After a few years teaching Greek and Latin literature, Graeme Fife turned away from the security that academic life provides to become a free-lance writer (successfully, as his long list of scripts, essays, and books proves). Throughout his life (he was born in 1946), Fife has been fascinated by bicycles and the people who ride them. His best-known books focus on the Tour de France, its history, its legendary terrain, its racing fraternity, and the hangers-on.
Now comes The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling, from Tour de France to Cinder Hill, Fife’s memoir in which he uses his love of bicycles as the key to presenting the man he has always been.
The book makes clear that from his first acquaintance with a bicycle, when he was five years old, freedom is what he has craved—freedom from the constraints of his childhood home and from home later on, freedom to come and go, freedom to do what he was driven to do even when it resulted in the intermittent shortage of funds and genteel homelessness.
The book is believable because Fife is himself a constant, strong, determined cyclist who has powered himself through some of the world’s most challenging territories, especially the magnificent mountains which the Tour de France has imbued with an aura nearly supernatural in its radiance.
This book “is bare-knuckle writing at its most punchy,” the book jacket declares, “rippling with wit and energy.” It has to be because the book could be dull since most of it is built around descriptions of rides that Fife has taken, some of them solo, more of them with family and friends who seem to have similar commitments to hard-core bicycle riding as a way to fulfill their human destiny. Some of the descriptions—the ride through Timbuktu as the chief example—disappoint me because the cyclists’ zeal seems to exceed the bounds of civility. The greater part of the book, however, provides insights into the inner workings of a cyclist’s mind and heart. I cannot think of another writer who does this so well.
The best chapters describe his cycling journeys through and over the steepest, hardest climbs in the world of cycling. Unlike ordinary writers, however, Fife has little to say about the sweat and grime, nor does be bleat about how unprepared he was, as so many lesser writers do.
Rather, it is the resolve of the head, the constancy of heart and lungs, the steady dependability of the legs that come out clearly. Many cycling travel accounts can be summed up, “Gee whiz, it was hard!” Not this book. After describing one of his ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez, one of the most celebrated cols in Europe, Fife explains the inner workings that make it possible.
This is the bedrock of reality: however grim you feel physically, whatever defeatist temptation clouds your mind, giving up solves nothing. The kilometers ahead of you, the steepness of the road, the suffering, mental and physical, that it’s going to take to surmount them: all that lies ahead of you and will not go away. The inclemency of the weather may change, granted, the geology will not and time ticks on. Thinking you won’t make it is like worry—it changes nothing and merely adds the weight of anxiety to the problem. This you can do without, so shun it in favour of the reality: I can’t go on, I must go on, I will go on. The formula may be simple: it most decidedly is not simplistic. It has to be earned and learnt from the inside out.”
In this paragraph, Fife presents wise counsel that can be transferred beyond the physicality of cycling to a broad range of human endeavor. Elsewhere in the book, he provides other summaries of what he has learned in the half century of cycling on which this book is based. More about that another time.