During the year we’ll be keeping our eyes on the best cycling books published, in preparation for the second SweetSpot Cycling Book of the Year Award in the Autumn.

Brendan Gallagher will be reviewing as many as possible throughout the year as we cast the net as wide as possible before drawing up our 12 strong shortlist early in December.

Faster by Michael Hutchinson is our second review, which explores the obsession, science and luck that goes into making a bike go fast.

Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Published (March 27) by Bloomsbury £12.99
Review by Brendan Gallagher

Regular readers of Michael Hutchinson’s Cycling Weekly column will be well acquainted with his sideways look at the often bizarre world of cycling and those rum characters who inhabit it, not least himself. ‘Hutch’ is a considerable cyclist himself – endless national Pursuit titles and a couple of fourths in the Commonwealth Games – and a fine wordsmith to boot. A legal academic by training, a journalist by inclination and a stand-up comedian when the urge takes him Hutch is more than happy to poke fun at himself and his sport if he starts getting bored with either.

Hutch knows all the endless science behind cycling but he also has the ability to step outside the subject matter and point out the patent absurdities and inconsistencies. He is wowed but not blinded by the sports science and more than once I have looked on his column as my unofficial translator of ‘cycling speak’ which can on occasions make Urdu seem as simple as ABC.

I listen dutifully to various cycling gurus, performance analysts, bike designers et al who can let’s face it get rather carried away with their own theories and perceived importance. If they are all so right all the time why do their riders often mess up so spectacularly is often the unworthy thought that crosses my mind but I accept totally that many are basically on the right track. As an invaluable fail-safe bullshit check, however, I will sometimes double check what Hutch has written on the subject

So if you enjoy Hutch’s columns you will enjoy this book which to a certain extent defies pigeon-holing but is essentially a free-booting extension of his weekly musings where plain common sense and unlikely left field theories competing equally for the available space.

During the course of seven chunky chapters Hutch chews the cud on just about everything related to performance, training and riding faster on a bike. In so doing it also becomes an object study on sporting obsession – his own and that of kindred spirits – and net result of that is a comprehensive and eloquent understanding of the psychology of sport which is where I suspect his greatest talent lies. When he tires of writing there is a ‘proper job’ for him out there with GB or Team Sky because he has valuable ability to scythe through the rubbish and get to the heart of a subject.

You will soon note that there is no real mention of winning, either in the subtitle of the book – “Faster, the Obsession, Science and Luck behind the world’s fastest cyclists” – or indeed the body of text itself. You might think that winning is the only thing that really matters to a professional or highly dedicated amateur cyclist trying to maximise their performance but of course unless you are Eddy Merckx or possibly Mark Cavendish that is a long way from the truth.

Charly Wegelius never won a race in his long successful professional life, in fact most of the time he was paid specifically to train to perfect the art of not winning, i.e. serve as a world class domestique. There are scores of top riders who come into that category. There are also some riders – Oscar Pereiro comes immediately to mind – who have won the Tour de France without winning a stage or ever crossing the line first other than that imaginary GC finish post in Paris and as Hutch points out even somebody like Sir Chris Hoy only got to race – and win – in earnest four or five weeks a year – Olympics, Worlds, Nationals and the odd invitation meeting. Its not like a footballer or team sport players when you will be granted 50-60 opportunities every year to satisfy your need to win and/or score goals.

Many cyclists – contrary to expectation – actually find a motivation other than pure winning when trying to maximise their performance because that experience can be fleeting and rare. They either buy into the on-the-road lifestyle and camaraderie of a team environment, the process of training itself and improving year on year month by month, or sometimes despite everything the sheer pleasure of dashing around roads at speed, feeling at one with the bike and feeling as fit as it is possible for you to feel. Hutch is very good on this subject and it pulls you up in the cynical post Armstrong era.

Another subject Hutch is hot on is training and recovery and getting the mix right which particularly fascinates me because in that perverse journalistic way of mine I love pointing out riders and athletes generally who perform wonders after long bouts of injury and sickness, apparently random performances that must drive the sports scientists bonkers. The classic case of course if Jonathan Edwards who basically spent three months ill in bed early in 1995 with Epstein Barr virus and then rose Lazarus-like to produce a string of the greatest triple jumping performances in history and a World Record (18.29m) which stands to this day, 19-years later. Having read Hutch I now understand that Edwards had probably been ‘over-training’ for years and what his body was crying out for was a long enforced lay off – which obsessives will only take through injury and illness – for the body’s necessary and advantageous adaptations to occur.
And so on. There is something for everybody in this intriguing potpourri of a book and to delve too closely now would be to spoil some of your enjoyment. You never quite know what’s coming next. There will be stuff which has you nodding your head enthusiastically in agreement and stuff you will possibly dismiss with a defiant curse. One thing I can guarantee is that you won’t be indifferent.

You can find the book online here or in all good book shops from 27th March.