On the Road Bike is a wonderful and personal exploration through British cycling, from the birth of the author’s love for the sport in the morning commute through London, to sportives, charity cycles and the pros.
This is not a story of the big names, not of the Contadors, the Coppis, the Merxxes. It is a story of the Maurice Burtons, the Tommy Godwins (both the year mileage record holder at 75,065miles and the Olympic champion of 1948), the amateurs, the bike shop owners, the sportive competitors, their brushes with the big names and with cycling greatness, and how they, little by little, drip by drip, created the amazing culture of cycling that we have in the UK today.
The descriptions of the Tour of Britain and of watching racing at the Herne Hill Velodrome are all so vivid, so unmistakenly British (grey skies, light drizzle, smiling faces) and they all make me instantly guilty; that I haven’t followed the British tour despite so avidly following the Tour de France, that I have only glimpsed the velodrome as I head out on a club ride, not even thought about its history or contemplated going to watch a race there. But it has a long history of cycling since 1891 and has hosted many Olympic and world champions, setting records on its banks.
Boulting delves into the messier side of the sport, not with drugs (as covered by so many other cycling books) but with racism, using Maurice Burton’s life and experiences as a pro cyclist to highlight the prejudice within the sport – moments of violence on the track, of systematic prejudice amongst officials, of small, petty incidents that characterised life in the cycling world in the 1970s (when being driven home from a cycling race by a friend’s father and asked for directions, Maurice recommended going through Brixton, to which the man replied “why would I go through that coon country?“) He also told the amazing story of Marshall “Major” Taylor, an incredible American cyclist at the beginning of the 19th century – a world champion and record breaker (in one six-week period in 1899 he established seven world records). He was also black, in an era of segregation, Jim Crow laws and lynching – he wasn’t allowed to race against white people in the Southern states of America. Thankfully the world has moved on from there, even if it could have moved faster and further, and Maurice Burton is hopefully optimistic when discussing his son’s (Germaine Burton) career in professional cycling.
While we’re on the subject of discrimination, I want to touch on the one aspect of the book that I didn’t like. WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN?! The women in this book, and in all the cycling books I’ve been reading, are all wives and mothers. As I was reading, Ned starts describing an older woman in detail. I got excited, perhaps THIS is the mother of British cycling, 218 pages in. But no – “she is also the mother of the British cyclist David Millar…..” I tuned out. It’s sad when we do actually have some fantastic women cyclists: Lizzie Armistead, Vicky Pendleton, Danielle King, Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott ALL medal holders at the 2012 Olympic Games. We have the Women’s Tour of Britain and had five British riders lining up to compete in La Course (the women’s race on the last day of the Tour de France) – Lizzie Armistead, Emma Pooley, Lucy Garner, Sharon Laws, Hannah Barnes. Where are their stories? Along with the increasing number and popularity of women’s only events, there are now huge amounts of amateur women cyclists getting out on their bikes, with some events attracting 18,000 participants. To give Ned his due, he admits this a third of the way in, saying “This book is not even slightly comprehensive. Without justification, or remorse, it ignores shamefully large swathes of the country. The heart of my cycling experience resides elsewhere… And just as it also fails to engage with the important and hugely successful women’s cycling scene, so it becomes clear that I am writing with only one particular type of bike rider in mind: me” but still…. I would have liked to have heard some of these stories. Like for example the story of Beryl Burton, a British cyclist in the 1960s who won five world titles, set 50 new national records, and who set the 12-hour time-trial world record faster than all the men and held it for three years. No woman has yet beaten her 12-hour record.
There is a chapter on cycling for charity in which, through the story of Ian Meek, my mind was changed along with that of the author. As Ned puts it, cycling for charity in the UK is a big business. “To be, it seems, is to fundraise” – a “peculiarly British phenomenon“. The idea that cycling not “for” anything but just because you wanted to was something slightly unusual, a bit strange. And why not take the opportunity to raise money for charity? Except that everybody is doing it, and especially at London marathon time, some people with particularly active friends either find themselves distinctly out of pocket or having to choose who to sponsor – based on length of friendship, how impressive the task, more rarely, the charity itself. There are charity bike rides, charity marathons, charity 5ks, charity abseils and charity skydives. If you sponsor someone £10 for a 5k, how much do you have to dial it up for a marathon?! If I want everyone to congratulate me on how much I’ve raised for charity, perhaps I should just donate myself? Now generally I do donate when someone is doing something awesome – an ultra marathon (Becca some money is coming your way!) or an ironman, or if they have a close personal connection to the charity itself. But otherwise, I, like Ned, am a bit jaded by all this.
But then Ned tells the story of Ian, a cyclist with an inoperable brain tumour that decides to do the Lands End to John’O’groats cycle (the length of Britain – almost 1000 miles). His tumour gets worse and he decides he can only manage one stage while his team of charity riders complete the full trip. Eventually, sadly, and beautifully emotionally told by Ned, he dies on 1 August 2012, the day after his team were able to visit him as they completed their journey from Lands End to John-O-Groats. The charity founded by Ian Meek raised well over his target of £100,000 and Ned finishes the chapter by saying:
“And I have had occasion to consider my position. Sometimes bike riding is wonderfully pointless. But sometimes, as Ian Meek showed me, it is both wonderful and purposeful. There’s room on Britain’s grey and windy roads for both.”
And finally, to end with the words of a woman(!) (David Miller’s mum) which expressed wonderfully the love and the joy of cycling that this book seeks to encapsulate:
“People would do it come hail, rain or shine, for no glory and no prizes, because they absolutely loved it. The sheer, visceral joy. What I think I saw, and I hope it still exists, is a complete love in the turning of your feet. In the pedals. On your bike. On Sunday. On a club run.”