My favourite cycling books and films

A friend asked me recently to recommend some cycling books and films. Instead of just telling him, I thought I'd stick them on my blog so everyone can check them out.

First off, an absolute gem of a French animated movie called 'Belleville Rendezvous'. There's not much dialogue but there doesn't have to be. The expressions and actions tell you everything you need to know. A young french lad is given a bicycle and it transforms his life. With the help of his grandmother, he becomes a professional racer (incredibly skinny apart from HUGE thighs). He takes part in the Tour de France but ends up in the broom wagon. From there, he is kidnapped, taken to New York and made to take part in a 'simulation' Tour De France ran by gambling gangsters. Strange, magical, often hysterically funny. The only criticism I would have is that the middle section about the three old ladies - the Belleville triplets - drags on a little too long. Apart from that, brilliant.

Next up, a riveting book by a Dutch cycling enthusiast and brilliant chess player - Tim Krabbe. The book simply describes an amateur race that the protagonist takes part in, a one day route through the mountains. The language is sparse and bleak in places, but as an evocation of the mental attitude, aspirations and fears of a competitive racer it is unsurpassed.

The third in my list is an expose of the realities of being a professional cyclist. In particular, it focuses on the drugs that are taken by cyclists to win races and, in many cases, simply enable to finish another day's race. Paul Kimmage got a lot of stick for his book, but it is an honest account and it helped keep in the spotlight the spectre of drug abuse in the professional peleton. Kimmage as the protagonist does get a little annoying in parts (in my opinion) but it's still a very worthwhile book to read.

Lightening things up a bit, I'd hugely recommend this next book - 'French Revolutions' by Tim Moore. Moore decides in a bout of excessive optimism and naivety that he'll ride the Tour de France route. The only difference between him and the pros is that he'll do it at another time of the year, on his own and with no back up. The result is a hilarious journal on trying to find places to eat, eating in France, sleeping in France, trying to do a professional route when you're several kilogrammes over weight, subsisting on cheap pizza and in the middle of rush hour. One thing I did learn from this book. Make sure you pour boiling water in your bidon (water bottle) every now and then. Letting your drink container turn into a bacteria farm is not a good idea!

Another rider who is able to see the farcical side as racing as well as the beautiful is Joe Parkin, an American who went to ride in Ghent for many years, particularly on the classics circuits.

Returning to the drugs aspect of pro-cycling, which will probably never go away, if you want to read about how bad the drug element can get for an individual, try 'The Death of Marco Pantani' by Matt Rendell. It's very sad, tragic in many ways but Rendell does an excellent job of showing us what professional racing did to one famous rider.

The Marco Pantani book does make professional riding look like a curse, or at least a poisoned chalice, but it can make someone's life too. The book 'In Search of Robert Millar' does a good job of showing how a man can escape a place he hates and find fame and success. The best one for me though is the film 'The Flying Scotsman' about the Scottish cyclist Graem Obree. Obree was brutally bullied when he was a child on account of him being the son of the local policeman. He survived that and became a world record holder. His demons never left him though and he attempted suicide, which he fortunately survived. The book is much bleaker than the film, too bleak to be honest for me, but the film (I think) strikes an excellent balance and is both entertaining, sad, uplifting and very moving.

I thought I'd wind up this list of recommendations with an absolute howler of a documentary. I think it's supposed to a positive glimpse into professional racing and the successes, pain, hardship and drama of a professional team. To be honest, it just comes across as weirdly bonkers. The team director, Bjarn Riis, self confessed EPO drug user, is just creepy and a berk. Basso is a mannequin under the spell of Armstrong. The only stars of the story are Carlos Sastre for being an quality bloke and (if I remember rightly) Jens Voigt who is an absolute blast.

That's it! I hope you enjoy them!