Earlier this year, I got on my bike and for the first time, attempted and completed a multi-day cycle trip. For me, it was the 171-mile Way of the Roses, a coast-to-coast ride from Morecambe in the west to Bridlington in the east. Each day I got up, ate a (pretty hearty) breakfast, packed my panniers and got on the bike, rode through beautiful scenery on – usually – peaceful roads, and in the evening ate an even heartier meal and slept – for just four days it was a lovely routine and a bit of time out of life, out of the daily grind.
The book I took with me in the front bar-bag was Anna Hughes’ Eat, Sleep, Cycle. In 2011 Anna decided to attempt a ride that dwarfs my little achievement – not the standard Land-End-to-John-O-Groats run either, but a 4,000 mile circuit round the entire coast of Britain, starting and ending in London.
A book I considered but didn’t take with me is Mike Carter’s One Man and his Bike – on the face of it, a similar book – again, in 2008, Mike took time out of the rat-race, got on his bike and rode round Britain’s coast – but the books are sufficiently different in style that a ‘compare and contrast’ review is worth it.
Firstly – Anna’s book is closer to my own experience as a cyclist. Straightforward, authentic and cleanly written (despite her admission of being a first time author), Anna takes a nature-focussed, descriptive view as she passes through the counties. Her sparse and often quite poetic descriptions give a lovely feel for the geography, the weather and the day to day experience – her own low points included, when she barely found the will to carry on. Anna is clearly sustained by a love of fish and chips! It was a real pleasure for me after each day of my own ride, to read a few chapters of Anna’s book as a prelude to a very sound sleep.
Although she frequently rode accompanied, Anna’s focus is self-discovery, but not in a fey chakra-balancing way, you simply get the feeling that the solitude and time to think out her life is something she needed, the reward for her endeavour. I finished the book feeling like I’d ridden with her and liking her immensely.
Mike starts his book, clearly adrift – a 45-year old freelance journalist at the Guardian, but tired and demoralised, contemplating going to South America, fed up of the broken-Britain selfishness that was all around, worried about the economic crash which was unwinding in 2008. One day he just didn’t cycle to work and started to ride the coast instead.
Mike’s book is much more densely written and event-filled, with a lot more human encounter and dialogue. During the journey he proves to himself that Britain is anything but ‘broken’, that the spirit and yes, the gorgeous eccentricity of our people can carry us through anything. Mike’s character is intelligent and likeable, his prose is sharply observed and often funny and I particularly loved his encounter with the obnoxious Dutch cyclist on Mull! Mike seems to have the journalists’ knack of finding the story, or often the story finding him, and made for a rich and rewarding read, in many ways more true ‘travel’ writing, although a few other reviewers have commented that he seems to rush through the final leg of the journey.
So which is better? Well, I don’t like to make the comparison. Both books convey the highs, the lows, the pain and exhaustion, the adrenalin and joy that is cycling. Mike’s is, I would say, better writing, but Anna – not a professional writer – somehow spoke to my own experience more. The two books appeal to different parts of my head and there’s nothing to lose by reading both. I know Anna herself has read Mike’s book and enjoyed it. As ever, your own mileage may vary!
Eat, Sleep, Cycle – A Bike Ride Around the Coast of Britain, Anna Hughes, Summersdale, 319pp.
One Man and his Bike – A life-changing journey all the way around the coast of Britain, Mike Carter, Ebury, 343pp.
One Man and His Bike