Read these – 5 books to help make sense of the Tour de France

For a greater understanding of the Tour, and professional male cycle sport in general, I recommend the following books. I apologise for the fact that some of them are out of print. I haven't selected these books to be obtuse, or seem clever, I selected them because I think they are worth reading, and reveal, sometimes consciously, as in the case of Benio Maso's excellent work, sometimes unconsciously, as with Freddy Maertens' autobiography, what lies beneath the surface of professional road-racing.

Jean Alavoine, a rider that Albert Londres came to admire, struggles on the Tourmalet in 1923
1. Les Forçats de la Route, Tour de Souffrance (Slaves of the Road, Tour of Suffering) – Albert Londres

Albert Londres was well known as an investigative reporter, writing on people trafficking, the piteous conditions in France's colonies, and other significant social and economic issues of his times. He was a major public figure, practising what the French call grand reportage, of sufficient importance in French public affairs to have not one, but two annual prizes awarded in his memory.

As far as I know, this has only been published in English once, translated by Graeme Fife, and issued as a gift with Cycle Sport in 1999. There is no current english translation available, which seems incredible, as Londres invented some of the most enduring clichés of cycle sport, not least the title. The interview with the Pelissier brothers, which he conducted whilst they were eating (riders trapped in a restaurant by a journalist – a scenario many modern writer-followers of cycle sport will recognise), after they had abandoned le Tour de France of 1924, has been quoted in part many thousands of times, because of the significance of the section dealing with drugs to the modern era:

You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled out a phial from his bag. “That's cocaine for the eyes. This is chloroform for the gums.”

“And the pills? You want to see the pills? Take a look, here are the pills.” Each one of them pulled out 3 boxes.

“Fact is,” said Francis, “we keep going on dynamite.”

 

It's a shame that the rest of Albert Londres' reports from the 1924 Tour (unlike the Pelissier brothers, he continued on the Tour) are not more widely known in English. They are worth reading because they are from the beginning of real reporting on road cycle sport. As he is writing for a newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, which was a rival or, at least, not in league with the organisers of the Tour, the owners of l'Auto newspaper, his is a neutral point of view, not inclined to the hyperbole and downright fabrication of chief organiser Henri Desgranges and his employees. One can also sense in his reports, which were filed at the end of each stage, and not re-written later, that, almost against his will, this Tour novice was falling under the spell of the Tour and its heroes.

Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape by Paul Howard

A biography of the first 5 time winner of the Tour, Jacques Anquetil, I suggest this book because Anquetil was one of the first big stars of the television era. The first live outside broadcast of bicycle racing came from the 1960 Paris – Roubaix, which made a star of Tommy Simpson in France because his (failed) solo breakaway were the first images of live bicycle racing ever broadcast to the watching public, and the 1960 Tour de France was the first to be broadcast live, as opposed to viewed later on newsreels.

Anquetil was the culmination of natural progression in road cycle sport. At first the heroes were noble sons of the soil (or so the journalists would have had it), but after WWII, the improvement of road surfaces, allowed the development of cycling stars with the allure and presentation of popular stars of stage and screen. There would have been no point Hugo Koblet, the pédaleur de charme, keeping a comb in his jersey pocket in the 20s & 30s, as his hair would have been matted with dust, mud and other less appetising substances, but in the 50s, as more and more roads were tarmaced, and more and more pictures, both still & moving, were taken of the riders, it made sense to look as presentable as possible. Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, was contemptuous of Louison Bobet and his brother because, according to Jean Bobet, the brothers didn't blow their noses on their fingers, but the power in cycle sport was passing from the stone age giants such as Robic and Gino Bartali to the silver and small screen idols such as Coppi, Riviére & Anquetil. My mother, who was a French teenager in the 1950s, had a crush on Anquetil.

Anquetil dominated the Tour not just physically, but tactically and psychologically. An illustration of this is that he was credited with winning the 1966 edition for his team-mate Lucien Aimar, despite the fact he abandoned the race. This domination earned him the whistles of the public, who preferred the honest, but unsubtle methods of Raymond Poulidor. Or at least, they preferred the image Poulidor that was presented by the media to that of Anquetil.

Anquetil's era is significant because it was towards the end of his reign as the undisputed master of European cycle sport that the riders, teams, sponsors and race administrators developed the attitudes towards doping that led directly to Liestrong. Anquetil was an unrepentant doper, maintaining his stance that the riders should retain the right to do whatever what was necessary for them to practise their craft even after the amphetamine and alcohol assisted death of Tom Simpson on the scorched upper slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Anquetil blamed Simpson's team for not looking after him properly and was absolutely steadfast in his refusal to accept dope testing, and as one of the most important figures in the sport, there is no question that he was instrumental in the development of the informal structures of doping, both in its artisanal & systematic phases, by which I mean that doping was effectively tolerated by everyone in the sport, including the media, because those that weren't participating, whether riders, team helpers, race organiser, and, crucially, the journalists, kept very quiet in public about what they knew of doping in private. This silence extended to Anquetil's domestic arrangements, which, whilst not actually criminal, were certainly scandalous.

Cover of 'The Sweat of the Gods'

The other books I have suggested are very much of their times. This book covers the development of professional road cycle sport from the very first 'official' road race run in France, 1868 or 1869 (as Maso points out, the myth-making – or fabrication – of male cycle sport obscures what really happened, but we can be reasonably sure that James Moore won) to the present day. Not so much a record of who won which race, as an explanation of why a given race came to be founded, who & what the sponsors and organisers were, and by what means stories, rather than news, because one of Maso's themes is that of myth and myth-making, of the race were spread.

He explains magnificently why the exploits of Coppi, who routinely humiliated his fellow competitors in the 40s & 50s, were celebrated and lauded by the media and public, whereas the feats of Merckx were often denigrated and, towards the end of his reign, occasioned actual hostility. (Briefly, it was the effect of live television – hours of pictures of a solitary man riding a bike up a road emptied of competitors not make for a great televisual spectacle, whereas a literary description of the same feat can be made much more exciting). This book is in print, and every serious student of male professional road-racing should have a copy, in my opinion.

4. Fall From Grace – Freddy Maertens

Fall From Grace, Freddy Maertens

There is no point in pretending that this book is an easy read. The narrative is jumbled, and one senses that Maertens' ghost-writer struggled to impose himself on the fallen champion. Freddy Maertens insights into his relationship with his wife made me grind my teeth, and there were other sections of anecdotes of 'pranks' which were equally distasteful.

 

Don't read this book if you wish to view male road-racing of the 1970s through rose-tinted spectacles; Freddy will grab them off your face, spit on them and then grind them into the pavement. However, Freddy Maertens' memoir has one overwhelming virtue – it is very honest.

If Anquetil was the king of the French in an era when the French still dominated le Tour, Maertens was the pretender to the throne of the king of the Belgians in an era when the Belgians dominated not just le Tour but all professional cycle racing. Not just Merckx and Maertens, a double world champion, winner of the Tour of Spain as well as countless other races, large and small, but de Vlaeminck, a good enough all-rounder to take the points jersey at il Giro, as well as multiple Classics, Van Impe, 6 time winner of the King of the Mountains competition, and winner of the Tour itself in 1976. A gilded era, which still overshadows everything that has come since. Maertens' Flandria team, managed by, amongst others, Lomme Driessens, a man whose character could charitably called 'colourful', counted Walter Goodefroot (manager of the Telekom team during the polluted 90s and early 2000s), Marc Demeyer (died suddenly, whilst in his prime), Michel Pollentier (thrown off the Tour in 1978 whilst leading in what was the biggest doping story since the death of Tom Simpson) and Sean Kelly, who rode in Maertens' sprint train at the beginning of his career.

Maertens career and palmares are, in my opinion, the finest of any Belgian except perhaps Merckx himself, which makes Freddy's fall all the more sad, but makes his memoir all the better. I considered including Bernard Hinault's Memories of the Peloton in this list, but discarded it not least because although it is well worth reading for his account of the 1986 Tour alone, there is very little in the memoir to endear Hinault to the reader, whereas Maertens', despite the evident sexism and general boorishness, is far more entertaining and engaging, despite its faults. Inexplicably out of print in English.

Wide-eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor5. Wide-eyed and Legless – Jeff Connor

The Tour of Maertens' era was in the doldrums. The fields were 160 or less. The ambiance was stiflingly parochial, according to Robert Millar, even in 1983. By the late 80s this had all started to change, and quite rapidly. The field in 1987 was over 200. An American had already won the race, a Colombian and a Scot had taken the Grand Prix de Montagne – this was the result of the policy of mondialisation pursued by the organisers. This policy brought a British team to the Tour for the first time in decades. In its midst came a tabloid journalist, a Tour novice like Albert Londres was in 1924.

There are other echoes of Forçats de la Route, not least because Connor gets to see riders abandoning up close. There are some similarities between Tony Capper, the boss of the ANC-Halfords team that Jeff Connors was travelling with, and Lomme Driessens, Maertens' mentor – both are substantial characters, but ultimately turn out to be unreliable friends, even if Capper is not a villain of the same order as Driessens.

If you find all the British triumphalism surrounding Sky tiresome, or wonder why British cyclists of a certain age are willing to forgive Cav and Wiggo all sorts of transgressions, you need to read this book. This book shows just how pathetically amateurish British professional cycling was before Peter Keen came along, and might help to explain why guys like me are moved to tears when Cav wins in Paris, or any Brit takes any jersey, i.e. we have been used to inglorious failure for so long that the current success finds us utterly unprepared psychologically.

Wide-eyed and Legless is also absolutely gripping, and well-loved enough by British cycling fans to have prompted Connor to write a follow-up called Field of Fire.

 

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