Re: Cyclists - 200 years on two wheels
by Michael Hutchinson
published by Bloomsbury, rrp £16.99 in the UK
reviewed by Andrew Brown
Some books inspire. Some books challenge. Some books do both. Then there is Re: Cyclists, by Michael Hutchinson, which does exactly what the book’s cover publicity and quotes from people like Chris Boardman claims. It is as Boardman says: “As witty accurate and eloquently written a history of the bicycle as you are ever likely to read.”
However, Re: Cyclists is more than that. It poses questions – in as much as what it leaves unsaid – about the convoluted route taken by devotees of the bicycle to where we are now. Doctor Hutch – as he is known online and to his followers in Cycling Weekly – is always entertaining in a wry kind of way, nicely self-deprecating in way familiar to anyone that’s read The Hour and he sheds light on little known corners of cycling history while placing a nagging doubt in the corner of your mind.
All of it is fascinating, albeit at times I got lost a little bit at the end of the Victorian era a little and then a bit bored with the in-fighting between the British cycling factions. But there was always something gnawing away at the back of my mind. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the last chapter or two when we reached the current cycling situation – something again, neatly summarised in a quote from Boardman: the future is fragile. And that was when I realised what it was that had been getting at me.
The book hints ever so gently – this is the bit that’s left unsaid –at the continual British ability to do things at half cock, undermine ourselves, shoot ourselves in the foot, argue, create problems where none should exist and let ourselves down. Then again, it also brilliantly and succinctly shows just what can be done when we put our mind to it in the UK.
There’s a French friend I have that’s lived in the Uk for over 20-years. As a Frenchman – he is not an anglophile – he argues that the British frighten him because of our ability to get things done, once (and only then) we put our mind to something. That is what Peter Keen did for British Cycling. That is what Ray Booty’s 100-mile record and his tea making skills epitomises. It is what Beryl Bainbridge displayed in ways recent cycling celebrities still envy.
Many of these successes and triumphs Dr Hutch documents occur to despite of the surrounding situations. So, that when he analyses the place of the bike in our life now – which is the best part of the Re:Cyclists – it is not the cheerful optimistic climax you might want. As in The Hour, there’s a twist. Typically, Hutchinson leaves us with a nice wry view about cycling in Britain and it is very appropriate – but that jokiness masks a problem anyone reading this book needs to help address.
We could do so much more.
Things could be so much better. If you buy this book – and you should, because it is a good read – then you are already a cycling fan, maybe even an advocate. If so, then have a good long think about the points Hutchinson makes about the divisions in cycling. Set this alongside the very quick comment about the perception of cycling held by people and politicians like Eric Pickles. Then consider riding a bike as a pastime, a tool for life, not just a lycra clad sport.
Please, read the book and then move from bike rider to advocate and then to campaigner. Maybe browse through some offerings from Carlton Reid and Peter Walker as well.
If there’s a lesson from 200-years of cycling history it is that we need to group together. There’s glory in the lone attack, but we can much more done to take cycling further and make it a central element of transport strategy as a bunch.