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The bicycle has generated a vast amount of writing, ranging from technical manuals, journalism and sports reporting though to autobiographies, plays, and novels.  In one of the richest works of cycling literature, Need for the Bike, French experimental writer Paul Fournel reflects upon one aspect of the relationship between cycling and literature, observing that:

‘There are a lot of walker-poets, who write their verses to the rhythm of their feet: the Rédas, the Roubauds. Cyclist-poets are less numerous, it seems, but that’s due to inattentiveness, since the bike is a good place to work for a writer. First, he can sit down; then he’s surrounded by windy silence, which airs out the brain and is favourable to meditation; finally he produces with his legs a fair number of different rhythms, which are so much music to verse and prose’ (Fournel 2003: 127).

Interviewed for Jon Day’s Cyclogoegraphy, which blends an autobiographical account of Day’s experience of working as a bicycle messenger in London with philosophical reflections on the meanings of cycling, Fournel also suggests,  ‘The bicycle is a literary vehicle, a good place to think’ (Day 2015: 94).

This is a lovely pun, and, of course, it is one that a number of writers on cycling have used, but while the bicycle is a good place to think and work for writers, it does not always inspire great work – or great graphic design. William Saroyan’s 1952 memoir is one of the better contributions to the genre. A playwright and novelist, Saroyan attributed his skills as a writer to cycling: ‘My bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style from riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything’ (Saroyan 1952: 11). The first-edition dust jacket of Saroyan’s book is suitably stylish. Inevitably, almost every book on cycling features a bicycle on the cover, but this is one of the most beautifully simple designs, incorporating tiny drawings of bicycles into the polka-dot pattern, the doodled frames looking like letters as much as depictions of bicycles.

The 1975 UK paperback cover of Ralph Hurne’s 1973 novel about cycle racing, by contrast, is one of the crudest covers I’ve come across. In the 1970s, Hollywood producer Carl Foreman (who had produced High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952) and Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957)) bought the rights to adapt the novel as a feature film that would be directed by Michael Cimino and would star cycling fan Dustin Hoffman, before Hoffman fired Cimino and hired Danish director, Jorgen Leth. The project eventually went nowhere when Cannon Pictures went bust in the early 1980s (although Hoffman latterly made a cameo appearance in the Lance Armstrong biopic, The Program (Frears, 2015)). It is pure pulp fiction and, although it has apparently acquired a certain cult status among cycling fans, is poorly written and gratingly misogynistic – a relic of nastier, pre-PC culture in which the foul, lecherous protagonist, a veteran cycle racer who ends up coming out of retirement to race in the Tour de France,  repeatedly refers to women as ‘it’. In both cases, it seems, you can judge the book pretty successfully by looking at the cover.

References:

Jon Day (2015) Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier. London: Notting Hill Editions

Paul Fournel (2003) Need for the Bike. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Ralph Hurne (1975), The Yellow Jersey. London: Pan Books

William Saroyan (1952). The Bicycle Rider of Beverly Hills. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

See Feargal McKay’s scathing review of Hurne’s The Yellow Jersey and a brief account of the history of the uncompleted film adaptation: http://www.podiumcafe.com/2010/12/25/1895570/the-yellow-jersey-by-ralph-hurne