7 Books That Will Make You Want to Get Out and Ride Your Bike

James Hibbard, author of "The Art of Cycling," recommends non-fiction that transcend cycling as mere sport

A woman in a beige coat rides an orange bike with a basket down an empty street.
Photo by Micheile Henderson via Unsplash

With so many pressing global issues, writing about the sport of cycling can easily seem trivial or indulgent and, in some regards, the sport of cycling (as distinct from riding a bike as a means of transportation) has done itself no favors in terms of how it’s perceived by the average person. 

Among the general public, the mention of road cycling immediately brings to mind not only doping, but a sort of self-obsessed neuroticism involving special diets and costly, lightweight carbon fiber racing bicycles—a sort of stand-in for a specific type of high-achieving, middle age self-absorption. 

However, there also exists another version of cycling. Predating costly “super bikes,” and more romantic than technical, this version of the sport flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up. Bound-up with the counterculture of the 1960s, this version of cycling was more about freedom and self-overcoming than it was competitive success, and it was this version of the sport which I sought to tap into when writing, The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels. 

With this in mind, I sought out cycling books which—while topically about the sport—engage cycling in order to tap into matters which transcend bike racing as mere sport. And, from matters of mental health, to geography, discrimination, to one’s sense of place, these are titles which for the most part don’t demand a background or interest in the sport of bike racing and which, as spring approaches, will hopefully compel you to dust off whatever sort of bike you might have and go for a ride. 

The Rider by Tim Krabbé

A beautifully crafted novel—and a classic in the genre—which follows a fictitious rider over the span of a road race. In it, Krabbé describes in intimate detail what the experience of racing a bicycle is like— from the tactics of opponents to the feel of handlebars in one’s hand—in vivid and evocative detail. Realistic and literary, The Rider tops many “best of” cycling book lists. 

Cyclettes by Tree Abraham 

A collection of vignettes which use the bicycle to explore deeper matters of freedom and the passage of time. In it, Abraham traces her life and its changes through the various bicycles she has owned and the freedom she has found from them in cities from Ottawa to New York. Unique in its layout, Abraham also includes maps, routes, and other ephemera making Cyclettes unique and engaging. 

Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber 

The true story of Marshall “Major” Taylor, an African American cycling champion from the era when indoor racing on velodromes was the most popular spectator sport in America. Facing rampant discrimination, Taylor rose to the pinnacle of the sport in the late 1890s. A sprinter who specialized in explosive short-distance track events, he raced through the first decade of the 20th century and blazed a trail for other African American riders in the sport of cycling. 

Higher Calling: Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains by Max Leonard 

Leonard’s lyrical book seeks to explore the role played by the mountains in the sport of cycling—from the solo excursions of hobby riders, to famous summit finishes in the Tour de France. In Higher Calling, Leonard links racing and riding in the mountains to larger historical issues, exploring why these often isolated and treacherous roads even exist, and the role played by the mountains geographically, culturally, and militarily. 

Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete, Beryl Burton by Jeremy Wilson 

In Beryl, the sportswriter Jeremy Wilson skillfully traces the career of one of the UK’s finest cyclists, Beryl Burton. Competing in an era when women’s cycling wasn’t yet professionalized in the economic sense, Burton worked odd jobs in order to survive all the while setting numerous records on the UK’s highly competitive time trial circuit and often besting Britain’s best male riders in the process. Delving into her childhood and homelife, Beryl does what the best sports biographies do, exploring Burton’s childhood and temperament without offering-up overly simplistic or reductive answers. 

Flying Scotsman: Cycling to Triumph Through My Darkest Hours by Graeme Obree 

The autobiography of one of the most compelling figures of modern cycling, the Scotsman, Graeme Obree. 

Obree famously broke the world hour record on his homemade bicycle constructed from washing machine parts. Besting far better funded riders, Obree went on to become the world champion twice. What makes his autobiography compelling however, is not only his underdog story but also his bravery in overcoming his mental health struggles and insight into how they both motivated and undermined his athletic career. 

The Beautiful Race: The Story of the Giro d’Italia by Colin O’Brien 

While most Americans think of The Tour de France when they think of European professional cycling, there are in fact three multi-week stage races on the calendar, the Tour de France, the Tour of Spain, and the Tour of Italy— the Giro d’Italia. 

In his book on the event, the Irish writer Colin O’Brien deftly avoids many of the cliches of sports books by showing how the race is inexorably woven into the fabric of Italian culture and using it to explore deeper social and historical issues which transcend sport.

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