Except as an alternative means of transport, cycling does not receive a very good press in England, if indeed it gets any attention at all. Cyclists are seen as a perverse minority who enact strange and brutal rituals for grim, unknowable satisfactions. Bicycling just isn't glamorous. It's what you do before you learn to drive, or can afford a car. Cyclists shave their legs, can't offer lifts to girls and wear horrid clinging shorts that show off, but at the same time cruelly shrink, their genitals because all the blood goes pumping into their legs (that's what they tell you, anyway).
The Escape Artist is not the much-needed apologia of cycling that one might expect. Instead, Matt Seaton celebrates the sport's otherness, its unpopularity, its cruel demands and its cruelty. Cycling, he admits, attracts "dour, phlegmatic, insular types; the type of person who gets up at 4.30am on a Sunday morning to ride . . . is not the soul of the party on Saturday nights". Seaton himself seems to fit the bill. He describes how he took up cycling seriously only after his first love affair - with the Communist Party - came to a bitter end. To maintain his sense of belonging, he joins the fraternity of cyclists. With its secrecy and unacceptability to the mainstream, cycling is perhaps the closest substitute.
Seaton is a late starter, and his cycling career lasts only a few gruelling seasons before real responsibilities - marriage and children - and then the death of his wife (the journalist Ruth Picardie) from cancer, first interfere with and soon entirely curtail his life in the saddle. However, these years are enough time for him to progress from uncommitted enthusiast to devoted club member to fully fledged road and track racer and time trialist, competing in national and even international events. He learns to relish the early morning training sessions, the physical pain, the endurance, the inarticulate male friendships, the knowledge that he is going to give his all and still never be a winner. He learns the lore and the laws of the sport, "cycle racing's strange blend of co-operation and competition" and "the complex system of shifting temporary alliances" that become ever more ruthless and unpredictable as the finish approaches. The decline of the sport, the lack of sponsorship, the rusting village halls, the unkempt and unloved stadiums hidden behind suburban terraces, acquire - for Seaton and for the reader - an inverted and faded nostalgic glamour.
Cycling becomes an obsession and, as with all obsessions, the greater the price it asks, the happier Seaton is to pay it. Cycling is central to this memoir, as it was in Seaton's life (he even took his bike on honeymoon), with reality making unwelcome intrusions. It is only when tragedy strikes that he makes an overdue revision of his priorities, and even then it is grudging and gradual.
With its theme of private male obsessions and their tenacious hold on their victim in the face of greater responsibilities, The Escape Artist covers some of the same ground as Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, but it is a very different book: sadder, wiser, less fun, less annoying. By reflecting on the sport's determined amateurishness, exclusion and pointless pain, Seaton lures the reader far more effectively into the world of British cycling than he would had he tried to promote it.