A book like no other, Paul Fournel’s “Need for the Bike” (translated by Alan Stoekl, University of Nebraska Press) conducts readers into a very personal world of communication and connection whose centre is the bicycle, and where all people and things pass by way of the bike. In compact and suggestive prose, Fournel conveys the experience of cycling – from the initial charm of early outings to the dramas of the devoted cyclist. An extended meditation on cycling as a practice of life, the book recalls a country doctor who will not anaesthetize the young Fournel after he impales himself on a downtube shifter, speculates about the difference between animals that would like to ride bikes (dogs, for instance) and those that would prefer to watch (cows, marmots), and reflects on the fundamental absurdity of turning over the pedals mile after excruciating mile. At the same time, Fournel captures the sound, smell, feel and language of the reality and history of cycling, in the mountains, in the city, escaping the city, in groups, alone, suffering, exhausted, exhilarated.
In his attention to the pleasures of cycling, to the specific “grain” of different cycling experiences, and to the inscription of these experiences in the body’s cycling memory, Fournel portrays cycling as a descriptive universe, colourful, lyrical, inclusive, exclusive, complete.
You never climb the same Ventoux twice. Every cyclist has a memory of a glorious ascent. The one I did with my sister one delightful morning, in Provençal harmony and the north wind. The one Jean-Noël Blanc did on the closed road, between two walls of snow, in a Ventoux his alone.
In the same way, everyone can remember leaden days when, suddenly, for no reason, the bike freezes, blocked on the asphalt. Those days of cold sweat, days when the fruit rots in your pockets and when, very quickly, a dull anguish seizes your heart. (…)
There are no more landmarks in these nightmare climbs. Your eyes stay glued on your front wheel, and it’s your innards you’re staring at there, without really seeing them. The friend who was climbing so slowly down below passes you. In slow motion you cut a mule trail in the straight grain of the road. Cars honk their horns. You don’t even think about going back down. You’re not thinking about anything any more.
The Ventoux has no in-itself. It’s the greatest revelation of your-self. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you’re in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.
Besoin de vélo, Points Seuil.
Need for the bike, translated by Alan Stoekl, University of Nebraska Press.