turned to despair excellent reading.

Coming up during the Amstrong era it’s also a fascinating portrait of that time and its riders. Both a young Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins make appearances.

His sometime teammate Thomas Dekker’s book The Descent is a good companion piece, almost making Millar’s wild years look tame in comparison.

Price: £6.98 for paperback (£6.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Wide-Eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor

Price: £12.99 for paperback (£9.49 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

In 1987 the Daily Star’s Jeff Connor set off to cover the Tour de France with the first British squad to compete there for twenty years.

Dumped into a race populated by riders wired to high heaven the results for the underprepared ANC-Halfords team were not good.

With funding as non-existent as their time-trial bicycles, only four of the riders would make it to Paris. Connor fares similarly well at reporting, with most of the race’s star turns telling him to jog-on.

Still, the inside scoop on all the tricks and oddities of Grand Tour racing and Connor’s own style make this a classic of bike race reportage against the odds.

Price: £12.99 for paperback (£9.49 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The Race Against The Stasi, Herbie Sykes

Price: £8.48 for paperback (£7.19 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Life and bike racing behind the Iron Curtain and the brutal compromises it required. Thoroughly researched this history excavates the life of Dieter Wiedemann from the Stasi’s secret files.

An East German rider who rode in the Peace Race, Wiedemann falls in love with a West German woman. Fleeing the GDR allows him to compete in the Tour de France.

However, his friends and relatives left behind the wall pay an awful price for Wiedemann’s freedom. A glimpse into a strange and parallel world.

Price: £8.48 for paperback (£7.19 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

French Revolutions, Tim Moore

Price: £5.98 for paperback (£6.49 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

A man with no cycling experience tries to ride the Tour de France. A bit like an updated Jerome K. Jerome, Moore gets a lot of mileage out of mildly risque jokes and complaining about the habits of the natives.

If that sounds naff, it isn’t. It’s very, very funny.

Price: £5.98 for paperback (£6.49 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The Flying Scotsman, Graeme Obree

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£4.68 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

Obree overcame depression, adversity, lack of funding, and a pathological dislike of conformity to take perhaps the greatest record in cycling.

A fascinating life and a great example of how to make the very most of whatever talent you have, Obree’s story is the antithesis of cycling’s current hyper-professionalised era.

Price: £8.99 for paperback (£4.68 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The Secret Race, Daniel Coyle and Tyler Hamilton

Price: £7.99 for paperback (£4.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The final stick in the ribs for Lance Armstrong by his former teammate Tyler Hamilton. This account of cycling’s filthiest period is grim and compelling.

Blood bags, glow-time, and playing hide-and-seek with the dope testers, Hamilton lays it all out. While the journalistic credit for bringing down Big Tex is due to David Walsh and Paul Kimmage this insider account is perhaps the most readable book on the subject.

Price: £7.99 for paperback (£4.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The Descent, Thomas Dekker

Price: £8.99 | Buy now from Waterstones

Once touted to be a generational talent, Thomas Dekker was a Dutch cyclist who let sex,  drugs and rock and roll get in the way of his career.

In one of the most candid accounts of cycling's darkest period, Dekker bares all as he recalls the tales of excess and doping that eventually led to his premature downfall. We guarantee that your opinion of Dekker will not be the same when you've finished reading.

Price: £8.99 | Buy now from Waterstones

Land of Second Chances, Tim Lewis

Price: £10.99 for paperback (£2.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

The impossible rise of Rwanda's cycling team. Of the colonial legacies left to Rwanda, cycling was one of the few positives.

Following a brutal genocide, this is the story of an attempt to build a multi-ethnic squad in the still traumatised country.

Partly the almost unbearably harsh story of the riders, including Adrien Niyonshuti, and partly the story of the team’s managers, including bike designer Tom Ritchey having a mid-life crisis, and Jock Boyer, a former Tour de France rider and convicted sex offender seeking redemption.

Tangled yet uplifting, it presents a lush picture of Rwanda and all its complexities.

Price: £10.99 for paperback (£2.99 for Kindle) | Buy now from Amazon

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