As the build-up to Christmas approaches a flurry of cycling books having started hitting the shelves, including a return of a favourite in the SweetSpot offices, the Cycling Anthology series, the sixth edition of which forms our latest review. An annual collection of cycling writing on a variety of topics that you may not normally choose to read an entire book on, Volume Six of the popular series was released at the end of October and is reviewed below.

Don’t forget you can find links to all of our reviews, from this year and last, plus information about the SweetSpot Cycling Book of the Year Award by clicking here.

And if you’ve missed them here are the links to the recent reviews of The Racer by David Millar and another anthology of cycling writing Ride the Revolution.

Cycling Anthology Volume Six, Edited by Lionel Birnie and Ellis Bacon
Out Now, Published by Peloton Publishing, £8.99
Review by Peter Hodges
Available online from Prendas here

Cycling Anthology remains the pocketbook par excellence and was a boon companion on my recent 'cultural' holiday – well sporting and history extravaganza – to the USA when there frequently came that moment when you simply had to pull over for half an hour at some watering hole to catch your breath and regroup. 

""It’s small, pocketbook size and weight, makes it a perfect travelling companion, while the bite size chapters make a natural division in where to pick up and put down – although it’s all too easy to promise yourself just one more chapter!
 
William Fotheringham's chapter on Brad Wiggins' farewell season was devoured in some unseasonal sunshine after a tour of the Arlington Cemetery while Brendan Gallagher's look at Hemingway's infatuation with cycling came after conquering the mighty Washington Monument one afternoon. The other chapters were consumed in various bars and cafes while I finished the final chapter – Sam Abt's homage to Geoffrey Nicholson's The Great Bike Race – right after taking in the Navy Memorial in Pennsylvania Avenue. 
 
I've been a fan of the previous Cycling Anthologies, whose publication always seems to coincide with a holiday, see but very much welcome the return in Volume Six of the longer chunkier chapters in which the assembled writers really get stuck into their chosen subject. This for me is the raison d'etre of the book, a chance to chew the cud on a subject that doesn't quite constitute a full book of its own but requires rather more than the standard 1,000 word feature length article in one of the cycling magazines.
 
One such fascinating chapter is entitled Captain Alex,  which is penned with much care and investigative zeal by Felix Lowe who used as his starting point three signatures penned on a much treasured official programme of the 1957 Tour de France. He eventually identified them as Alex Virot, Luc Varenne and Yvette Horner – an eclectic trio rich in character and intrigue. Lowe sets out to find more and take you the reader on his fascinating journey of three characters deeply involved in the Tour de France that you’ve probably never heard of!
 
Virot is a broadcasting legend in France, in fact he sounds like a legend full stop. Dedicated amateur sportsman, a World War I pilot and World War II resistance fighter, an Olympic Silver medal winner in art – yes they used to award such things – and as a dashingly good look gent who modelled  for the famous Hercules the Archer sculpture by Bordelle which is currently in the Musee D'Orsay. He was an on the spot news reporter and ‘witness’ to the escalation of wars in Ethiopia, Spain and Austria and relaxed by reporting on his great love the Tour de France, an event about which he spoke with an authority and fairness that immediately resonated. 
 
All this we learn and then much more via a grand-daughter Sophie – her father was born to a married woman after an affair with Virot – who contacts Lowe as the search for a recording of the great man’s actual voice intensified. And here's the extraordinary poignancy of this story. Virot was killed during that 1957 Tour, on Stage 16 from Barcelona to Aix les Thermes which was held on Bastille Day, when he and his driver crashed into a ravine while following the race. After months of searching the Radio Luxembourg archivist uncovered a ten minute clip of a consummate professional in action moving among the peloton on the start line asking various questions, swapping gossip and offering encouragement. It was Virot doing his stuff. But a closer inspection of the reel reveals something else, a date and location. July 14 1957 Barcelona. The first words we hear from Virot are also the last he ever uttered into a microphone. A couple of hours later he was dead.
 
Very little can top his personal story but Luc Varenne and Yvette Horner are also fascinating characters. Varenne was a larger than life and voluble Belgian radio journalist, much more flamboyant and inclined to bend the truth than Virot, who became a household name some years later as Eddy Merckx's Boswell and main camp follower among the media. When it came to Merckx, Varenne binned objectivity and indeed argued that after decades of little or no Belgian success it was his job to lionise and idolise this extraordinary athlete the cycling Gods had bestowed upon Belgium. It was what the Belgian public wanted to hear! To a certain extent it's difficult to disagree. Successful newspaper and radio stations are often built on providing the stories and nuanced coverage which they know their readership and listening public want.  Both Virot and Varenne had their place in the scheme of things.  
 
Horner meanwhile is the legendary accordion player – just turned 93 – who has sold over 30 million albums worldwide and was made a commander of the Legion of Honor in 2011. One of her claims was that for well over a decade she used to accompany the Tour and its associated caravan playing her accordion whenever and wherever they stopped.  A different world but what a trio of autographs to get on the one programme. 
 
""An author who would have adored the extraordinary individuals in Lowe's chapter was Geoffrey Nicholson who was always on the lookout for such colour as he roamed around the Tour de France. Nicholson, rather like Virot, was a hard-core newspaper man and editor as at home dealing with matters of state, politics and literary debates as he was with sport. 
 
As a result he always put the Tour in its proper perspective never confusing it with real life and as a result the Great Bike Race, even nearly 40 years on, remains the definitive read if you want to capture the essence of the Tour as a spectacle and soap opera. If you want doping scandals and inside track on the pharmaceutical industry he is not your man although he of course was the product of different times. During his era a positive would receive a ten minute penalty and a small fine. The cyclist would race on. It was just part of the general chaotic and occasionally rackety scene and not considered a complete scandal.
 
Anyway Sam Abt, a superb writer himself and straight out of the Nicholson mould, does Nicholson proud with his tribute to the man and his modus operandi, along the way picking out his favourite bon mots from the book. Those who have read the book will have their own and will wonder why Abt has excluded their favourties but the truth is they lay there on every page, it’s just a matter of where the book falls open which rich seam you decide to quarry. 
 
""Elsewhere there are some nice changes of pace. Ned Boulting, who is well known to visitors of the website after years of fronting ITV's coverage of the Aviva Tour of Britain, Aviva Women’s Tour and Tour Series, offers an interesting insight into the massive difference between presenting and reporting on a bike race rather than commentating on it. Chalk and cheese and you really start to feel Ned's nerves as the big day approached last summer when he made his commentating debut at the Tour de Yorkshire.  I particularly like his observation that no matter how much you like, or dislike, a particular commentator try turning the sound off the next time you watch the last three hours of a Tour de France of Giro stage. A commentator, in some form or other, is absolutely essential and making that commentary as good as possible is quite an art and challenge. 
 
Another in depth piece is Brendan Gallagher's chapter on Hemingway a legendary literary figure whose love affair with cycling seems rather like his many marriages – intense but brief. During the 1920s there is no doubt that Hemingway was both a bona fide fan – a regular at all the Six Days in Paris – and a writer who was fascinated by the many layers of complexity that cycling and cyclists present. 
 
Hemingway dropped a couple of tantalising cycling passages into his first two successful novels and it is fun to speculate that somewhere in a hotel storage room in Europe, or even a lost property office, lies a dusty trunk with a long lost cycling masterpiece therein.  Hemingway – and indeed his first wife Hadley – were notorious for losing manuscripts and leaving suitcases full of notebooks and personal effects in hotel around Europe. Certainly at one stage his fellow author and friend John Dos Passos recalls being 'warned off' cycling by Hemingway because that was his domain and Hemingway wouldn’t take kindly to any other writer butting in. That sounds to me like the defensive action of a man who was busy incubating a major cycling book but alas nothing has been found. Yet. 
 
The Hemingway chapter also deals with his mysterious lionisation of Italian cyclist Bartolomeo Aymo whose name was appropriated lock stock and barrel for a character in A Farewell to Arms, which is still considered by many as Hemingway’s masterpiece. It's a curious episode. Aymo was a very considerable rider and stalwart character but a perennial runner up and was completing his final season as a professional when the book came out. Most contemporary readers would have immediately made the connection but precisely what character, personality type and message was Hemingway trying to convey in literary shorthand by his blatant use of such a distinctive name?  It was an odd ploy to say the least – in fact today it would probably be actionable – and Gallagher makes a very decent stab at offering an explanation, no easy undertaking as neither Hemingway nor Aymo ever spoke publically about the matter. 
 
Elsewhere the book nudges into all sorts of nooks and crannies exploring topics you’d perhaps never consider picking up a whole book on, which to me is part of the enjoyment of the series – the opportunity to read and learn about new stories and topics from cycling, often inspiring you to go away and find out more about these topics. Kathy LeMond writes eloquently on her supportive role as a rider's spouse when the going got tough for husband Greg; Pete Cossins goes Dutch and talks Alpe D'Huez with Hennie Kuiper;  Andy McGrath revisits the story of French minnows La Mutuelle de Sienne-et-Marne and their incident packed 1997 Tour de France while the esteemed editors both contribute a chapter. Lionel Bernie gets tucked into the subject of riders and their food and Ellis Bacon takes a tongue in cheek look into the near future when doping has been routed and match-betting had become the scourge of the peloton. At least I hope he’s writing tongue in cheek! 
 
So much thought provoking interest in one book. The Cycling Anthology Volume Six really hits the spot and if you are planning a holiday in the next few months which will involve frequent kick-backs bars, cafes or even sunshine – or waits for delayed planes and trains you really should team up. It's very good company indeed.