the elite bicycle. gerard brown and graeme fife. bloomsbury hardback illus. 224pp

the elite bicycle

the human race finds itself well acquainted with the concept of reverence, a form of praise heaped upon the worthy from both near and afar. naturally enough, this acclaim varies depending on the circle of influence and interest in which each individual finds themselves involved, and its application does not constitute a given under all normal circumstances. there is no overweening need to stretch beyond the bounds of notional appreciation, though for reasons which escape me, that seems to be less and less the case.

witness the magazine rack space in whsmith given over to raw cmyk covers celebrating anyone designated a celebrity. sadly a snowballing of the requirement to continually refresh the number of celebrities available for regular consumption means that many's the person who has become famous for being famous. and at that point, the whole process becomes rather redundant.

but there is no doubt that there are many within the world of the peloton and velocipede that are deserving of our reverence, even if that extends no further than acknowledging a level of ability and creativity that seems greater than our own. riders such as coppi, bartali, anquetil, simpson and others have lengthy palmares that display their tenacity above and beyond regular cycling activity. apply the same reverence to those less concerned with competitive achievement and more with the provision of the tools for success, and who would argue with the elevating of colnago, de rosa, pinarello and their peers to the selfsame pantheon?

i have deliberately restrained myself from adding to the above with characters and companies of more modern construct, principally because messrs brown and fife have stepped in ahead of me. their large format book entitled the elite bicycle also blurs the lines of reverence between that applied to individuals working industrially without one whit or care for our attentions and the results of their ministrations. for me, that is the contradiction, not in the manner of their presentation, but in our own apparent desire to foist great esteem upon inanimate objects, principally on the misapprehension that they are anything but inanimate.

if i relate a few chapter headings from this superbly illustrated book, you may gain a better idea of that of which i speak: brooks, columbus, condor, richard sachs, tony pereira, selle italia and ira ryan. intriguingly, there are apparent omissions that quiz just as much as they intrigue. for instance, none of the majors mentioned above seem to have made it into print, immediately casting a possibly deliberate level of subjectiveness upon the book's title. there is no doubt that many of us would be pleased to argue with gerard and graeme as to why our own elite bicycles seem to be missing in action.

though the book's applied subtitle is portraits of great marques, makers and designers, the emphasis seems to rest heavily upon the individual (up to a point), rather than the corporate. but truthfully and rather obviously, a book that included each and every elite bicycle would strain the resources of any of the world's publishing houses, to say nothing of the work ethic of the authors and photographers. there is however, an eclectic mix of the big fishes in the pond (mavic, time, continental) and the minnows (by which i mean no disrespect) several of which i have already brought to your attention.

in his remarkably brief foreword, tailoring supremo sir paul smith merely adds to the confusion "This wonderful book,...really celebrates the passion of people who are still content to make things, in small quantities, by hand." it concerns me slightly that sir paul apparently thinks that mavic, time, brooks, sapim and reynolds (tubing) make things in small quantities. and by hand.

however, ignore the rhetoric (both his and mine), and this is a particularly fine book to have on the bookshelf. not altogether unexpectedly, the photography is well presented, well chosen and of a quality that does the authors great credit. additionally, one has to wonder whether the elite apellation is in place at the behest of the publisher, for the text gives no hint that the included individuals and corporates could be said to be ultimately superior to the absent majority. but it is undeniably reverential in tone; "Handsome, sleek, unmistakeably classic in design, the Singer bikes which line the tiny showroom, near the counter on which stands an old lever-operated cash register, have a touch of antique class which even toe-clips cannot efface. And the tradition."

there is many a page illustrated with the tools of the genre: vices, files, saws, jars of paint and a plethora of images depicting the intensity of thought and work ethic involved in providing us with the wherewithal to play out our own reverences in public.

there is, almost casually, a subliminal degree of learning and education on show via many a photo caption and editorial paragraph. witness this from the chapter concerning ben serotta (now sadly no longer at the head of his own company) 'It came, he said, from a light bulb moment. Ben was drinking beer with a doctor friend, poring over a copy of Gray's Anatomy in the hope of bolstering his own hands-on expertise with some science. His friend told him this was misguided. 'You can't treat the body as a machine' he said, 'you must look at the cyclist as a whole.'

the hotbed of cycling in north america's pacific northwest is not ignored (breadwinner, pereira, ryan, chris king and winter bicycles), but neither is homegrown talent on this side of the pond; rourke, brooks, condor, and royce. unusually the treads on which we roll are also brought into play, almost at opposite ends of the spectrum, from the industrial magnitude of germany's continental, to the three person hand process at fmb in brittany.

it's these almost bizarre contrasts that makes the elite bicycle a candidate for due reverence of its own. far from being just another coffee table book it contains far more than a compendium of pretty pictures and vacuous platitudes, though i do have a few reservations over the inclusion of sir paul's slightly misleading foreword. £35 may seem almost as hefty as its physical substance, but the contents could conceivably alter your perspectives and the flavour of bike in the shed.

but it is every bit as enjoyable as illustrated testament to a portion of contemporary velocipedinal activity.

tuesday 15th september 2013