The bike is a good place to work for a writer,” wrote Paul Fournel in Need for the Bike. “First, he can sit down; then he’s surrounded by windy silence, which airs out the brain and is favourable to meditation; finally, he produces with his legs a fair number of different rhythms, which are so much music to verse and prose.”

There is something inherently literary about the act of cycling. The great cycling road races – especially the Tour de France – were originally designed to be read about rather than watched. The tours were first organised by sporting newspapers to boost sales, and before the rise of television coverage the results were consumed in print. There is something novelistic about a bicycle race, too. Each stage is a chapter. In the peloton there are heroes and villains, protagonists and a cast of supporting characters.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the best cycling books aren’t technological histories of the bicycle, or scholarly accounts of the great road races, or biographies of famous racing cyclists – fascinating though many of these are – but stranger books, ones that tell their stories through and with the bicycle.

1. Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (1968)

Though he wasn’t much of a cyclist himself, Flann O’Brien must be the patron saint of all cycling literature. In The Third Policeman, written at the end of the 1930s but published only posthumously, he outlined his “Atomic Theory” of cycling: spend too long on a bike, O’Brien argued, and you’ll begin to exchange atoms with your machine. “You would be surprised at the number of people in these parts,” says one of the titular policemen to the nameless narrator of O’Brien’s novel, “who are nearly half people and half bicycles.”

In the circular hell described in the book, keen cyclists end their lives sleeping standing in hallways with their elbows propped up against walls. Bicycles take on humanity, and begin creeping around at night and stealing from pantries. It’s all gloriously weird.

2. Samuel Beckett, Molloy (1951)

O’Brien’s fellow Irishman Beckett was a huge cycling fan. The literary critic Hugh Kenner argued that his most famous (and most famously absent) creation, Godot, was himself based on a Monsieur Godeau, a French national champion racer.

The spirit of cycling suffuses Beckett’s novel Molloy. You can hear the pedal strokes in the staccato rhythms of his sentences. Molloy himself is so dependent on his bicycle that when he is separated from it he can barely move, and is forced to ratchet himself along the road on his crutches. For Beckett, bikes were more than mere vehicles: they were prostheses.

Samuel Beckett, huge cycling fan.
Samuel Beckett, huge cycling fan. Photograph: Jane Bown

3. Alfred Jarry, The Supermale (1902)

Alfred Jarry was a surrealist playwright and founder of “Pataphysics”, which he defined as “the science of imaginary solutions”. He was also a fanatical cyclist. Jarry rode a fixed-gear bike around Paris, letting off pistols to deter attacking dogs as he went. Later he scandalised French society by wearing his cycling garb to the funeral of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Written during the “heroic era” of bicycle road racing, The Supermale is a novella about a group of bicycle riders engaged in a race from Paris to Asia. Powered by a mysterious “perpetual motion food”, they reach speeds of 300km per hour. One of the racers dies but is unable to stop pedalling as he is contractually obliged to finish the race.

4. HG Wells, The Wheels of Chance (1896)

For Irish and French writers the bicycle was a futurist vehicle, but for Wells it was nostalgic and essentially comic. His social satire narrates a cycling tour of the south coast taken by a draper’s assistant, Hoopdriver. On his ride, Hoopdriver suffers punctures, falls off a lot, and falls in love with another rider (wearing her “rationals”, or cycling trousers – cycling did much for a woman’s right to wear sensible clothing during this period). In The Wheels of Chance the bicycle emerges as a tool for social and sexual mobility.

5. Luigi Bartolini, Bicycle Thieves (1946)

Though Vittorio de Sica’s film is better known, Luigi Bartolini’s novel, on which it is based, is equally wonderful, and quite a lot funnier. In it the bicycle promises to provide an escape from the poverty of postwar Italy. An unemployed man named Antonio is offered a job putting up posters around Rome; on his first day of work he has his bike stolen and searches the city for it, before becoming a bicycle thief in turn.

If you’ve ever had a bicycle stolen, you will know Antonio’s pain. And you will also recognise, perhaps, the moral quandaries such a loss can provoke.

The 1948 film adaptation of <em>The Bicycle Thieves</em>.
The 1948 film adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves. Photograph: Allstar

6. Tim Krabbé, The Rider (1978, trans 2002)

The Dutch are a nation of cyclists, but they’re not so well known as bicycle racers. There are not enough hills in the Netherlands to make for interesting multi-stage racing. But Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s The Rider is not only the best evocation of a bicycle race, but also one of the finest ever novels about sport.

Krabbé describes – pedal stroke by pedal stroke and kilometre by kilometre – an amateur one-day classic race. The Rider reads like the deranged interior monologue of the bicycle itself. It’s a novel that’s almost perfect.

7. Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike (2001)

Fournel is a member of the French avant-garde literary group Oulipo, founded in the 60s by Raymond Queneau. Oulipians favour “constrained writing” techniques, playing with palindromes and mathematical rules, or producing novels without the using the letter “e”.

Fournel’s book is constrained in terms of subject matter: it is a short, intense love letter to the bicycle, a cyclo-philosophical treatise on what it means to go through life on two wheels. It’s a bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but less pretentious and much more entertaining.

8. James Waddington, Bad to the Bone (1998)

Part murder-mystery, part cycling thriller, this is a great novel about the commercialisation of the modern sport of cycling. It’s very funny, too: full of satirical excesses and bodily goings on.

It’s also good on the ethics of doping and the way in which professional cyclists are reduced, through the demands of their sport, to what Waddington calls “fleshbags of blood and sinew. The usual appetites are suppressed. Everyone just works, eats and sleeps … Legitimate, maybe, but it’s close to vampirism for an honourable profession.”

9. Matt Seaton, The Escape Artist (2002)

For many, cycling is an escape from the daily grind, but in Matt Seaton’s memoir of his time as an amateur competitive cyclist, it provides an escape from a great loss. Soon after he became a middle-aged man in Lycra, Seaton’s wife, Ruth Picardie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cycling is often a way of controlling suffering, and in this terrifically moving memoir it becomes a way of coming to terms with grief, too.

Matt Seaton.
Matt Seaton, a middle-aged man in Lycra. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

10. David Rose, Vault (2011)

Rose’s debut is a clever thriller about snipers, espionage, and the postwar world of competitive cycling. Two intertwining narratives in this metafictional “anti-novel” tell the story of a cyclist-turned-spy who delivers state secrets from the midst of the peloton. It is a short, sharp joy.

• Jon Day’s Cyclogeography is published by Notting Hill Editions.

Jon Day

The GuardianTramp

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