The cycling fuguer

Brian Castro‘s latest novel The Bath Fugues explores, amongst other things, the connection between cycling and the dissociative state of flight known as the fugue where one is removed from ones own identity and freed to roam uninterrupted through time and place. Bath Fugues

 – Sufferers usually had two alternating personalities; a kind of double consciousness. Doctors first discovered these cases in 1885, in Bordeaux. Then in the 1880s gleaners, tramps and vagabonds discovered the ‘safety’ bicycle and an epidemic of fuguers was reported. It was a kind of pathological tourism. Economy class. They terrified pedestrians, these travellers, poor workers for the most part, who did not appear out of nowhere. They had history on their side. They were stuck to their bikes in their ‘other’ state like former knights on their horses.

While we may not wish to lay claim to the psychiatric condition, I like the connection with dissociation and flight. Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in the saddle will identify with this:

I ride over the wooden bridge. I breathe in the river, measure the approaching hill, absorbed by the idea that all motion in the world is rotary, sitting yet moving, stationary while in motion, no gap and no pause as the world flies by the still point of my circular reference, one foot down, the other up and vice versa, repetition and difference, point and counterpoint, everything reciprocated through perfect control, filtered through detachment.


But cocooned inside oneself on a bicycle, at speed, seeking the path of least resistance in the perpetual present, one could be aloof, obsessed, inaccessible and thoroughly aware.

 The first part of the novel is called ‘Becketts Bicycle’, referring to the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, who is only one of many famous and not-so-famous cyclists who pedal across Castro’s pages.

 Indeed, he belonged to a secret society of bicyclists . . . Thomas Hardy, Mircea Eliade, Bohumil Hrabal, Eugene Ionesco, Eddy Merckx, Slobodan Milosevic, Gavrilo Princip, Jozef Skvorecki, Tzvetan Todorov, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, George Dwyer and the philosopher De Selby.

Brian Castro, The Bath Fugues (2009)

My review of the book for the The Australian is here.



thomas hardy

Thomas Hardy


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Is it about a bicycle?

Third Policeman‘Michael Gilhaney, said the Sergeant, ‘is nearly sixty years of age by plain computation and if he is itself, he has spent no less than thirty-five years riding his bicycle over the rocky roadsteads and up and down the hills and into the deep ditches when the road goes astray in the strain of the winter. He is always going to a particular destination or other on his bicycle at every hour of the day or coming back from there at every other hour. If it wasn’t that his bicycle was stolen every Monday he would be sure to be more than half-way now.’

            ‘Half-way to where?’

            ‘Half-way to being a bicycle himself,’ said the Sergeant.

            ‘Your talk,’ I said, ‘is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.’

            ‘Then watch the bicycles if you think it is pleasant to be surprised continuously,’ he said. ‘When a man lets things go so far that he is half or more than half a bicycle, you will not see so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (1967)

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A person and a bike


2002 Cover image


Jacque Anquetil, five-time winner of the Tour de France, used to take his water bottle out of its holder before every climb and stick it in the back pocket of his jersey. Ab Geldermans, his Dutch Lieutenant, watched him do that for years, until finally he couldn’t stand it any more and asked him why. And Anquetil explained.

A rider, said Anquetil, is made up of two parts, a person and a bike. The bike, of course, is the instrument the person uses to go faster, but its weight also slows him down. That really counts when the going gets tough, and in climbing the thing is to make sure the bike is as light as possible. A good way to do that is: take the bidon out of its holder.

So, at the very start of every climb, Anquetil moved his water bottle from its holder to his back pocket. Clear enough.


Lebusque is from Normanby, just like Anquetil. He claims to have raced with him twenty-five years ago. And to have come in before him on occasion.

I usually come in before Lebusque.

Lebusque is really only a body. In fact, he’s not a good racer. People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind of course, is the rider. That this mind has recourse to two instruments, a body and a bicycle – both of which have to be as light as possible – doesn’t really matter. What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.

Tim Krabbe, The Rider (1978)

OK, Tim Krabbe’s The Rider is the best novel about cycling ever written. While he claims it was never meant be a metaphor, just a book about cycling, for those of us who have ever raced (at whatever level), it is so much more. It transcends the physicality of the race and reads as something of a cross between Camus’ l’Estranger, with all its existential angst, and the best piece of cycling journalism you could hope to read.

Krabbe is a Dutch writer, cyclist and chess player who is best known by English readers for this novel and for his 1984 novel Het Gouden that was made into possibly the most horrifying film I have ever seen, The Vanishing (1988). Don’t bother with the 1993 American remake; it’s rubbish.

Krabbe has recently returned to cycling after a 25 year year break and earlier this year won the 90k road race (65 years and older) in the 2009 Senior Games in Middleburg. I would like to think he beat the the rider from Cycles Goff.




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