Friday, September 7, 2012

Vélivre: Travels with Rosinante

"Hey! Hobo on a bike!” That’s what my 12-year-old son said when he looked at the photo on the cover of Bernard Magnouloux’s classic Travels with Rosinante: 5 Years’ Cycling Round the World. And the boy is bang on. Bernard Magnouloux (BMag) does, indeed, look like a hobo on wheels, what with his grizzled beard, patched up mish mash of a wardrobe, and beat up bicycle loaded with all manner of suitcases, ratty sleeping bag, and what appear to be the pelts of several wild critters. All that’s missing is the pole with a red kerchief wrap.

 In fact, if you were to plop a big garbage bag of empties on his handle bars, he wouldn’t look out of place among the bottle-picker homeless dudes who reside in the river valley near my house. Funny thing, though—I doubt BMag would be offended by the hobo remark. If anything, he might take it as a compliment. For BMag’s cycle travel stories are all about celebrating the nomadic, non-materialistic journey. All anyone really needs, he implies, is a simple, inexpensive bicycle and a spirit of adventure. The rest will take care of itself.
This book has a reputation as a classic of cycle-travel literature; I’ve seen it mentioned on many best-of lists. Perhaps because of the hype, I may have expected too much. I actually found the first part disappointing. But that’s due, I think, to the anecdotal structure of the book. BMag certainly has a way with the brief yarn; he knows how to hook the reader in and tell an entertaining tale. Few of the chapters are more than 3 or 4 pages long. Those (like me) looking for a substantial, coherent, long-form travel narrative may be disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for a rousing collection of short, amusing and/or harrowing cycling anecdotes, then this book’s for you. I did eventually come around to the anecdotal approach. In fact, the short chapters make it a perfect bathroom book; that’s where I read most of it.
The best feature of the book is BMag himself. He’s funny, self-deprecating, eccentric (he ties his moustache to his home-made spoke earring to keep the stache from blowing into his mouth), optimistic, literary (he tells us what book he read while crapping his brains out during a spell of dysentery—Shelley’s Frankenstein, of course), even poetic, by turns (of the kilometre sign posts in Chile, he says, “I would mow them down in dozens singing in the silence of their deaths”). He is, as they say, a “charming character,” who has a way of making friends and getting out of jams wherever he goes. (Even when he’s getting rocks thrown at him by locals in Egypt, he makes a joke out of the ordeal.) You get the sense, though, that BM is self-aware; he knows how his charming hobo schtick comes across, and he is willing to perform the moves of the clown in exchange for some hospitality. 
Like any good hobo, he prides himself on his ability to live frugally, by his wits, preferring to camp rough and to rig up makeshift solutions to problems (for instance, he fashions sandals, straps, and cushions out of recycled tires and tubes). When necessary, he takes work until he’s got enough cash to head back on the road. When faced with adversity, he sweet-talks, finagles, or flat-out pedals his way out of trouble. This hobo has no need for a shotgun.
One of the things I love about this book is the portrayal of BMag’s bicycle, Rosinante (named, of course, after Don Quixote’s horse). It’s a beat up but trusty old wreck, a classic underdog, totally overmatched, and constantly falling apart. But BMag just keeps patching it up, at one point using string to hold the disintegrating tire onto the rim. (The pictures of the bike alone are worth the cost of the book.) Part of his mission seems to be to prove that you don’t need a fancy bike to travel around the world—just perseverance, the right attitude, and a little ingenuity. Rosinante could be the poster-bike for the Just Ride campaign.
The only parts of the book that made me cringe were the naughty bits about his sex life on the road. BMag talks frankly about his amours, including some intimate details that I kind of wished he’d kept to himself. Speaking of a liason with a woman he meets in Botswana, he actually says, “My hands then began to anoint her small hard breasts.” Anoint? Really? Is he kidding? No, he’s just French.
You don’t often get such details in a cycle-travel account, but in BMag’s defence, this book was written in the 1980s, when there was still a 70’s hippy hangover effect (free-love and all) in a certain kind of nomadic travel narrative. In this regard Travels with Rosinante reminded me of Ian Hibbell’s Into the Remote Places, another 1980s supposed cycling “classic”; Hibbell’s book, however, more sexist, hokier, even a tad creepy in places, in an eye-roll inducing way. BMag’s descriptions of his love life are never creepy, just a bit embarrassing, in an almost-sweet thoroughly French way. (Think Guy Lafleur reciting that corny love poem to his wife on Hockey Night in Canada.) And BMag is such a charmer in other respects that I suspect most readers are willing to cut him some slack on the romance front.
I found the brief section on BMag’s travels in America especially interesting, for here he experiences a kind of metamorphoses, from cycling hobo into semi-serious cycle-traveler/celebrity. He acquires a new, fancier bicycle for this leg, Rosinante II (courtesy of Peugeot), blinged out with “sports computer,” and takes to wearing a helmet (something he makes fun of earlier). In the pictures from this part of the trip he even appears to be wearing cycling shorts. The pelts are nowhere to be seen. He makes money for his trip by delivering slide-show talks to cycling clubs. But this leads to a schedule, the need to get places to deliver talks, and a certain amount of stress that comes with a performance schedule. BMag has a brief taste of the cycle-traveller’s version of the American capitalist rat-race, but then returns to his hobo roots for the final part of his journey through Asia.
By the end I had warmed to BMag’s charming-anecdotes-of-a-cycling-hobo style. I can see why it’s considered a classic, and I can imagine that it may even have inspired some readers to grab the nearest bike, strap a suitcase on the back rack, and hit the road. With or without animal pelts.   


  1. Interesting, and instructive about how the way we read (what we want as readers) affects WHAT we read. Or is it the other way around--cyclical even?

  2. Thanks, Gerry. Funny how that expectation thing works. I have a feeling that Hillsdale will more than live up to the hype.


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