Every Christmas my mother buys me a book. We are book people, and the gift is a great way to reconnect with each other over the words that have knit us together since I was a kid raiding her shelves to stoke a literary curiosity which, thankfully, burns on.
In recent years, this book has been a cycling tomb. The Death of Marco Pantani, Merkx: Half Man, Half Bike and Laurent Fignon’s We Were Young and Carefree have all appeared beneath my tree, and so I have come to associate the holiday with cycling books, if only because it’s the one time of year I get a few days to read in (mostly) uninterrupted stretches.
If cycling literature is part of your holiday as well, you might consider Andrew Homan’s Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour, Sr. Walthour was a leading light in the turn-of-the-century racing scene in America, an Atlanta bicycle messenger turned velodrome sprinter and pace-following pioneer.
For those who have read and enjoyed Todd Balf’s Major Taylor biography, Homan’s Walthour treatment fills in that history with sketches of still more of the characters who populated early pro cycling in this country. While the mercurial Georgia boy serves as main character, the really compelling thing about the book is the way Homan conjures the passions of rapidly evolving sports entertainment.
Part endurance sport, part daredevil show, the cycling of those times was big business and the nation was in thrall to its drama and personalities. Much the way Balf’s book shone the light on an era when cycling was king, Homan’s book reinforces the idea that sport as entertainment was born of the same forces that gave us, by turns, baseball, basketball and football, a reminder that any sport’s time in the limelight can be generationally fleeting.
Homan writes in the McPhee style, the story moving forward on a tide of well-researched details brought vividly to life with the odd, well-chosen adjective. The author knows that, in Walthour, he has all the character he needs, so he dutifully stays out of the way to let the story tell itself. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read. You might finish it in a few sittings, maybe off to the side of the holiday proceedings, with a cup of coffee or a (small) glass of egg nog.