Book Review: Vélo

Vélo by Paul Fournel

Remember those action films where someone would get poisoned and only a special serum could cure them? Our ailing hero would be close to death but the antidote always arrived just in time.

Following pro cycling can leave many feeling sick thanks to unredeemable controversy and scandal; although this can be part of the intrigue too. Still this should be a beautiful sport that uses a bicycle to turns farm tracks into paths to glory and exploits mountain ranges as arenas. In truth there are still lots of good stories but they’re being drowned out by the poison of the past.

There’s no magic remedy to these problems but you can find escapism. The easiest escape route is a ride, the simple pleasure of pedalling can often remind you that cycling isn’t about someone else’s race. Indeed this is what Fournel’s book is about and over the pages we get a series of short essays and vignettes that cover cycling and many of the related experiences, from click-clacking in cleated shoes to the pleasure of aching legs.

Fournel writes very well, using a compact style to describe his experiences on the bike. He’s a professional author, he leads a movement of writers in France called Oulipo. As such he’s more intellectual than physical and you discover this as he often enjoys writing about the slower parts of a bike ride as opposed to a race. Each subject, from tan lines to the texture of roads, is a short meditation, an observation on something the cyclist might experience. Here’s a thought on Mont Ventoux:

The Ventoux has no it-self. It’s the greatest revelation of yourself. It simply returns your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you are in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and happiness in general. It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.

As you can see, Ventoux is not a mountain with some tarmac, it is a personal experience. And here’s a thought on a map:

For me, road maps are dream machines. I like to read them as one reads adventure stories.

Again, a simple printed map is much more for the romantic Fournel who plots his adventures across France. These are personal takes but much of it rings true and just as Fournel looks at a map and wants to project himself, reading this book does transport you to a ride in France with its roads, aromas and all the other observations Fournel makes. Fournel isn’t trying to be definitive, he is not stating “this is cycling” but instead offers is take and personal experience. It’s all from someone bitten by what Louis Nucera called the “virus of cycling”, the infectious passion and addiction that makes riding vital.

This book is his “Need For the Bike” book added to extra writings from Rouleur magazine, longer essays. The writing from “Need For The Bike” is a translation and a few phrases from the French version just can’t be translated effectively because Fournel might choose a phrase for its double entendre. But overall the translation is excellent and I preferred this version to the original French. One reason is that this book is larger and includes cartoon-like illustrations to accompany the pieces. The French version is – like most French publications – much more austere featuring the standard house font of the publisher and little else. This has the effect of spacing out the stories rather than cramming in the text and so you can open the book anywhere and read with ease.

Fournel’s writes so well yet the book isn’t perfect, it’s almost too prim at times: cycling trimmed into Bonsai text and his words are incisive. If you come to this site for pure pro cycling then Fournel’s accounts of riding in his native countryside of the Haute Loire might not grab you; he’s strictly amateur and if he draws references from racing, he’s not doing the Tour de France. And perhaps he over-analyses but then again if he did not spot the detail there’d be zero to write about.

Overall this is a very enjoyable book that’s actually better in this format than the original French paperback, a book which I’d been planning to review because “Need for the Bike” is worth sharing. Fournel’s simple escapism reminds me of Tim Krabbé’s The Rider because of the detail and the tight prose. Whilst Krabbé’s mind wanders during a race, Fournel has wandered on many roads during his life and his recollections are enjoyable take on what it is to ride a bike, from the freedom of the countryside to the inconvenience of colliding with a car door.

It is published by Rouleur and available for sale via their website:

Disclaimer: this copy was sent free for review and it’s not going back

A list of previous book reviews is available here.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Vélo”

  1. Like many others, I fret about the state of modern pro cycling and the deleterious effect drugs have had on the sport I love. But I ride my bike every day – 10, 20 or 30 miles – and think about many things, or nothing at all. But I can’t remember ever thinking about the drug culture in pro cycling while out for a ride. It is indeed the best escape.

    • I bought a signed original and the book it is beautiful to hold (small format) and the illustrations are swell. I would love to have it my Kindle to go with The Rider. I travel extensively and I read Krabbe’s little gem often. It be an additional treat to have this one e-handy too.

  2. I heard an extract on the Rouleur podcast and could understand what M. Fournel was talking about but that extract about Mont Ventoux is entirely at odds with my ride. The forest, the flies, the three mouflon, the dead baby mouflon on the way back down, hit by one of the car driving arseholes who did not give a damn about descending cyclists and clearly not about little mouflons either, the melted tarmac, the excitement of the resulting front wheel slide, the guy who shouted in despair at the difficulty of peddling a full sus mountain bike up, the irritation caused by the professional photographers, the hordes of cloggies, the prevalence of orange and much more, including the landmarks so important to those going hard. It’s a lovely climb and the descent is amazing. Why don’t the classic accounts ever tell you that?

    • True. The first time I went up it I’d heard so much talk that the reality of overheating car engines mixing with the aroma of pine forest meant anything spiritual was in the strict chemical sense: the mix of pine resin, motor oil and unused fuel was choking. Never saw a mouflon though.

  3. Great review. Want to read it. I still think there is a really great book to be written about cycling. Maybe it’s a combination of a number of books. B

  4. Ah, “Need for the Bike” is the best book about cycling, ever. I find it profoundly beautiful, moving, and funny. He can sum up so many emotions, so many experiences in so few words. I read it for inspiration, for delight, to remind me of the magic that can happen as you fly over the roads.


  5. Heureux lecteurs anglophones , il est vrai que la qualité de vos éditions est toujours d’actualité .

    Une remarque concernant la biographie de Paul Fournel : vous avez oublié de préciser qu’il est également l’auteur d’un livre de nouvelles érotiques sous le nom de ” Profane Lulu ” .

    A noter également que l’auteur de nombreux ouvrages concernant le cyclisme – Christian Laborde - s’intéresse également à l ‘écriture de nouvelles érotiques …

    Etonnant , non ?

Comments are closed.