The second of my non fiction books is – It’s All About the Bike by Rob Penn. Most of us who ride will, I’m sure, sometimes dream of owning our own “dream bike” which will of course be many different things to many different people. Rob has such a dream and sets out to obtain it. Now this is not some dull journey to buy bits for a bike (although of course he does buy the bits for his bike), instead it is a journey into both the social and political history associated with the development of the bike and also a look at the value and skill of craftspeople.
Rob looks at for example how the bike helped to democratise society through the breaking down of class and gender barriers, how it mobilised the working class and expanded the gene pool, how it played a significant role in the emancipation of women and the suffragette movement as well as many other fascinating links – did you know that the Wright brothers were both bike mechanics and used this technology in their ideas for the first propelled flight ?
Running alongside this are the actually parts that Rob uses to build the bike and a look at artisan craftspeople who place a value on the quality of the product that they produce which runs counter to the throwaway culture that some would argue we live in currently. What is gratifying to know, from my perspective, is that these firms are beginning to thrive again as more people look for stuff that is well made and will last. It’s a great read (although slightly more geeky than the Millar book) and I’m now dreaming of my dream bike and could I make it a reality. Get yourself a cup of tea and listen to the man himself at the Do Lectures (of which I’ll be blogging about in more detail in the future).
As well as all the interesting fiction covered in the book club last year I also read some great non fiction, two of the best worth mentioning here. Coincidentally both happen to be related to cycling but don’t let that put you off. First up is the autobiography Racing Through the Dark the Fall and Rise of David Millar.
For those who don’t know him Millar is one of Britain’s greatest ever cyclists and is still the only Brit to have worn the leaders jersey in all 3 of the grand tours, he is a strong, fast, courageous and stylish rider and I am big fan. Even though he is now approaching the twilight of his career, last year he was the road captain of the British team that propelled Mark Cavendish to his world title and was still ranked in the top 40 of the world’s best riders. He has also been convicted of doping offences and served a two year ban from the sport for his use of performance enhancing drugs and it is this mix that gives the book it’s gravitas.
I’ve always been black and white when it comes to cheating and still am but this book gives an in-depth and honest look into the murky greyness and I found myself questioning my attitudes and what I might have done in the same situation. Millar was a brilliant rider when he turned pro, he was clean and won many races as a clean racer. However his descent began when he was almost being mocked by the doped riders who would congratulate him for being the best clean rider. His team placed him under pressure to come up with the results (he was a very highly paid pro by this time) and basically said go and prepare properly which was racing code for take drugs. As Millar himself describes the drugs was turning donkeys into race horses. He went on to become world road time trail champion before being caught by the French police. At this point he, unlike almost all others who have been caught or implicated, admitted everything co-operated with the authorities and was banned from the sport. He also lost pretty much everything and owed a huge tax bill in France. To his credit he did not declare himself bankrupt but vowed to eventually pay all the money that he owed. Millar is clearly an interesting character, highly intelligent, gifted, driven but also containing a compulsive side, lavish spending, heavy drinking etc but the ban enabled him to look at himself once he had hit rock bottom.
With the support of friends he began to put his life back together and committed to come back to the sport clean and become a staunch crusader against doping and to work to rid the sport he clearly loves of those who would seek to destroy it. He has come back clean and again is performing at the top level. He advises both the British Olympic Association and the World Anti Doping Agency on drugs in sport.
There will be many who say a cheat is a cheat and that Millar will always be tainted for what he did and that he did not necessarily name all of the accomplices in the book, a viewpoint I totally understand. However the book is a compelling read (whether you are a fan of cycling or not) about a fascinating man operating in a world that few of us will ever experience or fully understand. Come the new season I for one will be routing for the Millar.
photo credit: gamin-cervelo