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Exploring bigger questions than many in the sport are perhaps accustomed to, in terms of success, perfection, and even the meaning of cycling as a sport, The Art of Cycling brilliantly combines author James Hibbard's former career as a professional cyclist in the USA in the 1990s to mid 2000s with his education and passion in philosophy.
A delicate balance of storytelling and putting his life and cycling into philosophical context, Hibbard manages to produce a dynamic yet insightful read. Unlike any other cycling book I've read, it focuses less on the intricacies of cycling, and more on the intellectual side of the sport.
Why did this surprise me? Particularly from a former pro (although admittedly not in the European peloton) in the infamous 1990s era, I expected to read more of the inner workings of the professional peloton and misgivings of that particular time in cycling. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find Hibbard provides an interesting history into his career, but from a more internal aspect. Not so much about what happened or when, more of how he felt during particular times.
There's a section where he describes his time as a rising track star, fresh out of the junior ranks and with a professional contract with the Shaklee cycling team. Hibbard was, as it goes, rather handy on the track in his junior years, but as soon as he turned elite he began to feel the rumblings of disillusionment. Beginning to ask questions about the motivations of why he wanted to win, who for?
It struck me that you often read cycling autobiographies and find that yes, some of the best riders in the world are 'troubled', but you don't often get such a fascinating insight into the mind of a rider questioning everything they've trained and dedicated their lives to.
Alongside the recollection of his career, Hibbard lays out philosophical theories and explains them well in the context of the chapters. You're introduced to everything from the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche to the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. While at times I did find it a little hard going, it's certainly thought-provoking and introduces you to ideologies and questions you may have already had but not been able to put into words.
Finally, there is the third aspect of the book. After putting down the bicycle upon retirement, an idea for a multi-day trip along the west coast with two former pro friends reignites Hibbard's enjoyment for cycling. This is particularly pleasurable to read, especially if you have ever felt a lull in your love for riding a bike.
From the first steps back into training, to the feelings and emotions that arise from being able to finally feel like yourself on the bike again – and eventually, the trip itself – it's all well written and personally my favourite parts of the book. Instead of a traditional 'here's what we saw, here's where we went' description, each day instead focuses on the highlights of places visited and the relevance they have to the author and his past.
I imagine this book was quite cathartic for Hibbard. He writes openly, speaking of past traumas, emotional troubles and mental health. All of this is highly appreciated and allows you to fully delve into the psyche of Hibbard the racer, the retiree, the father, husband, and son.
The Art of Cycling has been shortlisted for 'cycling book of the year' in the sports book awards 2022, further demonstrating how well written and engaging it is. As one of the flurry of cycling books I've read this year, I genuinely enjoyed the different style of this book. Without giving anything away, I'd say you don't even need to be a cyclist to benefit from reading it, and anyone with an open mind about philosophy will find it worthwhile.
A very enjoyable three-pronged narration delving into the intellectual and philosophical side of cycling and beyond
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road.cc test report
Make and model: The Art Of Cycling by James Hibbard
Size tested: Paperback
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
From the publisher, Quercus:
'A meditative love letter to the sport of cycling, THE ART OF CYCLING traces the journey of a former professional racer regaining his love for the sport and shows how cycling can shed new light on age-old questions of selfhood, meaning, and purpose.
Interweaving cycling, philosophy, and personal narrative, THE ART OF CYCLING provides readers with a deep understanding into the highs and lows of being an elite athlete, the limits of approaching any sporting pursuit from a strictly rational perspective, and how the philosophical and often counter-intuitive lessons derived from sport can be applied to other areas of life.'
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: The art of cycling
Author: James Hibbard
Date: 03/06/2021 – paperback published in 2022
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The intertwining of the author's past career, his post-retirement journey back on the bike, his multi-day adventure along the west coast of the states, and the continuous discussion on relevant philosophy.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Occasionally overly lengthy passages on somewhat difficult to read philosophical concepts.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
Despite so much going on in the book, I felt Hibbard tied it all together nicely and fluidly without it feeling like either a textbook or autobiography. A very enjoyable, mind-broadening read.
About the tester
I usually ride: Bianchi Oltre XR1 My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 5-10 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, sportives, general fitness riding, mtb, Gravel