This is an exciting account of James McLaren's attempt to beat the world record for the fastest cycle across Europe. The journey begins in Ufa, Russia and proceeds through 9 countries to reach the coast in Portugal. The focus of the book is the incredible human effort required to undertake this feat. It is a race against time so there is little insight into the culture and people of the countries, but you feel like you are right there with James. His fast paced and personable writing style draws you into this world of emotion, physical pain and sheer joy.
The book begins with a great opening that perfectly captures the nerves at the start of such a journey:
"What am I doing? I thought to myself, as I sat in a room on the ninth floor in a nice hotel in Ufa, Russia, staring at my bike all boxed-up in cardboard."
From that moment I was hooked on this book, wanting to find out how this journey will progress, what will happen along the way and if James will beat the record.
Chapter two is where we learn of James' background, his life in Devon, his interest in cycling and why he wanted to attempt the record. There is nothing particularly unusual here and I was desperate to get stuck into the record attempt. Likewise, I was keen to get past chapter three which is about James' training regime, although it does give you a good idea of the amount of effort that is required to embark upon such a project.
What made me really warm to James and to care about his journey was his honesty about the highs and lows. There is no ego here and you just get the impression of a normal guy wanting to do something amazing with his life. He knows that a month long cycle trip is insignificant compared to what many sports people have done, but he choose it as something that he thought was personally achievable. He had read about the previous record and the daily mileage was something that he felt he was capable of exceeding.
The relentless pace of 8 or 9 hours cycling each day, broken only with short rest stops to eat and then sleep at night, made it difficult to put the book down. I found myself routing for James and wanting him to reach his daily target of 120 miles. At the end of each day's cycling the book displays a statistics summary showing the mileage and average speed. I was cheering inside when the daily target was exceeded on particularly challenging days and James has quite a few of these. In particular, his journey across Poland was marred with horrendous knee pain.
I found it fascinating to read about the logistics of a trip like this. For example, although James travels with a tent it is sometimes a dilemma for him to choose the tent or a hotel for a night. The advantage of hotels is that it saves time in the morning as there is no need to pack up the tent and gear and allows an opportunity to dry out soaking wet clothes using a hairdryer. However, the disadvantage is that hotels can restrict the route and mean that James might have to stop short of his mileage target. The record attempt requires meticulous record keeping, such as photos, stats from a cycle computer, a log book and witness signatures. Despite being exhausted in the evening James must spend time on this paperwork. Food is simply fuel on this journey, so you will learn nothing of the wonderful foods of Europe. Fast food, kebabs and whatever can be found in petrol stations end up being a mainstay of James' diet, although he does describe the joy of French patisserie.
I liked the inclusion of James' photographs of the journey, appearing every few pages- camping spots, hotel rooms, the open road. They add to the pace of the book, brief impressions of places, just passing through, life on the road.
With a record attempt it inevitably means that there is simply no time to enjoy the sites of the countries that James powers through. There are very few encounters with local people; this is very much a solo affair. There are some short interactions with other cyclists. There are some descriptions of pretty towns and scenery, but nothing too detailed. If you are looking for more of a cycle travelogue you will not find it here, but that's not what this book is about. If you have ever wondered about taking on a long distance cycling record then this book will give you a very honest account of what it involves and it is no vacation, that's for sure! The final few pages of the book are an amazing adrenaline rush as James reaches the end of the journey, it's great writing.
I really enjoyed this book and if you would like to buy it on Amazon just click on the image below:
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.