Need for the Bike
by Paul Fournel
translated by Allen Stoekl
Bison Books, copyright 2003, 150 pgs., $15
When I worked as a bicycle mechanic in Champaign, Illinois, I had a pleasant commute over well-connected residential streets. I was in decent shape, though I no longer thought of myself as a racer.
It was the opposite of a training loop. It was a direct route, punctuated on those mornings I had money by a stop for a bottomless cup of coffee and one hefty cinnamon roll. There was always a Chicago Tribune at the restaurant, and there was always something to read.
When I moved back to Peoria, I gave up the cinnamon roll. But the damage had already been done. And I began to reach for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the Tribune having begun its decline with a change in ownership and the loss of staff members, page width and confidence.
Today, thanks to the Internet, I plan ahead for reading material from the physical world–pick up a paper at Starbucks for the weekend’s breakfast rides or set aside Wooden Boat or Midwest Living magazine for the same purpose.
Yes, I still ride to read. And this year, should I be without newspaper or magazine, I plan to pull a small, over-square book out of my handlebar bag: Need for the Bike. Even though it’s a book about bicycling, which is not my favorite topic when engaged in the same practice and even though I’ve already read it.
Twice. In one evening.
Why this book? Because this is as close as I’ll come to riding with the author. An author who writes delightful half-coffee-cup chapters: two to three to four pages on whatever the next subject happens to be.
Read a few pages, get a warm-up on the java and plunge right back in. The author may have a competitive streak on the road, but he is an author nonetheless. As you drink your coffee and consider how nice it would be to have just one forbidden cinnamon roll, he rides in circles inside his book, patiently waiting for you to reappear and continue the conversation.
And it is a conversation. I used to race—used to think racing was important and that people who raced were the best riders there were. This book reminds me of long-ago exchanges before, during and after our training rides. I miss the stop-sign sprints, but I miss the words more.
On the other hand, who starts a book with chapters on crashes, doorings, doctors and stabbing oneself in the thigh with one’s shift lever? Who starts a book with this paragraph?
“I remember the dog very well. It was a yellow dog, a boxer. I remember I was the last to see him alive because I was the one who hit him.”
Paul Fournel, that’s who. And if you don’t care for the first few chapters—remember, they are very short—hang around. Fournel has other stories. This is a book of the sounds of riding a bicycle, of smells, of an old velodrome that the author summons out of nothing and returns to nothing within two-and-a-half pages.
This is also a book translated from French. Though if I knew French, I still don’t think I’d understand his shortest chapter, Maniac:
“A little while ago I noticed that for thirty years I had been happily mounting my bike by raising my right leg and passing it over the saddle.
“Since then I do it with the right leg over, then the left.”
Or what he meant when he wrote “my son isn’t a cyclist, but he rides a bike very well.”
Maybe it’s the translation, maybe I’m not paying enough attention to the text. Maybe I need to open the book again on the next breakfast ride. Whatever. If there is the occasional mystery, there are many more rewards to be found from the man who’d “like to grow old as a cyclist.”
“Already I don’t go as fast as before, but since I threw my speed to the four winds and never transformed it into bouquets or checks, it still lurks in the air of the mountains, and I breathe it in like an old perfume.”