Coffee-table books about handmade steel frames have become a bona fide category within cycling books. The latest to join the market is “The Elite Bicycle” by Gerard Brown and Graeme Fife. The reason for the double-billing is that the publishers gave Brown, the photographer, equal status as the writer, Fife. This isn’t unheard-of in book publishing; it’s somewhat common with large-format photo books.
I note this because it is Brown’s eye that sets this book apart from others in the category. This isn’t frame porn—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and as a result, it’s a different sort of survey of high-end bike products. And it is truly that, a survey of bike products, not just frame builders. When I first opened the book, I’ll admit I was mystified. What the hell sort of collection was this? Based on the title, I was expecting lots of frame porn—loving shots of frame details interspersed with occasional shots of the master hard at work. But the book delivers something quite different.
The subjects Brown and Fife chose go well beyond the standard who’s who of frame builders. Sure, there’s Dario Pegoretti, Richard Sachs and Dinucci. But there’s also Seven and Cyfac. Where the collection gets interesting is when you note that Brooks, Selle Italia, Sapim, Spécialtés TA and even Mavic were included. While not a random collection, it was diverse enough that I felt a need to ask the publisher just what drove the assortment of profiles.
What I was told was that it was driven to a great degree by the photography—that those builders and companies chosen were those where Brown got the most interesting images. It was an answer I didn’t expect, though I can’t say just what answer I did expect. Upon opening the book again, I began to see it with different eyes. Rather than feeling frustration that there weren’t more detail shots of clean lug work, I came to appreciate that the photographer was interested in capturing something very different. While there are plenty of shots of craftsmen at work, as evidenced by the shot above, there are a great many shots ofthe space itself, atmospheric portraits of life as a frame builder.
Ultimately, what you come away with is something different; it’s the sense that you’ve spent an afternoon at the builder or company’s work space, that you’ve seen the work being done and then been left to wander on your own. You could unleash a dozen cycling photographers on the same set of subjects and very few would come up with anything so evocative. Turning the pages, I have the sense they contain the scent of Dario Pegoretti’s cigarettes and paint, the industrial smell of Guru’s carbon fiber, the perfume of Seven’s machine oil.
If you’re looking for the book that contains the definitive collection of frame builders and loving detail shots of their work, this isn’t it. Thank heaven. What Brown and Fife have brought to the reader is a look behind the torch, a chance to wander around the shop, even if that shop is nine time zones away. Published by VeloPress, The Elite Bicycle has a trim size of 11″x11″, contains 224 pages, is cloth bound with dust jacket and goes for $39.95.