Some books are just in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Richard’s Bicycle Book was one of them. At one time, probably about 1977 or 1978, I would have bet that everybody that I then knew had a copy of Richard’s Bicycle Book somewhere. This was obviously true of the bike freaks - but was also true of all the civilians. A few, seemingly normal, people that I knew had carefully read every single page of it several times - and made copious illegible notes in the margins. Looking at this modest paperback book today it is hard to explain why all this should be.
The book is a readable mixture of cycling history, cycling for beginners, cycle maintenance and cycle advocacy and campaigning. All very necessary - but not sufficient to explain its success.
The key to its success was its voice and tone. This was a book written by an intelligent, modern, ‘alternative’ person dealing with an intelligent, modern, ‘alternative’ subject, in an intelligent, modern, ‘alternative’ style. It was humorous, ironic and serious when it needed to be serious. And it held out hope, hope that you could master this slightly alien world of ‘cycling’, hope that you really could take your bike apart and put it back together so that worked better, and hope that, in a small practical way, you could change the world into a better place.
I had my gripes, in particular the technical advice did not always seem the best. Gary Smith of Evans Cycles in London has told me that he remembers Richard Ballantine not as a guru or an expert, but as a naive beginner, asking a naive beginner’s questions on his frequent visits to the Evans shop in The Cut in Waterloo. But then the book was for ‘new cyclists’ and who better to write it than an author who was new to cycling.
There was also a disturbing touch of Alex Comfort’s ‘The Joy of Sex’ about the combination of the cover shot of a bearded Richard Ballantine and the style of the line drawings, and what’s with that Nordic sweater? But such imperfections serve to remind the faithful that only Allah is perfect.
A true classic.
I have reproduced the pages that deal with derailleurs.