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Books to read before, during and after a cycle tour

bookstoreI’ve been asked ‘What do you think about when you’re cycle touring?’ on quite a few occasions, or ‘You must have so much time for self reflection while on the bike?’.  In truth,  I actually don’t think about a lot! Usually I’m either cursing the persistent head-wind or dreaming of chocolate coated swiss-rolls and king sized snickers! Life on the bike can be very simple!  Your main concerns are getting from A to B, food, water and shelter.  This leaves room for appreciating, observing and focusing on what happens along your journey.  Enjoying the moment as it happens.  Your surroundings, the weather, the people, the hills, they all remain with you long after you’ve stopped cycling.  It’s great fodder for travel writing with many great books  written on cycle journeys.

There are certain books that encourage you to dream of cycle adventures ahead; authors whose words keep you company during your trip; and books that allow you to reflect philosophically on bicycle travel.

The following are my choice of books to Read Before, During and After a Cycle Tour.

Before A Cycle Tour

Thunder and Sunshine by Alastair Humphreys


Alastair Humphreys

Thunder and Sunshine is Humphreys’ second book on his epic 46,000 km bike journey around the planet (although it stands alone as a book in itself). The first book of this trip, Moods of Future Joys, covered the beginning of his adventure as he left England and crossed Africa, North to South.

Thunder and Sunshine picks up where the first book left off, Cape Town in South Africa.  From here Humpreys sails across the Atlantic to Argentina and continues to cycle through South America heading northwards to the tip of Alaska. He crosses the Pacific and arrives in the icy Russian outpost of Magadan and heads westwards for England, and home.

You develop an itch while reading this book that needs to be scratched. It’s an inspiring and epic book full of challenges that Alaistair encountered along the way, both physically and mentally.  From withstanding up to -40 degree celsius temperatures in a flimsy tent in Russia to experiencing the generosity of people welcoming him into their homes. Impressively, after four years cycling the globe he managed to spend less than £7,000.  His well formed descriptive narrative blends well with his own personal insights, dry humour and thoughts of life on the road.

During a Cycle Tour

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy


Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy is as mad as a box of frogs!  And it’s the company of a mad woman’s words that pulls you onwards!  She’ll be there on those days when you’re pedalling into rain, being nudged off the road by impatient drivers or chased by hungry stray dogs. Those days when you consider your own sanity. When things go pear shaped you can always take comfort in what this courageous Irishwoman went through. Often when the odds were against us while cycle touring we’d wonder “what would Dervla do!?”

In 1963, Murphy set off on her bike, dubbed Roz, with a pistol for protection, during one of the worst storms to hit Europe. Roz originally had three gears but Dervla took two away to save possible future complications!  She cycled across Europe, through Iran and Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and India.  At the time, a woman cycle touring alone was a rarity and so she generated great intrigue wherever she travelled, with some unwanted interest to boot.

Full Tilt is written in a diaristic fashion chronicling Dervla’s courageous and often unpredictable adventure. Her minimalistic and no nonsense approach to cycle touring  is refreshing “… the further you travel the less you find you need and I see no sense in frolicking around the Himalayas with a load of inessentials.” Broken ribs, assault, thirst, hyperthermia, sun stroke and being chased by starving wolves didn’t dampen her undeniable empathy towards people and the appreciation of the wondrous landscapes she passed through.

After a Cycle Tour:

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

David Byrne cycling

David Byrne

Most of Bicycle Diaries is only loosely about cycling.  You’re not going to get any advice on how to fix a puncture or plan a long distance tour here! Instead it is a book that uses a bicycle as a means to weave and connect many of Byrne’s interests.

Since the incarnation of his band Talking Heads in 1975, and the subsequent touring associated with a successful group, Byrne has cycled around many of the cities he has performed in.  He uses a cyclist’s perception — “faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person” — to observe and absorb the street life he passes through.  He bounces between thoughts on architecture, politics, history, contemporary art, cultural and music. A passion that he emphatically pushes in the book is city planning. He argues the virtue and quality of life that can be brought to urban areas and communities that incorporate cycling into city planning, giving examples of where it works, Copenhagen, and where it doesn’t, Detroit.

The book is witty and insightful and presents complex subjects simply and with ease, his narrative often asking more questions than it answers.

I’d love to hear some of your book suggestions in the comments!

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    For those doing the Alaska to Ushuaia Hemistour I recommend my book, A Bicycle Journey to the Bottom of the Americas. Available as paper or ebook on all the usual websites.

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  2. Yes, on the bike I’m just in the moment, I have contemplated having an audio book playing in my ear but it’s surprisingly hard to focus on anything other than music when the mind is on the road and journey ahead. Then when there is time to read (after refuelling, washing and sleeping are out of the way)… for my tour this year I took Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (it seemed very fitting even though I wasn’t going round the world). I’d finished that by my half-way point and had to hunt down a book shop (not wanting to take too many weighty books with me, but being a lover of paper), where I found a quaint old book “English Men of Letters: Charles Lamb, by Alfred Ainger”. Since my tour, I’ve been given a stack of books by Josie Dew about her cycle-touring escapades and I’ve kept one in my pannier for when I’m out and about and have time to read some sections over coffee; it’s one of those books you can easily dip in and out of and keeps a smile on your face.

    P.S. I love that book store picture!

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    • Hi Brian! Yep, i tried the audio books too, but found my mind wandering after a bit! We listen to a lot of podcasts while cycling. Television for your ears! Radiolab, Love & Radio, Selected Shorts, Adam and joe and WTF with Marc Maron are all pretty good. Around the World is a good one alright. Another book ( cycling unrelated though) worth checking out is McCarthy’s Bar:A journey of Discovery in Ireland by Pete McCarthy, it’s really funny and a bit mad!

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      • Thanks for the recommendation of McCarthy’s Bar; I’ve looked it up and added it to my Amazon Wishlist; I think it will be ideal reading on my next trip over to Ireland!

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