The Bicycle Book. By Bella Bathurst. Harper Press; 306 pages; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
FROM mountain bikers to BMXers to racers, couriers to commuters, the bike epitomises a way of life for millions of people. There are more than a billion bicycles in the world — more than twice the number of cars — and the bike has regularly proven to be the fastest form of urban transport, reaching its destination more quickly than cars, buses, tubes or pedestrians.
Bella Bathurst made her name writing about the lighthouses built by the ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson. Her joyful freewheel through the world of bicycles and the people who ride them not only affirms her as an elegant chronicler of quirky subjects, but fills a gap in a pantheon of cycling literature that brims with route guides, sports science manuals, biographies and instruction books.
While Rob Penn’s glorious “It’s All About the Bike” went some way to redressing the balance last summer, “The Bicycle Book” is unique in appealing to both cycling nuts and those of us who mean to dust off the flat-tyred two-wheeler propped against a wall in the hall, spare room or garage, but never quite get round to it.
Ms Bathurst admits to picking and choosing “quite shamelessly” from all the information available to her about cycling and leaving out quite a lot. The political and environmental debate, or how to stop your bike being nicked, are blogging favourites, but how many people know that the Evans Cycle franchise sold four times as many bikes as usual on the day of the London tube bombings in 2005; that bicycle couriers first came into being in Paris in 1874 taking messages from banks to telegraph offices; or that, until 2004, the Swiss army had three infantry regiments of cyclists working in security, border control and dispatch?
Ms Bathurst also introduces the reader to some remarkable characters. In the early 1920s Zetta Hills, a determined young woman with a taste for showmanship, cycled across the English Channel on a bicycle mounted on two buoyant planks. In 2007 Vinod Punmiya, an Indian businessman, made his name by racing against a train known as the “Deccan Queen” over the 140km between Pune and Mumbai. Then there is Graeme Obree, a former cycling legend known as the Flying Scotsman who fought his depressive demons by breaking the hour record — the ultimate time trial — twice, once making two attempts within 24 hours. For him the pursuit, when boiled down to its fundamentals, is about “you and a bike”, a philosophy that will resonate with anyone who loves the sunny simplicity of cycling.