For a sport that has been around since the mid-1800’s and gets so much press due to its extreme races and never-ending controversy, the average person still knows very little about the passion we call cycling.
Part of this is our own fault. We as cyclists aren’t always the best ambassadors for the sport we are involved with and love. There can also be a bit of an elitist attitude about the sport. That is why Racing Bicycles: The Illustrated Story of Road Cycling by Nick Higgins such a breath of fresh air.
What is Racing Bicycles?
Racing Bicycles and what makes it so unique starts with its author. Nick Higgins is a London-based illustrator and has been a cyclist for over 35 years. As an illustrator, his clients include The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Royal Shakespeare Company, and The BBC World Service. Nick has a website that showcases his art at nickhiggins.co.uk so be sure to check it out.
Ok, so Racing Bicycles has some pictures. So what’s the big deal?
Two things make the illustrated nature of this book significant. The first being that the sport of cycling is so old and so diverse that its story really can’t be told in words alone. Photographs are great but they don’t always project the rich history and culture of the subject material.
With Nick Higgins as both the author and illustrator, the technical story is successfully interwoven with the amazing culture and lore of the great sport of cycling. Racing Bicycles clocks in at just 128 pages and despite its 8 3/8” x 6 1/2” compact form factor it manages to fit an amazing amount of material along with a good mix of history, facts, and illustrations.
Why Read Racing Bicycles?
What makes this book so great, in my opinion, is that it really appeals to a broad audience. Whether you are a long-time avid cyclist, brand new to the sport, or are just close to someone who is and you want to know a little bit more about it… the book is able to crank out the information in a visual and informative way.
You might think that compact book like this would miss important aspects of the sport, but it really does cover cycling down to the cobblestone level of detail. The book covers the following topics:
- Vélo (Latin for “speed”) – history of the bike itself
- Races – a history of all the major races
- Riders – a book on cycling would be complete without talking about its most famous and infamous riders
- Kit – a guide for all of the various accessories that go along with the sport
- Lexicon – a list of definitions brings up the rear of the peloton for the book
There were a couple of things that really stood out to me as I read this book. The first was the section on riders. There have been so many famous cyclists over the years that I have to imagine it was hard to select which ones to talk about in this book. Nick did a good job and picked not only a wide-variety but some really compelling characters.
Hélène Dutrieu was a female cyclist back in its early days of the sport. She made a name for herself by achieving the women’s Hour Record (one of cycling’s most prestigious records where a cyclist simply rides as far as possible in one hour). She attempted to enter the all-male Tour De France in 1908 but was excluded from the race. Despite that, she rode the entire route behind all of the racers and still managed to ride the course better than two-thirds of the racers. Cycling was just a small part of her story as she also disguised herself as a man and fought in World War I, invented the Air Ambulance, and ballooned across the North Sea.
Marshall Taylor was arguably the best track cyclist of the 1890’s and was flat-out America’s fastest cyclist during his time in the sport. He had a very rough go at things due to the racism prevalent at the time, but that didn’t stop him from competing. Oh, and he had probably one of the best cycling nicknames I have ever heard…The Black Cyclone (that’s worthy of a superhero name right there).
The second thing that stood out about the book was all of the little details about the history and culture that went into forming the sport. The jersey has changed quite a bit over the years, starting out as a mostly wool uniform with buttons before recently (like in the 1970’s) setting in on lycra as the material of choice. But I didn’t know someone actually made a full kit to look like it was made out of denim to help push their product!
So who is Racing Bicycles for?
Pretty much anyone wants to learn more about the history and even the current state of cycling. The book is written in a very approachable way so you don’t have to currently be a cyclist to read it, while at the same time giving the source material enough respect that even the most knowledgeable cyclist will appreciate it (and will definitely learn a few things as well).
Disclaimer: Laurence King Publishing provided me a copy of Racing Bicycles for the purpose of this review but my thoughts and opinions of the book are my own.