Book Review: Bespoke (Tom Bromley)

I was recently working on a piece for Cycling Weekly on Imposter Syndrome and realised one of the reasons cycling can seem such a mysterious world (even to really competent riders) is the history and the language. We may know that simply grabbing our bike and going for a ride is enough to make us a cyclist – even if the ride is just commuting to work or to the café to meet friends – but deep down when we know there are hundreds of years of stories of races, riders and roads we feel we can’t be a ‘real’ cyclist until we have learnt a lot more.

That is where Tom Bromley’s book Bespoke comes in. It is a beautifully illustrated, highly knowledgeable encyclopaedia of cycling. Everything you might need to know to feel like a ‘real’ cyclist and feel less of a wally in group rides or on the club WhatsApp groups when secret squirrels, badgers or herons come into discussion. It covers the big races, the key riders, prizes, interesting stages, nicknames, tactics, cheating and a who is who in any race. It is super easy to read, great to pick up and put down when time is short and breathtakingly illustrated. So many cycling books are full of photos of people cycling which is fine – but this is full of fabulous illustrations I would willingly frame and have on my wall. Helpfully it was being published just as my piece was coming out so he was happy to send me a review copy and chat about the book.

Tom told me he had edited a number of cycling books over the years and it was the history that he found triggered his interest. “Historically, before cycling was on TV, if you were interested in racing you had to dig the stuff out so it became very exclusive and a few people built their knowledge so had more control and power of other people.”

He was keen to break open this secrecy and give more people the power. “Cycling has always been a slightly secretive clubby thing. When the British started time trialling they had to be done secretly by yourself in the morning. Even positive elements like the secret squirrel club looking at ways to tweak and improve where hidden away. This cultural element means cycling sometimes doesn’t feel as welcoming as it should be.”

The lack of cultural accessibility to cycling is odd he says as in many ways cycling is more accessible than any other sports. He points out the Tour de France is on open roads and anyone can go along to watch for free but the cultural secrecy makes it feel less welcoming to ‘outsiders.’ This is before we even touch on the fact it is still predominately white at pro level and female riders are treated as second class in terms of pay, days of racing and equipment. His book opens up the options to feel like less of an outsider.

Tom says his book should give you a little bit of grounding in the knowledge and history of the sport so when watching a race or talking when riding you’ll have more knowledge of where it comes from so it feels easier to fit in. In doing so you suss out the rules and etiquette of cycling and can appreciate cycling as a fan much more. So, if you feel you need to learn your Lantern Rouge from your Poursuivant or your Commissionere from your Soigneur, Bespoke is a really lovely book to do it with.

Book review: Start at the End

Dan Bigham is a cyclist and engineer who wanted to use his engineering knowledge to have a crack at the national team pursuit championships. I won’t give too much of a spoiler but the process went well and gives a story we all love to read; the wannabe’s underdogs taking on the establishment and overcoming. His book covers this journey. It does it in a really accessible way and in doing so highlights the lessons we too can use to hit our own goals.

Dan and I have entirely different backgrounds; he is an engineer and I am a psychologist, so I was dubious how I would find this book. In fact, the only thing I thought we had in common is that we ride bikes (him fast, me pootling), but having read it, it seems that engineers have more in common with sport psychologists than I could ever have imagined.

Dan’s premise as an engineer is if you start with the goal you want to achieve and work backwards then you bypass all the assumptions and historic ways of doing things and you can be far more effective. The more usual process is that we start with what we know and tinker a little to make things better. Dan’s approach strips everything back to basics. Assuming nothing. Or, if there are assumptions, assume there are better ways to do things. He describes his approach as reverse engineering: Set a goal, forensically take it apart, assess your resources, develop your tools, set the plan in motion and deliver the performance. Exactly the route many of us in sport psychology take. Not just in approach but also with specific mental skills we often teach; goal setting, process over outcome, preparation, mastery focus, performance profiling, the importance of your environment, managing the hassles and stressors you are subject to and the additional watts that happiness gives us.

Ten points I particularly loved:

  1. Being yourself is central to success.
  2. Knowledge is more important than talent.
  3. You need inspiring goals.
  4. Innovation comes from passion first – perseverance, success and money will follow.
  5. Don’t look at the competition and what they did to get there – look at what route would work for you.
  6. Try to get ideas sex: The cross fertilisation of different sources or disciplines to give a new way of looking at things.
  7. Ask lots of questions – and encourage others to do so too – and share the answers widely in the team.
  8. Measure what matters.
  9. Data is only valuable if you proactively use it to improve performance.
  10. You need people to be involved in the process if they are going to adopt the outcomes.

Start At The End isn’t just a great story – but a really nice reminder of how to approach performance forensically, intelligently and purposefully – and these lessons don’t just belong in cycling but in all areas of high performance.

It publishes 13th May and is available for pre-order at the usual places like Waterstones