|Bob Roll. The Tour de France Companion: A Nuts, Bolts & Spokes Guide to the Greatest Race in the World. Workman Publishing, 2004. Softcover, $10.95 (U.S); $15.95 (Canada)
As anyone reading this site knows, bicycle racing has grown immensely in the public consciousness of the United States over the last several years. The biggest reason is obvious: the success of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. However, despite the increased availability of information about the races from media sources such as the Outdoor Life Network and The Daily Peloton, there have not been any texts published (that I'm aware of, at least) that are aimed specifically at new or potential American cycling fans. Bob Roll's new book tries to fill this void by introducing those Americans who are unfamiliar with the sport to the rules, history, and culture of cycling. Capitalizing on the current popularity of Lance Armstrong, he sets out to whip up a basic understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the sport of cycling and what he describes as "The Greatest Race in the World," the Tour de France.
Roll, who was a Tour rider on the U.S.-based 7-Eleven and Motorola teams of the 1980s, has gained popularity more recently as the jovial color commentator on OLN's cycling coverage. As one OLN commercial jokingly notes, Roll has become the John Madden of cycling commentary with his penchant for creative metaphors and his talent for explaining the complexities of bike races in accessible terms (though if you tied his arms to the commentary table, his head would probably explode). He has a passion for the sport that is evident in his screen presence; the question I had when I picked up the book was, would this passion come through in the pages of a book? Thankfully, the answer to this is yes: while not as pronounced as his OLN ebullience, Roll does a good job of capturing his enthusiasm in writing and communicating his sense of respect and wonder for the sport he loves so much.
The book begins with a nine-page account of the 2003 Tour's 15th stage, when Armstrong crashed at the base of the Luz-Ardiden only to attack later and win the stage. Roll's account absorbs the reader into the excitement felt by the fans on the side of the road that day, vividly capturing the drama of the race itself while showing the thrill of having your sports heroes brush past you so closely that you can actually smell them. The themes Roll sets out in this introduction become the themes for the book: the complexity of tactics (Ullrich's attack on the earlier climb); sportsmanship and honor (and yes, he says that Ullrich waited); suffering and pain (from crashes and the brutality of the climbs); the love and passion of the fans (who get to party for three weeks and sit in the front row). This introduction is clearly aimed at those new American fans who know about Armstrong but don't fully appreciate what he has accomplished on the bike. Roll uses his account of the Luz-Ardiden stage to draw these readers into a deeper understanding of Armstrong’s accomplishments, but also to lead them towards an appreciation of the sport itself. While appealing to the tired trope of sports as a metaphor for life, Roll actually makes a convincing argument that, with cycling, the races really do come close to mirroring life. Lance Armstrong's life story provides a clear and compelling foundation upon which to build this argument, and Roll does it well.
Roll then launches into an account of the Tour itself: the logic of the route, the various competitions and tactics, the roles of various riders on a team, and the differing goals of different types of teams. Roll's humor comes out most clearly in his lists and sidebars that punctuate the sections of his prose. These provide a solid overview of his points, and while at times Roll seems to be repetitive, as any good teacher knows, repetition is necessary for those who are new to a subject. Some of these sidebars are pure comedy, such as his list of "16 Reasons Why the Tour de France Is Better Than the Super Bowl." However, others are more serious and history-oriented, such as his account of LeMond's time-trial battle with Fignon on the final stage of the 1989 Tour. The layout of easily digested sidebars with a more coherent narrative should appeal to those who find the jargon and complexity of the sport off-putting. Roll clearly explains the basics, all the while entertaining the reader and repeating key points to make sure they stick.
To his credit, Roll doesn't simply present a boosterish, Disney-esque picture of the sport. He also lays out the major drug scandals and tragic deaths that have marred the Tour over the years. While some may disagree with his characterization of doping in the sport, his comparison of drug-testing in cycling to that of baseball drives home his point that at least cycling's governing bodies are making an effort to do something about it. While mainstream media hacks continue to point to cycling as a particularly dirty sport (usually in an attempt to protect the image of American football or baseball), Roll accurately describes the ridiculousness of such claims. His connection of doping to several non-racing deaths is a bit glib, but his overall attempt to discuss the complexity of the issue in simple terms for a neophyte fan is admirable.
While aimed at recruiting newbies for cycling fandom, The Tour de France Companion has much to offer those who already have a good understanding of the sport. The opening color-coded pages provide a handy overview of the 2004 Tour route, with a full list of the stages and climbs the riders will face this July. While some might find the book a little Lance-centric as a whole, Roll's history of the Tour and its great champions is both concise and thorough. I learned a lot I didn't know before, such as the fact that the first Italian Tour winner (Ottavio Bottecchia, who won it in 1924) was murdered under mysterious circumstances while training in 1927. In addition, the appendices have a helpful timeline, a list of several Tour records, and a guide to other books and websites where the reader can dig up more information on Tour history (though, ironically, the list of Tour records excludes at least one set by Armstrong in 2003).
I'm going to spend the second half of July this year riding a bike through France, following the route of the "Greatest Race in the World." When I go, I'm going to have a copy of Roll's book in my travel bag for reference. I'm also going to buy copies for my mom, my wife, and a couple of my friends. It's entertaining, it's useful, and it just might help my loved ones begin to appreciate why we cyclists will ride our bikes until we're cross-eyed. And it might also help them understand why we get up at 5:00 a.m. for three weeks straight to watch a bunch of grown men in lycra ride bikes half a world away. All in all, Bob Roll has provided a much-needed resource, one that I especially recommend for those who are still trying to understand what the sport is all about. But even if you think you know it all, it might be worth checking out just to make sure that you really do.