Recently I was reading, then skipping through, then looking for the pictures in, then putting away again Graeme Fife's 'Bob Chicken....A Passion For the Bike.'
For one thing, I'm sure - although I can't find it now - author Graeme Fife uses 'methinks' and 'alas' deliberately and without irony. In my jaundiced view that marks you out as an elaborate saloon bar bore and should be punished by being taken into the car park and beaten with morris dancing sticks.
It's a bit unfortunate that early on a journalist complains how boring a trip round a tyre factory is, because that's pretty much what you're on for 75% of the book. Or 75% of the bit of the book that I read. The paragraph devoted to Bob Chicken's decision to import Weinmann brakes was the first sign that the fact he was called Bob Chicken might be the high point of interest. For example;
"Whereas the Maillard 5-speed freewheels arrived in batches of 150 per ropey old wooden case, nailed and strapped, having been freighted across from the works outside Le Treport by tramp steamer and then sent on by road, Weinnmann sent (for example) batches of 54 cards of brakeblocks and shoes, or 50 pairs of brakes or 100 brake shoes, immaculately packaged in separate modular containers - tough cardboard containers - all symmetrical, in a handsome wooden packing case which would then be used for delivering on to wholesalers."
A trip round a tyre factory. And there's a whole series of rotten proof-reading errors where
appear randomly in the middle of proof-reading errors where paragraphs appear randomly in the middle of broken sentences. There's no index either, and a history/biography having no index is like stockings turning out to be painted-on gravy browning. Yes, he uses figures for numbers. And yes, on the spine the title does use a four dot ellipsis. A quick look at the front of the book shows that it was published by 'Robert J Chicken Sr,' which explains a lot.
Mind you, there were compensations in the early section, which I could have read much more of, covering as it did the early days of European road racing and giving a brief account of the life of the remarkable Tullio Campagnolo.
Campagnolo was a rider himself, in the days when to change gear on a bicycle you had to undo the wingnuts, take the whole rear wheel out, turn it around to engage the sprocket on the other side, refix the chain, tighten up the bolts, and remount. Racers who knew the roads well would get off their bikes and pretend to set about changing the gears, wait until their rivals followed suit, leap back on and speed off still on the big gear.
Racing up the Croce D'Aune pass in a bitter, snowy November, wrapped around with tyres and salami sandwiches, his bottles filled one with water and one with coffee, Campagnolo stopped to change his gear. Frozen, gloveless, soaked through with snow and sleet, his bare fingers numb to the bone, Campagnolo was unable to undo the nuts on the rear wheel. In order to keep up with the leaders he had to just keep going, and ascended the mountain pass fighting that big, laborious gear. Legend has it that he uttered the words, "something must be done about that rear wheel," which makes for a more nicely understated legend than "f-----ing b------d gear, b------y b-gg----g snow, c------g b------d bikes."
Anyway, the upshot of it was that he invented a simpler mechanism to allow the rider to change gear while pedalling and remaining in the saddle. It was permitted in the Tour de France in 1937; Bartali won it with Campagnolo gears in 1938. Anyone, apart obviously from willfully contrarian 'fixie' hipsters, who has tried to ride up a hill on a bicycle will be thankful for Campagnolo for helping to make it less horrible. (Fixie riders might like to consider it's also pleasingly 'conditioning' to the feet, not to mention amusingly retro, to go about without shoes. I bet you've got all got iPods, though. Very difficult to get a Victrola onto your pannier rack.)
He didn't stop there, though. The derailleur gear went through a constant series of refinements, and it was indicative of how Campagnolo's mind worked - and it worked constantly. It was impossible to keep rain out of the bottom bracket, the part where the pedal cranks rotate on an axle. In an apparently absent-minded daze, Campagnolo was sitting at his dinner table, gazing at the rumpled tablecloth. He took a pencil and a piece of paper and, inspired by the ruffles and folds in the cloth, there and then sketched out a design for a bottom bracket with grooves to channel away the water. He bought a vineyard and, pondering the difficulties of removing the stopper from the bottle, invented the corkscrew. (Well, a corkscrew anyway; some digging on the interweb reveals that there was an Italian-designed side-lever-arm corkscrew design already in existence, whose patent expired in 1966, perhaps handily. But, you know - legend is legend.) He also invented a nutcracker and a tennis racket with an aluminium handle.
It wasn't tennis that Eddie Merckx was thinking of, though, when he delivered the eulogy at Campagnolo's funeral in 1983; "you were the most loyal of our domestiques. The seven times that I crossed the Milan-San Remo line first, you were with me. You were with me in the snow that day I rode to victory over the Tre Cime de Lavaredo with more assurance than I had ever known. I shared every success with you." Which is a lovely Merckx tribute - 'I was bloody great, wasn't I? And so were you.'
Speaking of bloody greatness, though, that quality attaches itself in huge, opulent, gilded baroque bouquets of Montgolfier balloon proportions to the name of F.J. Davar.
F.J. Davar (I discovered his full name was, splendidly, Framdi Jamshedi Davar) is a man I feel I should have heard of, or at least regularly walked past one of his many statues. He gets one paragraph in the Raleigh cycles chapter, but it's got a whole book's worth of material in it, because by May 1929 he had bicycled across South America to reach Iquitos, having previously travelled - are you ready for this? - forty-seven thousand miles through thirty-six countries. He was the first to cross the Andes on a bicycle. He was the first to cross the Sahara on a bicycle, a comparatively short jaunt of just under three thousand miles. An American newspaper reported that he was heading through Central America and that his "Raleigh was giving him good service and is in quite good order."
If there's a book about this man I want to know, I don't care what the proof reading's like.
(Edit: apparently there is, and he wrote it himself. F. J. Davar's 'Cycling Across the Roof of the World' was presumably written in a long period of having a nice lie down - although, no, apparently not that long, as it was published in 1929. He must have started writing it resting on the handlebars during some of the slower uphill sections of the Andes. It's wrong not to mention that he did not do the epic Andes trip alone but in the company of one Herr G. Sztavjanik. I want to read this book.)