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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

RACING WITH BIKES, WITH WORDS, AND ON FILM


Racing with bikes, with words, and on film
 
The Tour De France is once again speeding recklessly through the French countryside with all its accompanying hoopla, crashes, and feats of almost inhuman endurance. After following the first three stages, I was prompted to visit my bookshelves to revisit my favorite cycling fiction and check my DVD collection for my favorite cycling films. Not all of these titles revolve around the Tour de France, but all bring out the reality, agony, and determination of cycling’s two-wheeled speed demons.
 
Taking the movies first, I have to give my top vote to 1985’s American Flyers. Starring Kevin Costner as a cycling sports physician with a secret who persuades his younger brother to train with him for a three-day bicycle race across the Rocky Mountains known as The Hell of the West. The racing scenes are well shot and the bonding relationship between the two brothers is worth the price of admission. As in most sports films, prepare to cheer while shedding a tear.
 

1979’s Academy Award winning Breaking Away has obviously garnered more than its share of acclaim. However, this tale of a hardscrabble kid obsessed with Italian bike racers, and the small town clash between blue collar cutters and the much more affluent Indiana University students, is still a delight. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, now is the time to add it to your Netflix’s queue.
 

My favorite Sherlock, Jonny Lee Miller gets his cycling groove on in 2006’s The Flying Scotsman. The true story of Graham Obree, growing up from a bullied childhood to become a champion cyclist, by way of designing his own bikes and innovating in body-position aerodynamics. Miller as Obree does a good line in paranoia, however the film was completed before Obree’s more recent revelations, which help explain why he tried to commit suicide on three occasions.
 
To bring this column back to the Tour de France, 2004’s Höllentour – Hell On Wheels – takes us inside the Tour de France. A documentary, the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of the T-Mobile team as they struggle to compete on cycling’s biggest stage. There are some heartbreaking moments which bring the whole scope of the race into focus.
 

I remember my first exposure to cycling fiction. From the bookmobile that visited my elementary school, I checked out a battered copy of The Big Loop by Claire Huchet Bishop. I don’t remember if it was the cycling or the author’s last name that made me read this, but I was hooked from the first page of the sepia toned world of the 1950s, in which Frenchmen always win their own Tour and the teenage fiction that heroes are easily distinguished from villains. Perhaps this is outdated by today’s standards, but years later, I tracked down a used copy and have it sitting proudly on my book shelves.
 
Between 1995 and 2002, author Greg Moody produced five cycling murder mysteries featuring bike racer and reluctant sleuth, Will Ross. Two Wheels, Perfect Circles, Derailleur, Dead Roll, and Dead Air, are all above average sports mysteries with scalpel-like insights into both cycle racing and the business of cycle racing.
 
Two novels by Dave Shields, The Race and The Tour, are as fast-paced as the sprint legs of the Tour de France on which their stories focus. Troubled American racer Ben Barnes has a chance to redeem his honor, keep his word, and overcome the secrets of his past. Both books contain top notch race scenes from an author who learned his craft in the saddle.
 

My favorite Tour de France book can most likely be described as two-wheeled chick-lit. Yes, I know, many of you will be turned off by that term, but you’ll be missing out on what is a terrific insider story. Cat by Freya North features the requisite Bridget Jones style journalistic heroine who sets out to report the Tour de France, inevitably getting entangled with some shaven legs along the way. That said, North’s research into the race and the personalities who ride in it gradually takes over the story giving the reader vicarious experience not to be missed.
 
As the Tour itself heads out over the Pyrenees, cycle enthusiasts can get out on the road themselves or used the above recommendations to settle back into a visual or literary peloton.

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