As you’d expect from Sir Paul Smith, one of the great British designers of our age, his Cycling Scrapbook is a beautifully produced volume. The sort of book you savour as you turn each page. A book you’ll treasure and look after and show off to your friends. It’s an eclectic collection of photographs, magazine and newspaper clippings, adverts, cycling jerseys, stunning oil paintings, bicycles and profiles of famous bike riders.
It’s all pulled together by a heartfelt, genuine and personal reflection on his love of the bike and the sport in a fascinating narrative stretching from humble childhood beginnings to his exalted status as Knight of the Realm.
In an eloquent prologue he explains how his love affair with cycling began as a boy in the unglamorous surroundings of a British Legion hut on Thursday nights in Beeston, Nottingham in the 1960s. Here, he would meet with fellow members of his local cycling club and listen in awe to the older riders talk knowledgeably about the likes of Bartali, Coppi and Anquetil. In this way the young Paul, who had never travelled abroad, immersed himself in a culture and “the names of the great riders were like punctuation marks in this young man’s life.”
Later, in an easy and conversational style, he explains how he saved to buy his first road bike from a part time job in a petrol station. Eventually he had enough to venture to Italy itself and spent his entire holiday budget on a red leather cycling helmet and leather gloves with mesh backs.
The book begins with a section devoted to his cycling heroes. No surprise that the stylish Coppi and Anquetil feature high on his list. Of course, Tom Simpson, that tragic hero of British cycling who died near the summit of Mont Ventoux is up there too. In fact, Smith seems to be drawn to other figures who experienced heartbreak, pain and suffering in the same way that many of us are engaged by this brutal and beautiful sport so that I was continually nodding in agreement with his thoughts and passions. Karl Kopinski’s stunning oil portraits depict the determination and anguish of those wonderful riders vividly.
That romance of a world beyond the British legion hut, of riders with style, mountain climbs beyond the imagination of an Englishman, jerseys emblazoned with exotic graphics advertising foreign products like Perrier or Martini had a huge impact on the young Paul and he set his heart on a career as a professional cyclist. Sadly a bad crash put an end to those dreams, but other doors opened. One feels that it’s his sense of style that really set his heart racing when he thought about the cycling world and he has an entire section devoted to ‘The Look’. It covers the wonderful graphics on jerseys and artwork on posters that we are returning to now as legions climb aboard the retro bandwagon.
I relished the chapter on his collection of both old and modern cycling jerseys and the section on the lovely bikes that are scattered about his office like works of art. But Smith is not just obsessed with a nostalgia for a bygone age. As recently as 2013 he was asked to design the Maglia Rosa for that year’s edition of the Giro d’Italia. He avidly follows the fortunes of Mark Cavendish, who he counts as a personal friend, and David Millar writes an introduction to the book. He also devotes a decent chunk to modern cycling heroes such as Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy. So, rather like the fashion that he designs, a mix of both classic tailoring informed by a modern, forward looking approach, his love of cycling pays homage to the greats of the past but is not stuck there. As he says, "It's possible to retain a strong affection for the past, while keeping your eyes firmly on the present or future...nothing really separates Coppi from Cavendish. To love one is to love both."
This book celebrates both the old and new worlds of cycling, therefore, and does so with great passion. The countless images can be pored over for hours. But unlike many a coffee table book, it is Sir Paul’s honest and heartfelt text that makes it stand apart. It really is a scrapbook and being so, offers an intimate insight into the thoughts, interests and passions of a fascinating man. I was fortunate enough to find half a day that was completely free to immerse myself in it. If you’re able to carve out some self-indulgent time, I couldn’t recommend a better way than to spend it in the company of Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook.
Paul Smith’s Cycling scrapbook is on sale from Foyles or Amazon for £20.37 from 23rd May.
Paul Smith's Cycling Scrapbook by Paul Smith and Richard Williams, designed by Alan Aboud, is published by Thames & Hudson.