one unfamiliar with the sometimes dark but always fascinating detail of the Tour
de France, Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Le Tour is much like the history of a
family - the difficulties, milestones and grudges that inexorably knit together
cyclist and fan.
Le Tour A History of the Tour de France, released today,
undertakes the daunting task of chronicling the race for its 100th running, and
the author draws from many sources - war, religion, nationalism, regionalism,
language and one man's relentless drive to sell newspapers - to weave a great
narrative of the great race.
Even compared to this year's Tour, which has just gotten underway in quite
fantastic fashion, the Tours of old are hardly conceivable - stages that started
at 11 in the evening or even at 2 o'clock in the morning, and ran, seemingly,
forever.... The first Tour in 1903 was six stages, comprising 2428 kilometers, a
staggering distance even if the riders rested for several days between, but put
in perspective, the winning time on the first stage of the first Tour was just
under 28 hours.
And it would not have come to be were it not for the Tour's
mastermind, Henri Desgrange. Originally a publicity stunt, he adapted the race
year to year, sometimes during it, to correct some perceived deficiency or
personal dislike, but always with the long view of the race bolstering his
paper, the Auto, which was, of course, printed on yellow paper. Almost as fascinating as anything else about this tale were his machinations.
Indeed, over the early decades of the le grande boucle, Desgrange's
decisions and even his newspaper editorials literally shaped the sport into what
it is today. An example is the term "domestique," originally printed in
1911 by the disgruntled editor as an insult to rider Maurice Brocco. Even what
became modern scoring and the exact purpose of the yellow jersey or maillot jaune
were either recrimination or stunt.
Whether or not a well-laid plan, which is doubtful, there is no doubt Desgrange
would roll in his grave at France's continued inability to dominate the race but
for brief periods (which he tried mightily to remedy, leading to even more de
rigueur of today's sporting rules), and the completeness of modern team
commercialization, called sponsorship today, which he loathed, particularly in
the early days when Alcyon's riders ruled the road. Of course the riders bore
the brunt of this evolution, and not just through sheer distance (the longest
Tour was 5745 km, though by the mid-1930's the race had become much "kinder").
Some years, the riders rode under the threat of time trials (which they
hated) if the race speed fell below a certain mark in a day. They were penalized
for using a teammate's bicycle without the proper clearance, not taking care of
their issued jerseys or for not making their own repairs (as Christophe at the
famous forge of Ste-Marie de Campan). They suffered from too much wine, and from
sabotage - dismantled wheels and nails deliberately strewn in the road.
And though Tyler Hamilton is not the only Tour rider to carry on with broken
bones, Le Tour reveals that he is one of a very select few in Tour
history. So in spite of the awe-inspiring work we love in modern cyclists, the
phrase "convicts of the road," coined also in the early days, truly does
describe those pioneer riders. But Le Tour is not only about the early
days; it examines the Tours by decade, through 2002; each edition's monuments
and tragedies, sometimes briefly and sometimes in detail, but always chronicling
the great riders, their fates and feats, and relentless change.
However, the tale of a race that is one hundred years old cannot be told
without a historical perspective of the tumultous decades through which it has
run. So Wheatcroft adds ample amounts of European history - we learn about the
wars which suspended it and their influence upon its resumption, political
pressures, sports nationalism, murder and even the events of early 2003 which
have hung uneasily over the approach of this year's edition. So the history buff
will find much to interest him as well, and cleverly, just as the Grand Tour has
rest days, so does Wheatcroft, by way of interjected chapters discussing the
regions of France.
Le Tour is the essential Tour afficianado's book - the mountains, the
routes, the personalities, the nicknames - it's all here. Wheatcroft also
includes photos, Tour Facts for each year's race, a glossary of cycling terms
(called Some Tour Words) and a short section entitled Some Tour Books. In its
greatest sense, the cycling fan can see the development of nearly every element
of modern cycling through this history of the Grand Boucle. A lengthy read at
over three hundred pages, it is nonetheless a tremendous resource to learn about
the legends of cycling, and in many ways, about the races we watch every day.
Le Tour A History of the Tour de France
Simon & Schuster UK