Alf Engers – ‘I Like Alf’ – book review


i-like-alfYou can’t do time trialling in the UK without becoming dimly aware of a mythical figure called Alf Engers. Emerging out of that ‘golden age’ of the 60s and 70s when timetrials ruled the road, you pick up the odd snatched comments about the first sub-50 minute 25 mile TT on a road bike (no TT bars). Riding in the middle of the road. Brushes with authority. The London baker doing a night-shift to 3 am and then breaking records at 6 am. Even now, as the author mentions, you can still hear the phrase “But, what would Alf Engers have done?”

It all amounts to whispers from the past and, in the absence of direct testimony, you place your subjective impressions above any reality. Muffled opinions in between the course codes and obscure regulations. The funny thing is whenever I met the late John Woodburn, he would always tell me how he had to start a time trial with a working bell, and when he got around the corner from the start-keeper, he would throw it off in disgust. It’s a shame I never asked about his times racing with Alf Engers. It never occurred to me, but that’s one of the many things I learnt from the book.

The thing about legends of the past is that you never quite know fact from fiction, exaggeration from reality. Timetrialling doesn’t tend to throw up too many characters; it’s a sport for the nerds and obsessive attention to detail. A rock star in a sheepskin coat who snubbed his nose up at the stuffy RTTC by riding too fast has all the makings of a great story.

“I Like Alf” on the way to New York

When I heard Paul Jones would be writing a book on Alf Engers, I thought somehow that this was a match made in Heaven. If ever a writer could do justice to a biopic of ‘The King’, it was P. Jones – who can make even sparsely populated hill climbs sound exotic and exciting. Except with Alf – ‘Heaven‘ is perhaps not quite the right epitaph; more like a “match made in Heaven – with a touch of the devil’s mischief thrown in for good measure.”

If there is a drawback to the book, it is short. I read in two days. But, it reminds me of the pastor who gave an interminably long sermon of two hours – and when asked why his sermon was so long, he responded that he didn’t have time to make it short. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that. The benefit is that the book moves along at a great pace, evoking the spirit of the times from post-war Britain to the slow evolution of parochial time-trialling. At last, I have a direct understanding of Engers. – What made him tick, what he did for the sport, the great battles of the past – all within the context of today. It was like finding out that Robin Hood is a real historical figure, and he was a pretty decent bloke to boot.

Alf Engers

As a story, you couldn’t make it up. It is hard to understand why a full-time baker could be banned from the sport for five years (age 22-27), because he had one failed season as an independent. It seems the spirit of amateur endeavour were lost in the rules, regulations and prejudices of the time. It is Alf’s comeback which is really the riveting part of the book. National records, complaints, counter-complaints, detractors and supporters in equal measure – it is all told with great pace, humour and sympathy to the rider who was breaking both records and pulling the RTTC out of its carefully controlled past.

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The world of cycling according to G – Review

geraint thomas

geraint thomasThe world of cycling according to G  at

The world of cycling according to G at Waterstones

I received this book a couple of weeks ago. I enjoyed reading it, and it is one of the more interesting insights into professional cycling. You feel a strong sincerity in that this is how Geraint Thomas sees cycling and life, there’s no sense of pretence or writing what a pro cyclist is supposed to say. From those looking from the outside, it is interesting to read.

The story of Geraint Thomas’s career is well-timed because it neatly co-incides with the rise of British cycling. Thomas along with the likes of Ed Clancy, Mark Cavendish were some of the very early members of the British Cycling development squad run by Rod Illingworth, the squad which went on to achieve Olympic success and then perhaps more impressively success on the road.

The book is written in quite a light, easy to read format; (it is written with Tom Fordyce). It is good humoured and generally quite a positive insight into professional cycling.

It is not written like a chronological autobiography. “I won Olympics, then rode for Sky… ” But, focusing on particular aspects of cycling separated into short chapters. For example:

  • The Fringe benefits of being a professional cyclist (e.g. Being brilliant at go-karting racing, getting drunk very cheaply…)

thomas-geraintGeraint Thomas 2015 Ghent-Wevelgem

  • Rain
  • The Perfect Ride
  • Cafes
  • When the Wind Blows
  • I never take the stairs

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Kings of the Road – Review

Crowd come to see Alf Engers finish

Kings of the Road – A journey into the heart of British Cycling – Robert Dineen

Kings of the Road – is a look at some of the characters which helped to form British Cycling in the post-war period, but who have largely remained relatively unknown to the wider public – and even to hardcore cyclists themselves.

The author has chosen to interview quite a motley collection of characters,  I don’t know whether it was a conscious choice or not – but the cyclists involved, invariably seem best be described as ‘outsiders’ – people who did things in their own way and didn’t necessarily get on with the authorities as best they might.

Some of these relatively unknown riders, will be quite well known to the timetrialling community – Beryl Burton and Alf Engers are the Queen and King of British time trialling in the golden age of the sport. Their names stand out in the list of past winners because they are the kind of rider and character who really left their mark on the sport, giving a glamour rarely associated with timetrailling.

Crowd come to see Alf Engers finish
Crowd come to see Alf Engers finish

Certainly they deserve their own chapter; it was particularly interesting to read the interview with the mercurial Alf Engers – who even now after all these years – has a certain mystique – the rebel without a cause who drilled holes in his handlebars and more importantly bestrode the Blue Ribbon event – the 25 mile TT championships like a timetrialling colossus. He also reduced the 25 mile TT record to unheard of levels. (49.24 in pre tribar days)

Another rider who had only briefly flitted across my radar was Colin Sturgees. The super-talented youngster who used to beat Chris Boardman in the individual pursuit. One went on to Olympic gold and British cycling ubiquity, Sturgees path took another, more tortuous and winding road; illustrating the fine line between success and failure – especially in such an ephemeral sport as cycling.

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The Rules – Velominati Review


the_rulesA couple of years ago, I received a copy of –  ‘The Rules – The way of the cycling disciple‘ by Velominati. It gave me a lot of food for thought. I enjoyed reading it, and I also enjoyed critiquing it.  The problem is that a part of me definitely aspires to join this elite group of cycling cool, but there are too many rules, where I am, alas, an abject failure. It leaves me only good for riding my time trial bike on a lone furlough, shamelessly exposing an ill fitting undergarment because I can’t get any arm warmers long enough to fit my stick like arms. I want to be in the club, but I’m a rebel without a cause.  I do like the aesthetics of a bike, but I can’t quite bring myself to schedule a 500ml water stop at a petrol station, just because 500ml water bottles look cooler than 750ml water bottles. Do they really look better?

Yet, even in my critiques, there is a nagging suspicion they are correct, and if only I was a better person – I would aspire to all 91 rules.


Cycling is more than just a sport and means of transport, it can be a way of life, a club with rules of aesthetics, class and elegance. Two people can go out on a bike with different results; how do you approach the bicycle, how do you treat it? Is it a means to an end or is it an end in itself? The rules of cycling remind me, in a curious way of the Japanese tea ceremony. Anyone can drink tea, but to drink tea in the proper way with great awareness, dignity and elegance elevates a mundane experience into an opportunity for the joy of perfection.

The big problem I had with the book is that it immediately got me off on the wrong foot.

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101 Damnations – dispatches from 101st Tour de France | Review


101-damnationsNed Boulting’s 101 Damnations ‘Dispatches from the 101st Tour de France‘ is an entertaining account of his perspective on the last edition of the Tour de France.

If you’re expecting a blow by blow account and evaluation of Nibali’s average power outputs on the final climb, you will be dissappointed. The actual race is very much in the background, a canvas to tell amusing tales – from the Tour de France’s very own public urinals to ruminations on the Anglicisation of the Tour de France.

Ned makes little effort to hide his disappointment as the major contenders slip and slide out of the tour. I actually remember many exciting stages of the tour – even if they were won by no-hopers in the overall standings. But, this is a minor quibble – this is not a book for aficionados of  detailed race analysis – it is a book which will appeal to those who like amusing stories about the the characters and idiosyncrasies which make up the Tour de France caravan.

If we have forgotten already, the Tour de France really did start in Yorkshire. As Boulting says – ‘Leeds to Paris’ – how often do you get to say that? Still, six months later I’m trying to digest the scenes of actually seeing the Tour de France go 2 miles from my home town. There is still an element of surreality to these memories of baking sunshine – as the Tour de France in Yorkshire passed by 3 million spectators, but more than anything the surreal aspect of cycling being so enthusiastically welcomed by nearly everyone.

Ned Boulting comments on the Tour in Yorkshire with a similar degree of astonishment, bewilderment and genuine excitement. This is a rather random excerpt from the chapter about the Tour starting in Leeds.

“…The sign age was in French, most of the languages being spoken were not English, and even the rays of sunshine that beat down on the makeshift courtyards between marquees felt unusually strong for Yorkshire.

It was curiously unsettling and not altogether  mediated by the presence of a truly terrible burger van knocking out gristly sausages in stale baguettes to a bewildered clientèle, more used to being served foie gras and gazpacho. I queued up behind a German, who asked for a ‘beef pattie’ The man looked at him as if he were simple. “We can do you a burger, pal.’

– This is not necessarily the most memorable excerpt from the book – it is a rather random choice – perhaps I choose it because of my strong recollections of cheap burger vans outside Headingley, Leeds which I would go past every weekend on the way to watch the rugby. Nevertheless it gives a flavour of the book. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy the humour and random recollections which give an unexpected insight into very small aspects of the race – be it the challenges of interviewing Mark Cavendish or working with the systematically efficient and methodical Chris Boardman.

As well as snippets from the current tour, the book is also an excuse to bring up lesser known stories which make up the great history of the Tour de France. Some excerpts from the past, like the legendary Roger Rivière’s, tragic drug induced high speed crash are reminders of the chequered history of the tour. But, no matter what happens, the stories give the over-riding impression that the Tour is an unmoveable force which not even getting stuck in Pyrenean mud can hold back.

But, although there are plenty of whimsical moments and analysis of disappointing aspects, you can’t hide Boulting’s genuine almost innocent enthusiasm for the sport and the Tour de France – this is quite refreshing.

I read the book all the way to the end, which is praise indeed. I would recommend it if you would enjoy a light-hearted look at the Tour de France. The final word is that the humour is quite British; I’m not sure how quickly it will be translated into German or French, I fear something may get lost in translation.

Buy the book online

Related pages

Mountain high review


Mountain High is a compilation of 50 of ‘Europe’s greatest cycle climbs by Daniel Friebe and Pete Goulding.

Mountain High arrived through the post at a fortuitous time. It was the day the Giro d’Italia was due to ascend the legendary Mount Zoncolan, in northern Italy. I went straight to the section on Mount Zoncolan to read about the mountain.

Mount zoncolan – Serafino


Widely considered one of the hardest climbs to be used in procycling, Mount Zoncaolan is one of the epic climbs of European racing. Hopefully, it will be remembered for it’s steep slopes and dramatic backdrop rather than for the ‘stupid spectators of 2014’ – who seemed to have a field day on that particular stage. (youtube video of closeup)


Mountain Zoncolan from Priola – av.gradient 13%. Heigh gain 1,140m – length 8.9 km.

The book gives us lots of fascinating insights into the riders and climbers. For example, In 2007, Gilberto Simoni said climbing Mount Zoncolan was a like a slow, steady execution. ‘Mortifying’ was the adjective he used. He used a 34*27.

For each 50 climb, you get a good overview of the climb and also rich snippets of history and racing, which give even more drama to the climbs.

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Faster by Michael Hutchinson Review


fasterFaster: The Obsession, Science and Luck behind the World’s fastest cyclists‘ by Michael Hutchinson is a look at what makes the world’s elite cyclists go faster. Is speed due to natural talent, genetics, training, diet,  cutting edge technical equipment or a combination of all of these? During his investigation, Hutchinson reveals a lot about his own personal journey / obsession with going faster, which is both revealing and humorous. He also gets to interview some of the leading figures within the successful British Cycling / Team Sky set up.

I read it pretty fast, and enjoyed it because:

  • I share a similar obsession with trying to go faster on the bike (though realising I haven’t spent the past 10 years sleeping in an altitude tent does make me feel a bit like an amateur)
  • It is written well, with a good sense of humour. This is a big plus for another cycling book. Somehow Hutchinson can even make the law of turbulence seem entertaining (not that I really understood what he was saying about turbulence) If there is one criticism of his writing style, there is often one too many sub-clauses; the end of the sentence is quite divergent from the start – but since I’m quite prone to liberally adding sub-clauses myself – it’s a fault I’m happy to forgive.
  • Within the several chapters, there are a few nuggets of wisdom which actually might help me go faster (or at least save me thousands of pounds in spending money on things which aren’t worth the outlay.)
  • It’s a bit of a coup to get so many interviews with the hierarchy of Team Sky and British Cycling. There is often good advice from the Team Sky / British Cycling coaches. I like the fact pro-cyclists say they don’t mind sharing interval sessions. As they say it’s one thing to know what to do, it’s another thing to actually do it.

Personal journey

I never relate so well to general cycling ‘text’ books on how to go faster. But, I do enjoy reading the personal experiences of cyclists who have been there and done it, especially if they do similar races to myself. It is interesting to read the highs and lows of Hutchinson’s career from going too hard at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games  (finishing in 15th place – though Hutchinson says he could never bear to look where he finished) to a creditable 4th place in 2006 and 2010. Overall, you get the impression of someone enjoying the process of trying to go faster, even if it involves some crazy decisions. But, this ongoing effort seems to mean as much as the 50 domestic national titles. Important for those who don’t have 50 national titles.

I took this photo at the 2010 National Champs – Hutchinson talking to B.Wiggins. The third rider is some unknown amateur, such is cycling.

Power figures and different types of riders

These days, there is always an interest in power figures (especially when you’ve just bought one and think it might be broken because the power output is much less than you would like to say). If I remember correctly, Hutchinson says he peaked at 470 watts for a 10 mile TT. His recovery rides are at an average power that I might struggle to do if I went all out in a 10 mile TT. Power figures are not dropped in just to boast about, there is usually a point, often self-deprecating as to why very big VO2 max and high power figures are not necessarily enough.

Just to prove the point, I can claim to be one of the very few people to beat Hutchinson in a time trial, when I wasn’t even riding a TT bike, but a humble road bike. (2012 National hill climb on Long Hill). That’s the beauty of cycling, Hutchinson can catch me for 16 minutes in the National 100 mile TT, but when the road goes uphill, it can favour a completely different kind of rider. From the likes of track sprinters like Chris Hoy to mountain goats like me, there is a huge range of disciplines which suit different riders. This is something the book explains quite well Hutchinson was built for endurance time trials. A near perfect physiology, but a cautionary reminder, even with 50 national titles, there is always someone more talented, more lucky in the genetic lottery, or better at training and all the rest.


I read the book in two days, but, I’m already struggling to remember what I’ve read. It is definitely the kind of book which benefits from careful reading, and also reading a second time. There are some concepts which are more complicated than just ‘pedalare’  The irony of reading the book, is that I approached it very much with the same motivation as Hutchinson approaches cycling – what can I take out of this book which  makes me go faster on the bike? I’m sure many cyclists will relate to that constant questioning of life decisions

– but, what will make me go faster?

It’s the question always at the back of your mind. The book helps to clarify how as athletes we carry this motive around with us. It’s not quite that we need to set up Aerodynamics and Speed Freaks Anonymous, but it is a humorously cautionary tale on the fine line between dedication and obsession.

Nuggets of Wisdom

After reading the book, some nuggets of wisdom which I remember:

The best skinsuit may make substantially more improvements in aerodynamics than upgrading your bike. Why spend £7,000 on a new time trial bike, when you can spend £1,000 on a cutting edge skin suit? (because the bike looks better?) If you really want to go faster for free, forget breaking into a bank to find £7,000 for a new bike. Try breaking into British Cycling headquarters and find those skinsuits put in a cardboard box after the UCI decided they were too fast. Somewhere in a Manchester cupboard is aerodynamic gold.

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