The narrator of Joe Mungo Reed's We Begin Our Ascent is Solomon, a professional cyclist 12 days into the Tour de France. By the time he is introduced, Solomon and his teammates are well acclimated to the rhythm of the race, their performance manically monitored by Rafael, their directeur sportif. Racing is Solomon's life; he thinks people must see him as part man, part bicycle. It is only because of his wife, Liz, and their baby boy that Solomon can imagine a life beyond racing.
Reed swiftly draws the reader into the fascinating mechanics of the race, the heart-pulsing rush of daily mountain ascents and descents, the graceful, unified movement of cyclists through the narrow lanes of villages and mountain valleys. The cyclists grab water bottles and food as they ride, cheered on by fans as they forge ahead at breakneck speed. This is indeed a breathtaking inside scoop, a close-up view of racing as most of us will never experience it.
Hanging over the sport of competitive cycling, though, is the murky world of performance-enhancing drugs. Solomon and his teammates are already medicated to the hilt with pain killers and sugared up on energy bars and sweetened water. The only thing that matters is getting their team leader, Fabrice, to the finish line in as little time as possible. Too far along to object consciously, Solomon is simultaneously repelled and seduced by Rafael's efforts to push the team to the brink of their abilities. Reed's exciting debut compassionately illustrates the life-altering impact of treacherous competition. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer