The Hungry Cyclist by Tom Kevill-Davies

Cover picture
Publisher: Collins
Year: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-00-727884-8
Date reviewed: 01.10

What a pleasant surprise this book was! Despite its messy and rather old-fashioned cover I picked it up in the bookshop because I like cycling and I like food, the two topics which are its raison d'être. Expecting another read along the lines of "I'd never ridden more than 5 miles on a bike before but I found this great little restaurant in Seattle", I'm glad to say I was not only wrong but drawn in and captivated by the unfolding story.

In 2005 Tom Kevill-Davies -- hereafter "Tom" -- gave up his job in advertising (bear with me here) to spend two years cycling first across then down through the USA, Central America, and the north-western parts of South America before taking a succession of boats down the Amazon to Belém, then back on the bike to cycle to Rio de Janeiro. He did this, he explains, to search out "the perfect meal". Before you groan in despair, it doesn't take long to realise that it's not so much the perfect meal he's looking for but whatever may be the best the local culture can provide. Not the perfect meal so much as really good local food cooked by people who know what they are doing and who enjoy other people's enjoyment of what they produce.

Starting out on this epic road trip as a self-confessed novice (the first chapter is called "All the Gear and No Idea") Tom had to learn how to be on the road, sometimes camping, sometimes sleeping rough, sometimes paying for a cheap room, always looking for something good to eat.

Anyone writing a book like this has the problem of selection. It's not what to put in, it's what to leave out. The last thing anyone wants to read is a day-by-day pedal-stroke-by-pedal-stroke account of 750 days in the saddle. Cyling across the plains of the American Mid-West is, lets face it, going to take a few weeks and is going to be boring. Tom appreciates this and spares us the detail, but he gives us a lively account of his experiences of cowboy culture and cuisine, not to mention overdosing on turkey in the self-proclaimed turkey capital of America. He does selectivity well.

Full marks too for not being precious. Tom does describe a few meals in restaurants that might make it into the guide-books, notably an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet in Banff Springs which, half-starved on arrival, he manages to make last over three hours. But most of the food he describes is from street vendors or roadside cafés or cooked for him by strangers who appreciate his interest and enthusiasm. He does try to get into The French Laundry in California which enjoys the reputation of having the best chef on the planet but despite being wait-listed for four days he doesn't get lucky.

As any solo traveller knows, the people you meet are important. Whether it's just for human contact or for more urgent things like help and assistance, food and shelter you need other people on a trip like this and it helps if you yourself are a likeable person. Tom must be, because so many people go out of their way to help him, whether it's in his quest for that special meal or when he's in difficulties - tired, cold, wet, exhausted. "The kindness of strangers" has become a cliché* but there are so many examples in this book that it has a powerful feel-good effect.

I can't close without mentioning that Tom also gives recipes, usually a couple at the end of each chapter. These try to be ones anyone could cook at home and are of course taken from episodes in his story. So if you want to know how to kill, pluck, gut and cook a guinea-pig Ecuador-style, look no further. Although to be fair most of the recipes are easier and less likely to deter the squeamish.

So is there anything to criticise in this book? Not really. Although Tom describes bad times when he felt lonely, bored, depressed, miserable, cold or ill I suspect he and his editor have been deliberately upbeat in minimising the space devoted to such episodes. Maybe I've been seduced by the romance and the lure of such an adventure; having the guts to do something which I don't think I would have done even at his age (see below), and other readers will find the book tedious. I hope not. It may not be great literature, but it reads well and in my view it is a good story of a great adventure. As one cyclist to another, "Chapeau, Tom!"

PS. The Hungry Cyclist has a website, and as I write he is eating and blogging his way up the Mekong River. One final question: why so coy about your age, Tom? I can't find it mentioned anywhere, though I have a niggling suspicion it was given away once in the book!

* "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." is the last line from Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire".

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Design, text and graphics by Tony Turton.
Copyright © 2010 Tony Turton
First published 8 Jan 2010