Book Review – Off to the Races: 25 Years of Cycling Journalism

My latest foray into the vast montagne of cycling writing that exists these days has taken me to journalism, namely a guy named Samuel Abt, who wrote on cycling for decades for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times (and a quick peek on Google tells me he may still be).

For a new cycling-history buff like myself, the era in which Off to the Races: 25 Years of Cycling Journalism takes place is a puzzle whose pieces are slowing being fit together, in no small measure thanks to Sam Abt. His first article was written in 1977 and featured a washed up, soon-to-be-retired Eddy Merckx, and his latest works (in the book at least) have a young Lance Armstrong in them. This spans a considerable amount of time, as well as a really great epoque of pro racing. Lemond, Hinault, Indurain, Fignon, Boardman, Kelly, Pantani, are all here in compact, just-before-bed sized articles. It took me ages to read the book, probably because of this fact, i.e. you have a sense of satisfaction and completion after finishing just one 3-page article. This book has a potentially long shelf life.

Abt splits Off to the Races into threes themes: Cycling’s heros are featured in the first 3rd; lesser known (or completely unknown) domestiques, soigneurs, etc., in the 2nd; and ‘races and places’ for the last part, highlighting the many races that make up the pro European scene (some of these have disappeared, like the one-day, 560 km long Bordeaux-Paris Classic), as well as lots of great stories on the backwaters of Europe where, according to Abt, real cycling fans still inhabit.

Abt has a crisp style of writing that I found tempered with a nice dash of humanity. He cares about his subjects. There is no chronology to the book, but each ‘chapter’ has a year under the title so you can place it mentally into your own personal jigsaw. One thing that could bring the Love Meter down a notch or two for this book might be the attention paid to American riders. However, since Abt is American, writing for an American newspaper with many American readers, I suppose there’s no getting around that. He does give plenty of focus to others, though, so don’t let that turn you off it (if indeed it would have). Actually, now that I think about it, this could be an advantage because he takes care to explain the ins and outs of cycling that might not be necessary for a European audience, throwing lots of little tidbits of tradition, rules and culture that you might not otherwise get.

There you are, another great cycling book finished. Now why can’t someone make a cycling movie that is any good…?

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