Tuesday 5 February 2008

Book Review: Ten Points

Ten Points: A Memoir
by Bill Strickland

There are not a lot of books that try to get into a cyclist's head and describe his emotional state. The rare exceptions which probably qualify as literature are Tim Krabbe's The Rider and Matt Seaton's The Escape Artist but another book surely must be considered in this small number.

“Ten Points” is the story of Bill Strickland, Executive Editor of Bicycling magazine, and how one summer he promised his daughter Natalie that he would earn ten points racing in the Thursday criterium bike race near their home in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. Bill is in his late 30s, by his own account a racer of impressively modest accomplishment, and his competitors are a motley assemblage of some of the top racing talent in the United States. His odds of getting ten points are pretty poor as he starts his quest but he wants to keep the promise to his daughter. But the challenge extends far beyond the ten points as Bill Strickland turns what on the surface appears to be a middle-aged man’s quixotic quest into his need to use the bicycle to bring meaning into his life. He wants to use the discipline, the pain and even the anger of bike racing to overcome his past and build something stronger and more meaningful with his family.

This book is not really about bike racing, but the accounts of the Thursday night races are wonderful in their detail and drama. The other racers–with nicknames like the Animal, Speed, Bird, Steak and Purple Jersey, are talented and dedicated but they seem to operate at a totally different level than even well-trained hobby athletes. The author learns with each session out on the road, but all too often he lacks the physical ability to keep pace. The description of amateur bike racing, and what goes on in your mind as you try to work the pack, is exceptional.

Bicycle road racing is unlike other amateur pursuits, such as softball or bowling or even running 5Ks, where you can be mediocre or even lousy but still participate. In a bike race, once you have dropped from the pack, you get pulled out of the event by officials–humiliated as well as depleted. And most beginners are left behind within minutes, if not seconds.

As well-told as the racing sequences are, what makes the book rivetting is the author’s juxtaposition of his life with his wife and daughter, with their domestic vignettes and his loving details of his little girl growing,, with his own childhood where the accounts of the abuse inflicted on him by his father are so appalling they come at you from the page with the quality of a nightmare, as if you are not actually reading what is on the page. It has taken courage to write this and skill to make the reader stay with the story in spite of all natural inclinations. But going for the ten points is part of Bill’s therapy, the way he comes to terms with what he is and how, as a loving father and husband, he must act to protect his family from the self-destructive monster inside of himself.

As time passes, Bill learns not to try to win each race but to merely stay at the front and fit into the rhythm of the pack. He reads the other riders and discovers that he has an exceptional talent for riding in the rain but he can only use this as long as the officials do not end the race prematurely. He discovers that if he allows the anger inside himself to speak uncontrolled, it will cause accidents and not gain him points.

The season moves inexorably towards the end and Bill has become a better rider but is still not up to ten points. It will take a small miracle to get there but Bill’s realization towards the end is that there are small miracles around him that speak more importantly to who he is. Throughout the book one can sense his sense of wonder at fatherhood and his recognition of the sometimes painful compromises needed to make a marriage work, and the bright rewards of love.

Ten Points is beautifully written. Holding up the mirror is often painful to those who must gaze upon it but Bill Strickland looks back as a real bike racer and, more importantly, an honest man. This is worth much more than ten points.

Ten Points
by Bill Strickland
241 pp., hardcover
2007, Hyperion Press, New York


andy said...

are you sprocketboy on amazon?

Sprocketboy said...

Yes. I figure that once I go to the trouble of writing a review for my blog I may as well post it there too.

Will said...

thanks for the review!

Looks like a fascinating book.

you and I share the love for "The Rider"

If this is a fraction as good I am in.