5½ great books about bike touring

A good way to pass the time before a big bike trip is to read about someone else's big bike trip. There aren't many books concerning the niche world of bicycle travel (and even fewer that offer well-written and engaging stories, versus instructional how-to guides), but the handful below do a really wonderful job of capturing the beauty and the simplicity of self-propelled adventure—for someone planning a bike tour, or someone just looking for a good read. (The links and prices are specific to Kindle e-books, but all are available in paperback as well.*)

Passing time with a book on the beach on the Moroccan coast.

[1] Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle 

1965, 254 pages, $10.99. Over fifty years ago, a young woman picked up her bike and pedaled out of her small Irish town in the middle of winter, embarking on an epic year-long ride through Europe and central Asia. Dervla's thorough retelling of her adventure is captivating, and her depiction of her time spent in Afghanistan particularly moving. In a sport and type of travel too often dominated by male voices, Dervla's memoir presents plenty of inspiration and excitement for readers of any background. 

EXCERPT: "Obviously the primary need was brandy, yet my face so so numb that I couldn't articulate one word. I merely pointed to the relevant bottle, and stood by the stove to thaw out, while a group of card-playing men stared at me with a trace of that hostility shown by all peasants in remote places to unexpected strangers. Then an old man came rushing in to inform the company that I had arrived with a bicycle—and, as I soon recovered the power of speech, friendly relations were easily established."

[2] HG Wells, The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll 

1896, 89 pages, $0.00. The only fictional account on the list, HG Wells's century-old novella is a fun and comedic quick read. Featuring love and laughs and plenty of adventure, the story follows Mr. Hoopdriver—and a few unexpected companions—on a week-long bike tour through nineteenth-century England. Having entered the public domain, it's also available for free as a universal e-book, plain text file, or full text page right here.

EXCERPT: "At supper that night, holiday talk held undisputed sway. Mr. Pritchard spoke of 'Scotland,' Miss Isaacs clamoured of Bettws-y-Coed, Mr. Judson displayed a proprietary interest in the Norfolk Broads. 'I?' said Hoopdriver when the question came to him. 'Why, cycling of course.' 'You're never going to ride that dreadful machine of yours, day after day?' said Miss Howe of the Costume Department. 'I am,' said Hoopdriver as calmly as possible, puling at the insufficient mustache. 'I'm going for a Cycling Tour. Along the South Coast.' 'Well, all I hope, Mr. Hoopdriver, is that you'll get fine weather,' said Miss Howe. 'And not come any nasty croppers.'"

[3] Tom Allen, Janapar: Love, on a Bike 

2013, 404 pages, $5.99. Books about bike tours can often struggle to find a story arc: a rising action and a climax and a resolution that threads the places and people of the journey together. Tom Allen's Janapar, then, is more than just a chronicling of his attempt to bike around the world—it's a story about seeking adventure and finding love instead, about what happens when an old dream comes up against a new one, a story about learning what's really important in life and getting yourself to that one pedal stroke at a time. When you're done with the book (I read it in one sitting, though your mileage may vary), there's a really excellent documentary ($4.99) to accompany it, strung together from Tom's video diaries on the very same trip. Both the book and the film are wonderful (but read the book first).

EXCERPT: "Like all the natons I've cycled through since I found myself alone, I have deliberately done as little research as possible about Sudan. If I know two pieces of essential information (how to get in, and how to get out again), that's all I want to know. I'm tired of the opinions I never chose to have, and I'm tired of being proved wrong, time after time after time. I don't want to arrive in a country I've never visited and expect to find myself in danger. I just want to arrive and to see what is put in front of my eyes. I don't want to know what someone else thinks the cheapest or cleanest hostel is, or where I can get the best street food in town. I want to find my own way, and whether I end up at the same place or not is irrelevant. And I don't want to know how old the ruins are that rise up from the sand, as impressive as Egypt's yet devoid of tourists. I want to wander around them in complete and utter ignorance, having stumbled across them by chance. I don't care whether or not I 'understand.' It's no longer important. It's not the point."

[4] Alastair Humphreys, Moods of Future Joys 

2006, 256 pages, $0.00. Like Dervla's Full Tilt, Alastair's Moods of Future Joys is a straight (though really enjoyable) retelling of a transcontinental bike journey from England to South Africa. Solo, self-supported, and often struggling with the rigors of his trip, Alastair does a great job of articulating the emotional side of bike travel: the ups, sure, but the downs too. He's kindly made the book available for free by PDF, though you can support the author by purchasing a Kindle-friendly or paperback version hereMoods of Future Joys covers just the first part of Alastair's 'round-the-world bike tour; Thunder and Sunshine picks up in Cape Town and follows him from Patagonia back to England, taking the (very) long way around.

EXCERPT: "At this time of year, tourists are few and the gift stall salesmen are lethargic like winter wasps. A bored onyx salesman described to me the idiosyncrasies of different nationalities. French people bought his products, Americans made a lot of noise but no action; the Japanese were too busy gazing down the alternate reality of their viewfinders, whilst the English politely said “no thanks” and claimed to have no money. Politely I pleaded no money, and moved on."

[5] Robert Penn, It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

2010, 209 pages, $6.99. This one's a bit different than the other's on the list. It's not about a bike trip, offers limited adventure, and isn't exactly all that exciting, but it's still a really informative read exploring the physics and the mechanics and the history of the modern marvel we call the bicycle. A contemplation of the various components of the bike, told by an author slowly building his dream bicycle from the ground up, it presents a fun bit of bike trivia and elicits plenty of respect for the innovations and imaginations that built the first "iron horse" and made it what it is today.

EXCERPT: "The bicycle saves my life everyday. If you've ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you've ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedaling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead; if you've ever wondered, swooping bird-like down a long hill on a bicycle, if the world was standing still; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary human touching the gods, then we share something fundamental. We know that it's all about the bike."

[5½] Mark Twain, "Taming the Bicycle"

1884, 28 pages, $0.00. Finally, a (true) short story from Mark Twain himself, in which he endeavors to ride an 1880s high-wheel bicycle (and fails, repeatedly). It's humorous and short and free (unless you want it in paperback, in which case it's $9.99 here).

EXCERPT: "When you have reached the point in bicycling where you can balance the machine tolerably fairly and propel it and steer it, then comes your next task—how to mount it. You do it in this way: you hop along behind it on your right foot, resting the other on the mounting-peg, and grasping the tiller with your hands. At the word, you rise on the peg, stiffen your left leg, hang your other one around in the air in a general and indefinite way, lean your stomach against the rear of the saddle, and then fall off, maybe on one side, maybe on the other; but you fall off. You get up and do it again; and once more; and then several times. By this time you have learned to keep your balance; and also to steer without wrenching the tiller out by the roots (I say tiller because it is a tiller; "handle-bar" is a lamely descriptive phrase). So you steer along, straight ahead, a little while, then you rise forward, with a steady strain, bringing your right leg, and then your body, into the saddle, catch your breath, fetch a violent hitch this way and then that, and down you go again."

Any bike touring reads you'd recommend? Let us know!


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