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Book of the Week: Need for the Bike

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

What I physically feel is the need for is fatigue. More precisely, the range of subtly different kinds of fatigue. For just as there exist a hundred ways of feeling good on the bike, there are a hundred ways of being tired.”

"Few sportswriters fancy themselves members of the literary avant-garde, but Frenchman Paul Fournel is the real deal. In his carefully cadenced prose poem Need for the Bike, translated by Allan Stoekl, he shares a passion for the sport matched only by his love of language." (Bicycling)

Need for the Bike is a bit if a hybrid, that can both be described as a very personal memoir and as an organic, philosophical reflection on our relation to not only the bike, but the great joys and struggles it allows us to reach. The book is a collection of two page long essays, accompanied by illustrations by Jo Burt, each reflecting upon a specific aspect of the experience of cycling. Fournel seeks to describes the ambivalent relation to sport and to the body, which can both be a means of finding oneself, of dealing with one's emotions, of punishing oneself. the numerous paradoxes of the exhilarating feeling of freedom when one is riding at full speed, of becoming one with nature when immersed in a beautiful landscape, but also of being eternally tied down to the bodily, the mud, the difficulty of freeing oneself from this material reality.

It is also a very sensuous work, with the author seeking to describe and encapsulate all of the feelings, emotions and thoughts arising from physical exertion, and the dreams of glory that must assail every amateur cyclist.

Interestingly, riding also appears as a preliminary activity to writing. To quote from the introduction: “Fournel the rider is Fournel the writer – on the bike words form and off the bike they are shaped by the rhythm and effort of the ride…Writing is the after-effect of riding…”.

"If the bike has ever touched you, Fournel's prose poem to two wheels is essential reading. For initiates to the Sunday gruppetto, it is an education; for ageing rouleurs, it is a lens on everything you hold dear about the beautiful machine." (Robert Penn)

"A beautiful and lucid evocation of all that is best - and worst - about riding a bicycle, by a writer for whom cycling and life are simply inseparable." (Michael Hutchinson)

Need for the Bike is published by Profile Books and it was translated by Allan Stoekl and Claire Read.

Paul Fournel is a French writer, poet, publisher (Hachette, Honoré Champion, Seghers) , and cultural ambassador. He was educated at the École normale supérieure of Saint-Cloud and wrote a master's thesis on Raymond Queneau before publishing Clefs pour la littérature potentielle ("Keys to potential literature") on l'Oulipo. He joined the Oulipo in 1972 and is currently the Provisionally Definitive Secretary and President. From 1996 to 2000 he was director of the Alliance Française in San Francisco, and from 2000 to 2003 he was the French cultural attaché in Cairo. He was also France's cultural attaché in London. His Anquetil, Alone was published in English by Pursuit.

Allan Stoekl is a professor of French at Pennsylvania State University, the author and editor of a number of books, and the translator of Maurice Blanchot’s The Most High (Nebraska 1996). and comparative literature.

His works focus on twenty and twenty-first century French literature and Philosophy as well as issues of energy use and sustainability.

After graduating from the University of Reading, where she was a contributor to the uni newspaper, Claire Read turned towards writing, editing and managing editorial projects. A keen follower of cycle sport, she has been involved in several projects revolving around the bike, such as translations for Paul Fournel, penning a feature for Soigneur Cycling Journal and writing for BIKE Channel UK.

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