Essential Reading – Vélo, By Paul Fournel

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A couple days ago I received a copy of Rouleur’s new book “Vélo”, by Paul Fournel. I picked it up at the post office and began flipping through it over a cappuccino at the cafe next door. Two hours and four coffees later I found myself finished nearly every story in this gem of a book that I couldn’t put down.

Paul Fournel beautifully portrays the experience and spirit of all aspects of cycling. From the moment of first learning how to stay upright on two wheels to the joy of cycling with your mates and discovery while out riding. Fournel also embraces the unpleasant sides of cycling – fatigue, crashing, bonking and doping.

It’s collection of short essays with pencil drawn illustrations by Jo Burt. Each essay is only one to two pages long but every word is so carefully chosen that its meaning is long lasting. Like Tim Krabbé’s, The Rider, such words can only be written by someone with long history and relationship with the bike. In fact, I haven’t read such a profound book on cycling since The Rider. It’s a rare treat when a cyclist’s thoughts and an author’s words collide. As it says in the introduction, “Fournel the rider is Fournel the writer – on the bike words form and off the bike they are shaped by the rhythm and effort of the ride…Writing is the after-effect of riding…”.

This is a book that an experienced rider who understands the culture of cycling will strongly connect with. Fournel articulates his personal perceptions on cycling and what it represents. If you’re not an experienced cyclist, reading this book will put you years ahead of understanding what the true essence of cycling is. It’s not a book that focuses on technique, pro riders, or the next piece of carbon gadgetry you need to buy. Cycling isn’t a place you go or a thing you buy. It’s a set of experiences, sights, smells, tastes, feelings and most of all, friends. Vélo is a book that reminds me of this and truly inspires me to get out and go for a ride in an indirect but effective way.

Paul Fournel’s book Besoin de Vélo is touted as one of the loveliest pieces of writing about cycling and is available in English translation as “Need for the Bike”. Vélo is a blend of extracts from this book accompanied by the illustrations of Jo Burt.

Here are some excerpts from a couple of my favourite stories:

Legs

When I ride with someone for the first time I immediately cast a glance at his legs to know which speed we’re going to go and to know what my lot will be.

You can read a cyclist by his legs.

If you come across somebody who’s a shaver, beware: generally they go fast and they’re in shape (the out of shape rider willingly lets his leg hair grow back). The slightly chubby leg, vaguely weighed down and with indistinct contours means, on the other hand, that there remains work to do and that a gentle ride will be just that.

The slender leg, with an ever-so-small calf, is the leg of a climber (no unnecessary weight). The voluminous thigh – that’s a sprinter. The long harmonious leg- that’s a rouleur. A short femur? He’ll be swift. Rounded bum? He’ll set off strongly. Slender ankles and knees, he will have class.

Contrary to what’s usually asserted, fat calves are of little use: the essentials of cycling power are concentrated int he back, the buttocks and thighs.

At the hight of the season, it’s difficult to forget your legs. They are the sight of curious physiological phenomena. They most surprising is ‘big thighs’. Having accumulated I don’t know what kind of fatigue, the thighs swell up and get firmer. They don’t fit into your shorts any more, or your trousers, and you find yourself burdened with two ham-like thighs whose cycling worth is relative, at least for a few days.

I dream of a masseur who would supply me with supple muscles, unknotted cramps, and kind words that would give me two beautiful legs.

Fatigue

What I physically feel is the need for is fatigue. More precisely, the range of subtly different kinds of fatigue. For just as there exist a hundred ways of feeling good on the bike, there are a hundred ways of being tired.

The fatigue I like best is that of trips in stages. When I’ve pedalled all day, fatigue hits me as soon my feet touch the ground. It accompanies me throughout the evening and back into the night. It’s both generalised and localised: pain in the thighs, pain in the back.

In the morning I’m completely stiff, a rusty old wreck; I have trouble getting down the stairs. I mount my bike without strength, without desire, and pedal like an old robot.

Ten kilometers later, that’s all wiped away. I feel good. I even feel better than the day before – repeating the effort improves your conditioning and makes you sharper.

I am always of the lookout for bouts of melancholy, a deep and hidden (to me) trait of my should, and I’ keep an eye out for loss of desire. I know that if I succumb to depression, it will start with a breakdown in my thighs. It will start with cycling sluggishness, and the rest will follow.

If you want a book that you can pick up whenever you need a quick dose of escapism or inspiration, this is one that every cyclist should have on his or her bookshelf. If you want a book that will depress you about cycling’s past and future, have a read Tyler Hamilton’s, “The Secret Race”. You can purchase Vélo online here on Rouleur’s website.

Full disclosure: I was given this book for free by Rouleur. And I hope they don’t ask for it back!

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