Two Wheels by Greg Moody

two wheelsAn unusual treat: I read this book all of my own choosing.

Two Wheels is the first in Greg Moody’s series of murder mysteries framed by the professional road bike racing world. Naturally, it is set in Europe, although the main characters are Americans. Jean-Pierre Colgan is the world’s best, and leader of the accomplished Haven team, sponsored by Haven Pharmaceuticals. He is a cocky and not entirely likeable character, which is a fine thing because he dies in the opening pages when his brand-new, high-tech American toaster explodes. In the first quirky turn, we then see Colgan enter heaven – or something like heaven – where he is greeted by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi. Anquetil, on the other hand, won’t speak to him.

Next we meet the American Will Ross, a washed-up retired racer drinking himself stupid in Belgium, who inexplicably gets hired to replace Colgan on the Haven team. Will is as surprised as anyone, still more so when his ex-wife turns out to be part of the team’s management. With no love lost between them, her position only makes his hiring more confounding.

Cheryl is the team soigneur, also American and regretting the recent end of her own race career. She and Will get off to a rocky start, but she will turn out to be an ally. Tomas Delgado is team mechanic, and an old friend of Will’s: good news. The rest of the Haven squad is understandably unhappy to have Will join them, but he is just starting to get the hang of things again – find his legs, and his lost passion for the sport – when the body count begins to rise. Colgan’s death, of course, was no accident. Somebody seems to have it out for the Haven team, and Will finds himself attempting an awkward impromptu investigation, in the interest of saving his own skin. Oh yes, and there is French detective Godot, who reminds us of Columbo and seems to be imitating that American icon on purposes. There is a thread throughout the story of the tension between American and French culture: television, slang, American football versus professional cycling.

Two Wheels is not quite a cozy, as the murder weapon of choice is plastic explosives and the results are pretty bloody; but it fits into the sub-genre of mysteries defined by their framing elements. The plot of the mystery itself is enjoyable, if not especially remarkable unto itself. Will is a little slow on the uptake as investigator, and a big coincidence revealed late in the book falls a bit short of credible. As a mystery, then, Two Wheels is fine but not unique. The cycling motif is more distinctive, and adequately well done; the pain and love of the sport, the pavé of Paris-Roubaix and the climbs of La Ronde van Vlaanderen are convincing. Moody is at his best when he works with Will’s self-deprecating humor; for lyrical praise of the road I recommend Tim Krabbe’s The Rider instead; but the whole package is perfectly entertaining, often funny, and overall loveable. Obviously, Two Wheels will be most appreciated by those who share Moody’s and Will’s love for the sport. I think it could be the start of a promising series.

Rating: 6 kilometers.

book beginnings on Friday: Two Wheels by Greg Moody

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

two wheels

I am having a rare break between paid reviews, and undertaking a lighter read. Two Wheels is “a cycling murder mystery,” and a bit silly, but fun. It begins:

“It’s good to be king,” he thought. Jean-Pierre Colgan stood at the window, staring out over a dazzling Paris on a drizzling late January Sunday. Despite the rain and the gray overcast, it remained a dazzling Paris because it was a Paris that belonged to him.

I like the interplay of dazzling / drizzling.

It will not be a spoiler (because it happens in the first few pages, and is stated in the back-of-the-book blurb) to tell you that Colgan is killed in a bizarre explosion involving a high-tech American toaster. (The troubled relationship between French and American cultures – centrally in television and sports – is a theme.) So, not king for long.

Stay tuned.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.


Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 bidons.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.


Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.

This review originally ran in the February 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 clicks.

two-wheeled thoughts & Teaser Tuesdays: Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Two-wheeled thoughts is my own.


I am very excited about Luigi’s Freedom Ride, a novel that accomplishes what Life is Beautiful did in film: a story about the horrors of World War II, but that is also funny, joyful, hopeful. And bicycles! Really! Go out and get this one. Review to come, but I wanted to share two bike-related lines that amused me.

Who there could possibly doubt the determination of this young, fit, self-assured bicycle man?

Who, indeed? Yes, I regret that this has to be so man-centered; but to give a little context, the setting is a 1930’s war-bound Italian culture of machismo – and the next lines are spoken in a military training camp.

All that truly mattered was mastery of the bicycle, and the unbreakable, manly bonds that flowed from such mastery.

Manly bonds! And with that I leave you.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

two-wheeled thoughts & Teaser Tuesdays: Offcomer by Jo Baker


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Two-wheeled thoughts is my own.

Offcomer is a fine and rather hypnotic first novel – by the author of Longbourne, but before it – only now in its first stateside publication. There’s a lot to it, but I was struck (of course) by these lines.

The bike was cool and damp after a night in the back yard. She wheeled it, ticking like a grasshopper, through the house and out the front door, bumped it down the steps. She pushed her right foot into the toeclip, swung into the saddle. Shuffling the other foot into its clip, she tacked slowly up the hill. The gears clicked into place with the certainty of a problem solved.

I love that it ticks like a grasshopper, and that the gears click like a problem solved. That is as it should be.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.


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