bicycles, at the risk of being stupidly obvious, are bicycles. a couple of wheels, a frame, two pedals and a set of handlebars. what it looks like is of secondary importance. actually that last bit isn't true, otherwise we wouldn't spend forever reading reviews, looking at pictures and moaning that it can't be purchased in green. today's colours schemes are verging on the obvious and mundane, ignoring the great days of the metallic fade, though occasionally reviving the sixties via plain colours with contrasting bands featuring the manufacturer's name in stylish lettering. modern stuff just doesn't do it for me anymore, and the logos are too prevalent and too big. but, apart from that functionality is expected and mostly guaranteed.
thus climbing aboard whatever it is that resides in the bike shed, will result in a bicycle trip of at least modest ability.
you'd be considerably less than impressed if things didn't work, or if it was difficult to figure out what did which. after years of development, gear changing has evolved to the handlebars and changing has gained an electronic impetus. after one or two trial runs (if it actually takes as many as that), and all is sussed. the bicycle has become transparent in use, and confidence wields its happy fingers.
imagine if reading a book was less than straightforward. ever since midway through primary school, reading has been one of those intuitive actions that is barely thought about at point of use. the majority of us lift up a newspaper, magazine, book, or leaflet and read without thinking. that's definitely the way that it's supposed to be, and hours are spent by designers across the world trying to ensure that the design of the printed page does not get in the way of the message. austerity is not necessarily a badge to be worn with pride, for a the odd flourish or decoration can enhance the act of reading, as long as it doesn't get in the way.
it is sad, therefore, that those responsible for designing william fotheringham's excellent compendium of cycling knowledge, found it necessary to ignore the foregoing. the legend on the back cover pays tribute to the publishers being yellow jersey press, and whether this had any bearing on the yellow cover, i know not. it certainly stands out on a crowded bookshelf. the travesty was to continue this over onto the pages inside. the ultimate example of this iniquity is displayed on page 202, where a list of hour record holders since the first in 1893, prints the riders' names in yellow on a yellow background. yes, the background is but a tint of the text colour, but it's still harder to read than need be the case.
this is but one example of design failure, but the persistent example that pervades every page, is the choice of a thin serif typeface, again printed in yellow, to denote cross-references. concerned that it may just be my eyesight, i showed this to several others, all of whom experienced the same difficulty. before the book arrives in paperback, might i plead with the publishers to source a more distinctive colour. yellow on white is not its finest hour.
that said, the book itself, an encyclopaedia of cycling lore, is easily worth the price of admission. aside from the hour record entry mentioned above, you can read about cycle lanes, roger de vlaeminck, the foreign legion, great italian cycle manufacturers (though one wonders why colnago has been singled out as the only guilty of taiwanese production), the alps, paris-roubaix; a veritable plethora of information pertaining to what for most is a daily activity, and weekend escape. mr fotheringham has not stinted on the research, for while lots of us will have at least heard mention of the bulk of entries, i'm sure most (self included) would struggle muchly to be quite so coherent and precise if asked to expand to any passing civilians.
for while many a cycling book is clearly aimed at the cognoscenti, safe, perhaps, in the knowledge that it will appeal only to the great unwashed, any tome branding itself as an encyclopaedia is likely to attract attention from the uninitiated. that's sort of its job really, for how else are potential converts expected to find the door of the changing room? this is where william fotheringham's depth of field comes into its own. and i quote:
robert millar the glaswegian is britain's best ever tour de france cyclist, one of cycling's greatest climbers, and one of the sport's great eccentrics. during the 1992 'euro tour', where the race numbers bore the 12 stars of the european union, millar spent several minutes each morning scraping the stars off, and carefully inscribing a scottish saltire instead. he has an ascerbic, rather black sense of humour, is a fine writer, coined various nicknames for his contemporaries and featured in a fine television documentary, the high life, with soundtrack by steve winwood.
you have to admit, if any of us were asked to sum up robert in one paragraph, we'd struggle to be so succinct.
this commendable ability to precis without missing the kernel of each definition, is not one owned by many, and the cyclopedia is all the better for it. it has perhaps more value for those not inducted into the ways of the spoked wheel, than for those with a subscription to rouleur, but i have spent a happy week dipping in and out and learning more than i expected. illustrations are simple black and yellow graphics at the level of adornment, though nicely done and quite welcome in the context; there are, however, no illustrations specific to each entry. you won't find a picture of robert millar to accompany his entry.
though that yellow printing has gone from merely irritating to positively annoying, i'd still be inclined to brave the occasional bout of illegibility and get hold of a copy. one of the few books that can genuinely be described as indispensible.
william fotheringham's 'cyclopedia' will be published on 16th september 2010
posted monday 23 august 2010..........................................................................................................................................................................................................