Cyclists from elsewhere than the central lowlands of Scotland may not understand the ‘gringo’ reference, but it helps me explain the book very quickly. The author starts the book as what would be considered a ‘gringo’ & ends it an experienced cyclist, having suffered a multitude of cycling experiences condensed into a few short weeks on a ridiculous organised-ride from Spain to Rome. It’s a voyage of discovery & it’s the ideal Christmas present (to yourself) or to that hard-to-buy-for cyclist. It’s got something in it for everybody, from the die-hard racer to the complete newcomer, you’ll all recognise personal experiences & the personality types the book deals with, plus your non cycling partner (who pretends they don’t watch the Tour) will also likely enjoy it. This book, although at first glance not my normal cycling read, made me smile, it made me smile quite a bit.
This book comes with a warning, well, it’s not actually the book that has a warning, it’s the person who wrote it. If you ever go on an organised ride & somebody called Felix Lowe is present, go home or give a false name. When you read this book you’ll understand why, all your quirks & abnormalities may be magnified & published for all to read about. The Author, Felix Lowe may be known to many of you, he’s the man behind the Eurosport ‘Blazin Saddles’ blog & can be followed on twitter @saddleblaze. He also writes the final article in ‘Cyclist’ magazine every month, so if you read about cycling a fair bit, you’ve undoubtably read some of his stuff.
I struggle to define ‘Climbs & Punishment’ as a particular genre of cycling book. It’s a mix of a travelogue, history book, gastronomy, cycling adventure & bike racing anecdotes from pro riders (including some fantastic ones he gleaned from chats with Greg LeMond), all written with plenty of humour, innuendo & not-so-veiled accusations. What makes this particularly interesting & different is the perspective it’s written from, the author first gained a deep knowledge of the sport of professional cycling by being involved in cycling journalism, before they ever became a cyclist. So this is his story of his initial voyage of a mans physical cycling discovery, potentially this is his unconscious quest to become a ‘proper’ cyclist. We follow his experiences during a rather bizarre (100km per day) organised ride which follows the route of Hannibal’s army into Rome from Spain, over a period of a few weeks. The full content of the book is probably not conveyed in the cover, but then, what could really.
You’ll also find some things discussed which won’t come up on your polite club-ride, mostly to do with bodily functions, body parts & the peculiarities of the effects of cycling’s motion & kit do to your body. Scrotums seem to be mentioned a fair bit, along with his ‘clock’ position in his shorts & the problem of eliminating that last drip, especially in his poor choice of shorts colour. We also get some descriptions of things he encountered on the way, dogs in a not so romantic embrace & an old man peeing in a car park. Normally the things we leave out of our descriptions of our wonderful cycling holidays we pass back to our families. Lowe experiences from a ‘newbie’ point of view what it’s like to get into cycling, but due to his journalistic experienced, Lowe does this with a knowledge which your normal sportive rider wouldn’t possess.
Competition is part of cycling at all levels, regardless of where we are in the sport. We see the authors competitive trait develop rapidly during the trip, with some full-on mountain battles later in the book when other groups turn up on the ride for a few days. Lowe tells you exactly what he’s thinking during his riding, which is especially revealing when the red mist takes over (although stopping to take a photo while having attacked on a mountain isn’t allowed in cycling etiquette).
His fellow companions get a bit of a pounding too, he didn’t know any of them beforehand, including his room-mate Terry, whose character is well & truly destroyed during this book. We discover far too much about these people (but you’ll find yourself wanting more), even people who helped him along the way get ‘the Felix treatment’, such as “Martin, the manager of the hotel and owner of a nose that could have hosted its own ski-jumping competition”. I won’t ruin some of the revelations you’ll discover, which is why I issued the warning at the beginning, it really is relevant (but it’s entertaining, you’ll laugh & your partner will ask what you’re laughing at, you’d probably would find it hard to explain without going into the finer details, just say “nothing”).
There are plenty of character types you’ll recognise from your cycling club, or at least recognise some aspects of their personalities. Lowe is a people watcher & is able to describe this to you in graphic detail, which is why you shouldn’t go on holiday with him. Under twitter questioning he has assured me that they took it all very well, having joined the Tour in 2014 for a few days where he met some of his 2013 ‘crew’, who shook their first in mock castigation.
Pro riders are mentioned frequently too, like Quintana, “with a birth certificate that makes a mockery of his crinkled-as-an-elephants-knee face”. The best ‘pro’ bits are with Greg LeMond, although some of that includes graphic bodily functions (as we’ve come to expect from this book) & Greg’s story of accidental Giro race food of parmesan, sausages & beer.
Hidden behind all the character assassinations is an incredibly well researched book, which perhaps is easy to forget amidst the humour & witty observations. Each significant area or road we visit has a brief resumé of what happened to Hannibal, with plenty of stories of grand-tour battles on the same terrain. This is where Lowe’s knowledge of the sport shines through & we can relate his struggles compared to those of our hero’s & villains of cycling (there’s plenty of doping innuendo here too). There’s also some analysis of a cyclists psyche hidden away & discovered by Lowe, such as “You only ever ride a climb like Ventoux alone anyway, even when in the presence of others”.
Who’s This Book For?
This is almost as hard to define as the book, it’s really not aimed at anybody in particular but will appeal to cyclist & non-cyclists alike. I’d suggest it’s a ‘must read’ for anybody about to book, or having recently booked a training camp in the new year. You’ll meet plenty of the characters described in ‘Climbs & Punishment’ during your trip to warmer climes, it might even help prepare you for dealing with a trip. I’d suggest that you should have a little cycling knowledge to get something out of this book, but just occasionally watching the Tour over the last few years would be enough.
I’d also recommend Climbs & Punishment as a ‘catch-all’ Christmas gift for your cycling partner or friend (or a stocking filler suggestion for those asking what to buy you), everybody will get something out of it. I enjoyed it, now I need to catch up on some of his equally character destroying ‘Blazin Saddles’ blogs.
Climbs & Punishment is published by Bantam Press & is available HERE for £11.99 if you use Amazon.
(I only publish reviews of books I really like, I was sent this by the publisher, I have others than won’t appear here. Just because they’re not my cup of tea doesn’t mean I should slag of folks who are better writers than I am. Please don’t send me any more, I’ve no time to read any more!)