"Gears for Queers" by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper is one of those books that catches you unawares. There's an understated magic that comes from the simple recounting of a remarkable endeavour that draws you in and keeps you engaged.
You get a good sense of what the book is about from the rear cover blurb: "Keen to see some of Europe, partners Abi (she/her) and Lili (they/them) get on their bikes and start pedalling. Along flat fens and up Swiss Alps, they will meet new friends and exorcise old demons as they push their bodies - and their relationship - to the limit. This frank look at mental health and the challenges of staying true to yourself while travelling offers a fresh perspective on the familiar bike tour."
The trip took place in late summer/autumn 2016 and each of the 88 days it took Abi and Lili to cycle from Amsterdam to Montpellier on the French Mediterranean coast, and then cross into Spain, is given a short chapter written by one or the other of them. Except for one day that proved particularly difficult for their relationship, which is given a chapter written by each of them.
It is, frankly, hard to pin down just why I like "Gears for Queers" so much. It may partly be because it brings back echoes of two other books that I've loved for many years: and interestingly both are mentioned by Lili in their parts of this book. Perhaps any account of a journey that starts in the Netherlands and follows the River Rhine down through Germany is going to be compared with Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic story of his 1933 journey in "A Time of Gifts". Very much in passing it emerges that Lili's love for this book helped inspire their trip with Abi. And the account of a journey of discovery set against a background of struggles with mental health is very reminiscent of Robert M. Pirsig's classic US motorcycle trip described in his "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a book that Lili and Abi picked up in Amsterdam.
That's pretty exalted company: but "Gears for Queers" is much more than an account of the increasingly desperate daily search for open campsites as the season draws to a close; and of the daily grind of pushing yourself physically and mentally to - and beyond - the limit; and of anxieties about interactions with strangers. And there are some really lovely moments. At one point they are amused by the highly dramatic German sign denoting a nature reserve, a green triangle with a silhouette of an eagle. A few moments later Lili is nearly knocked off their bike by an eagle taking off.
This is a memorable, enjoyable and thought-provoking book that can be highly and widely recommended.