Book Review: The Elite Bicycle: Portraits of Great Marques, Makers and Designers

Worth giving to any two-wheeled lover on your list — or just buy it for yourself

Cyclists are rare creatures in that their passion extends beyond the activity itself. Riding is usually No. 1, but the sport’s history and mystique are also fully engrained in the DNA of almost every bicyclist. This rich culture extends to iconic brands and personalities that have made modern cycling what it is today. In The Elite Bicycle: Portraits of Great Marques, Makers and Designers (VeloPress, $39.95), co-authors Graeme Fife (a sports journalist) and Gerard Brown (a pro photographer) present an intimate look into some of the most well-known names in the business, and by extension, give the reader a behind the scenes glimpse into the most lust-worthy aspects of cycling.

The duo have done an excellent job selecting a variety of people and companies to profile, including some of the lesser known bike builders both in the U.S. and abroad. The usual suspects are there to be sure, Richard Sachs, Independent Fabrication to name a few. But there are also amazing builders that you may have never heard of. Winter Bicycles out of Eugene, Oregon, for example, gets a full spread.

The authors also go beyond bicycle manufacturers, profiling the likes of Selle Italia, Chris King and Continental. At times one wonders if the list isn’t too extreme, though. For example, Faggin and Time are profiled, but there’s no mention of Colnago or De Rosa. If the book’s mandate is to profile true innovators and icons, there are indeed some oversights that leave the reader wanting more.

Left: Shots of Richard Sachs’ dropouts are just one of the drool worthy images the book serves up. Right: Component and accessory makers get equal treatment.

As for the writing, Fife has written for a wide range of publications including The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Rouleur, Cycling Weekly and Cycle Sport. What makes this book so fantastic is not so much what is said about the people and companies themselves, but the insightful, lesser-known tidbits that provide a greater depth of understanding.

Did you know that Columbus Tubing was not named after the family who founded the company, but rather for the white dove of peace that signaled the end of World War II? Turns out that roughly translated, “columbus” is Latin for “white dove.” It’s little gems such as this that are peppered throughout the already rich descriptions of people and place that make the profiles spring to life.

The flip side of this running theme, though, is that at times the narrative gets sidetracked with anecdotes and stories that seem off-topic relative to the main subject matter. Combined with Fife’s proper British voice, and this book does not lend itself to easy reading. But like cycling itself, easy does not always equal enjoyable.

Of course, photographs anchor any coffee table book worth its weight, and Brown’s images are nothing short of amazing. The reader sees not only the detail work of a bicycle, but also the soul behind it. Portraits capture both the person and the environment in which they operate. The close ups of a gorgeous Royce chainring or details of a well-executed Dinucci lug add richness that can’t quite be fully captured with words alone.

Both the technical and artistic are given fair weight in this book’s well written profiles.

Occasionally, though, details overshadow the whole, and one wishes there were more pictures of complete bikes or frames. For example, while Winter Bicycles is wonderfully profiled, there’s not a single picture of an actual Winter bicycle.

Overall, The Elite Bicycle: Portraits of Great Marques, Makers and Designers gives the reader something to ponder and remember upon putting the book down. In later days, pick it back up to reread favorite profiles or look at favorite pictures with ease, a feature which defines any good coffee table books.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)
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