"You should hardly see it as a failure because Hannibal never actually made it to Rome either."
i believe i have made it plain over recent years that i am not the adventurous type, contenting myself with riding the same roads week in, week out without a compelling need to try further afield. it's something i'm not particularly proud of, for when meeting up with friends and visitors over the summer season, while they wax lyrical about the various sportives and foreign trips made since last we met, i have very little in the way of comparable conversation to offer.
in truth, i have no real notion as to why this bothers me; in fact, most of the time it doesn't because i don't tend to dwell on such matters. but then along comes a book or a film depicting the fabulousness that is riding on the continent or further afield, and those pangs of guilt once again rear their ugly heads. i'm sure my fascination with the rapha continental was due to such adventures across a country i barely know allowing me to vicariously satisfy any latent wanderlust without leaving the safety of my macbook air.
such a book sits on the the arm of my chair even as i write. and if the adventures and cycling pleasure contained within its 367 pages were not sufficient to engender jealous thoughts, the fact that their author has been cycling for only a matter of twelve months or so is surely rubbing grimpeurship in my face. and everyone else's, come to that.
felix lowe is perhaps better known to most as blazing saddles, cycling specialist at eurosport and writer of last gasp in each and every issue of cyclist magazine. in fact, the opening chapters bring us up to speed as to his declared lack of qualifications for either position, given that, despite an accomplished knowledge of professional cycling, (a knowledge frequently demonstrated throughout climbs and punishment) until relatively recently, he didn't ride a bike.
you'd surely have to admit that after only a year of pedalling, his undertaking of 2,800 kilometres in 26 days, across many of the steepest bits continental europe has to offer is pretty darned impressive in itself, never mind the ability to commit his acute and pertinent observations to paper. however like many of us who can climb (or think we can), his descending skills equalled or challenged those of the colombians in the tour de france in the early 1980s. the title of the book also offers a clue as to the genre of writing inhabited by mr lowe. as i was keen to point out on twitter recently, not only does he own a particularly neat turn of phrase but knows the strategic points at which to use it. thus if a book detailing the cycling antics of one man and his merry band across 367 pages fills you with dread, fear not. there is not one chapter that does not pass by without causing you to smile out loud.
enlightening the reader as to his progress from covering ski-jumping for eurosport on his way to transitioning to cycling: "I built up something of a reputation as Eurosport's 'Balzac of Bischofshofen' - although I always preferred the more understated 'Zakopane Zola or, high praise indeed, the 'Goethe of Garmisch-Partenkirchen'."
having arrived at the joy of cycling a bicycle rather late in life, felix later dwells on how good he could perhaps have been in a velocipedinal manner had he arrived at the same place earlier. "I quite like being the half-decent amateur. ...but very much the gentleman rouleur rather than some crazed and delusional wannabe pro in a Team Sky replica kit, pretending to be Wiggo on the way to work."
it is always something of a cunning plan to have more than just cycling as the backbone of any contemporary publication such as this. that may have been sufficient in the days of yore when cycling books were only bought and read by the cognoscenti, those endeared of componentry and lugged steel frames without even the hint of a narrative. cycling books were far less common in those days. but with reference to the aforementioned wiggo, his exploits of 2012 in france and london have led to a wider and arguably less knowledgeable market for such prose, a market that demands to be catered to. mr lowe has cleverly managed to appeal to both the above.
the thread and alleged raison d'etre of climbs and punishment is its tentative adherence to hannibal's failed conquest of the romans after traipsing across the alps on a panoply of elephants. in point of fact, it is perfectly possible to garner a working knowledge of hannibal's exploits, interspersed as they are amongst descriptions of ascents, descents, food and accommodation and many of the other trappings that accompany a three week plus bicycle ride.
despite the quality of the humour, the undoubted skill of narration and the inferences made towards members of the professional peloton, i think climbs and punishment may err just a tad on the lengthy side. there's every possibility this is simply a personal observation brought on by over-exposure to the printed word. never in my puff have i known so many cycling books to be published on the approach to the tour de france. but still, i can't help thinking that a few pages less might have served mr lowe's purposes better; purely on the basis that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
that said, it's a cleverly constructed and well-written tale, while the inclusion of hannibal's precedent over similar terrain lifts it well above the humdrum. it is not only hard to believe this is the work of a relative newbie to the art of pedalling, but that this is his first full-length book. i believe mr blazing saddles may well have hit the ground running, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor.
sunday 15 june 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................