Archive

Tour de France


When the Tour route was announced last year, I spotted straight away that, using Eurostar’s direct service to Avignon, which runs on Saturday, you could ride around at least two of the big Tour stages (stage 15 to Mont Ventoux & stage 18 to l’Alpe d’Huez), and, with a short hop on the train from Valence to Avignon, get the train back on Saturday. I mentioned that what I was thinking of on my local bicycle forum, and soon I had riding companions. In the end, five of us did the little tour of le Tour. The tour provoked a lot of thoughts in me, some of which I have put down here.

1. The Tour of France is a phenomenon that can overwhelm people.

It was instructive to be with someone for whom the bicycle race spectacle is relatively unfamiliar, whose knowledge of the event was almost at the level of Ned Boulting’s famous “yellow jumper” comment. The difference between stage winners and the overall, what does G.C. mean? Our companion was entirely entranced by the spectacle, despite not knowing all of the ins and outs of the race. This entrancement was, in my opinion, because of her proximity to the race (we camped on the slopes of Mont Ventoux the night before the race), and the scenery, the gigantic stadium which is le Mont Chauve, as the French call it, is amazing. I think it is impossible to look upon le Ventoux and not be stunned and amazed that any human would consider racing up its slopes in the stifling heat of a Provençal afternoon.

We then rode part of Stage 16, joining the race route at Montbrun les Bains, climbing the Col de Macuègne, and turning off before Gap to go over the Col du Festre. This took us the best part of 2 days. The Tour roared through this section in a couple of hours, taking less than 30 minutes to swallow a climb that had occupied us for nearly 2 hours. Even allowing for the fact that Chris Froome wasn’t carrying his own luggage, tools and food, you can feel how much stronger, how almost super-human these guys are in the sinews of your own legs when you ride the roads of the Tour.

The scale of the event, and the way in which the public who stand by the side of the road become the event, as much as the cyclists competing in it, is only really apparent when you actually come and stand by the side of the road. We camped just before the first bend of the Mont Ventoux climb proper, and on Sunday morning we watched a seemingly endless stream of people, lots of them British, but mostly French, moving up the hill, all shapes and sizes, some on bikes, some walking, some in lycra, some just in jeans and t-shirts, some with flags and elaborate costumes, some only carrying a couple of baguettes. For hours and hours, they came.

Eventually, the whole 15km from Saint-Estève to the Observatoire was lined, thronged with people. It was the same in Bourg d’Oisans, from where we watched l’Alpe d’Huez stage, people lining the barriers. But the people who stood on Mont Ventoux will not have been able to watch the stage finish as we were able to do in Bourg d’Oisans, but somehow they were part of the event, even those fools on the Irish Corner (were they French, Irish, Scottish, Flemish?) who dressed up as surgeons, in a way that those of us who retired to cafés and bars to watch television were not.

2. Normal standards are suspended when it comes to le Tour.

Objectively, as I said elsewhere, le Tour de France is a horrifying spectacle. The infrastructure of the race is carried around France on the backs of lorries, being torn up as soon as the race has moved through, and ferried ahead the race of itself in a vast fleet of vehicles. The finish line gantry and associated stuff arrived on Mont Ventoux as we were turning in for the night in our tents, roaring up the sinuous road beside us in great clouds of fumes and dust, rolling on and on through the night. The Tour is a vast cavalcade of motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes, with a sliver of athletic endeavour nestling, almost obscured, in its steely grasp.

The caravan publicitaire, which travels along the road in the hours before the Tour itself arrives, is one of the major sources of income for the organisers. If you haven’t seen the caravan in action, or haven’t read a description of what it does, it is a substantial motorcade, made up of at least a hundred vehicles (not counting the police and safety escorts), emblazoned with the logos of whichever product or brand being promoted.

The vehicles themselves are often further modified, either simply to allow people to sit or stand on the roof, or sometimes to permit persons to ride a static bike or gyrate from harnesses and swings. Nearly all the various sub-motorcades distribute free samples of the product, or, if the product will not scale down (as in the case of a mobile phone), some sort of cheap trinket, such as a key-ring. ‘Distribute’ is probably not the word to use. The free stuff is thrown from the cars towards the side of the road.

I guess they must be under strict instructions to make sure the airborne swag does not land in the road itself, to avoid the possibility of souvenir hungry spectators rushing in front of following vehicles. And I guess that after a couple of weeks the throwers get very practised at launching the stuff from the vehicles. We got the distinct impression that some of the throwers were aiming directly at our heads.

On television, when pictures are shown of riders lobbing stuff into the verge, you will sometimes hear the commentators say that every last scrap of jettisoned Tour trash is picked up by the spectators. This may or may not be true, but even though the spectators do seek out as much free stuff as possible, a lot of the promotional material ends up in the bushes, propelled beyond the grasp of even the most committed collector.

Then there is the normal accumulation of waste that 100 000 or 200 000, or however many spectators there were on the sides of Mont Ventoux, will generate. The rubbish, if it is bagged up and left by the side of the road, will be collected by the crews who come past the next day, but the – how shall we say on a family-oriented bicycle blog? – poo cannot. And there was quite a lot of it left behind in the trees on Mont Ventoux.

So in sum, a huge number of people swarm into a forest (did I mention that the forest is a nature reserve protected by law?), causing a 2 day, bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, have a load of rubbish thrown at them, some of which ends up lodge in the undergrowth, promoting consumer products they almost certainly don’t need., they wee & poo all over the forest, and then leave, causing another bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. As the dreadful cliché has it: what’s not to like? On the other hand…


3. Riding along the same roads as the Tour is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Nearly all the team vehicles and some of the officiel vehicles toot & wave as they pass, nearly all the fans in camper-vans and the like toot & wave, and sometimes even put their hands out to clap you as they pass. People by the side of the road clap and shout encouragement. Some kids with big flags ran alongside us shouting and waving their flag, which was really quite inspiring.

A van pulled alongside James at one point, and the passenger reached out a hand holding a full water bottle. It was yet another blistering hot day, so a full bottle was more than welcome.

We rode down to Grenoble on Friday morning, and as we dropped down the Romanche valley away from the Tour, we were passed by team coaches and other Tour traffic heading for the motorway route around to the finish. Even though normally it isn’t something to be enjoyed, having large fast-moving vehicles overtake you on a single carriage-way road, when we got to Grenoble, where the Tour traffic went north and we went south west, one of my riding companions expressed regret that we were ‘leaving’ the Tour.

4. There aren’t any proper hills in the south of England.

Having ridden in the Alps, or even just around the relatively small hills of southern Provence, allows you to think and say unbearably smug and annoying things like “there aren’t any real hills in London – Highgate isn’t even 250 metres high”. Or “Box Hill? Mere bagatelle, my friend, mere bagatelle.”

Ditchling Beacon, or any ‘climb’ in the south east, simply is not impressive in any way if you have seen and ridden even minor climbs in the Alps. You can plausibly walk up Ditchling in 15 minutes. I saw people that were crippled by walking up and down Ventoux. The average club cyclist will take a lot more than an hour to ride up Ventoux, a lot more than an hour. The top pros are happy if they can get up in less than hour, as this means that they will be climbing with the leaders.

Riding up Swain’s Lane might hurt your legs a bit, and you can put yourself into oxygen debt riding up it if you try hard enough. But the climb to the first hairpin on the Alpe is twice as long as Swain’s Lane. James and Sam, who were by far the fittest of our group took over 80 mins to reach the top (admittedly, they weren’t rushing and there were a lot of peds walking around in the road).

5. Lycra shorts are totally vile.

This is something that has only become apparent to me as I have gotten older, and spent less time in the company of ‘real’ cyclists. When I was a kid, working as a messenger, I used to wear lycra all the time. So did most of my work-mates. I became desensitised to lycra, and found it extraordinary that the North American messenger crew weren’t parading around shiny, skin-tight clothing that left nothing about the wearer’s anatomy to the imagination of the interested observer. In fact, they openly scorned us, the Euros, for wearing lycra. What funny fellows, I thought. Lycra is so practical, I thought, why wouldn’t you wear it?

However, I can now see that no-one looks good in lycra shorts off the bike, even elite professional athletes. Elite athletes only get away with it because they are singular physical specimens whose physique is so impressive that the viewer’s attention is taken away from the shiny leotards to their actual bodies. Lycra jerseys are just about tolerable, if the pattern isn’t too obnoxious, but shorts are not.

We stopped in Sault, at the bottom of the eastern flank of Mont Ventoux. The village was swarming with MAMILs. One or two had removed their jerseys, and were walking around in bib-shorts only. This type of deportment should be confined to single-sex changing rooms only.



Advertisements

I mentioned elsewhere that I first started following cycling after watching the 1987 Tour de France on Channel 4. Stephen Roche was the hero, and winner, of that Tour, and went on to cap a season equalled only by Merckx with a victory in the World Championships, as well as the Giro d'Italia. Along with Robert Millar, Stephen Roche did as much as anyone to inspire me to follow and participate in cycle sport.

Roche was, is, one of the pre-eminent figures in the English-speaking world. After the apotheosis of 1987, his career petered out somewhat, although he was still good enough to win one or two really big races before retiring. After retirement, he moved into the commentary box at Eurosport, forming a sublime double-act with David Duffield, with this passage, describing Pantani's epic ride over the Galibier in 1998, surely the pinnacle of their time together.

I found Stephen Roche's commentary on the racing illuminating. He described what was happening tactically, and surmised why, and also suggested, when nothing was happening, what the contenders ought to be doing. Having been a rider who liked to attack and shake things up, he was always critical of teams who appeared to be settling for a place on the podium.

He seems an engaging character, and, on the two occasions that I have met him, took the time to say hello and do more than just pass the time of day, even making more or less indiscreet remarks about a leading rider when I bumped into him in a petrol station outside Bourg d'Oisans, about 4 hours before the Tour was due to come through.

However, after all he has gained from the sport, and its supporters, people like me, he owes us more than the tripe that he is peddling regarding cycling's past. In an interview with Jack Thurston on The Bike Show last year, he equivocated, avoided and shamelessly evaded Jack's probing about doping in his era. Once again, quoted in Cycling News yesterday, he is up to the same thing, once again wishing to avoid difficult questions about doping. He even has the gall to suggest that it is only journalists that are interested in cycling's murky past.

It is impossible, in my view, and the view of a lot of ex-fans of cycling, for us to believe in the sport unless all those people still present in it, still making a living from our enthusiasm, who were present when all that dark stuff happened, stop lying by omission and come clean. I don't wish to see Stephen Roche brought down, but it's important that he, as one the leading figures in anglophone cycling, answers some questions, and participates in the cleansing of cycling's Augean Stables. He wants to remain a leader in the sport, wants to continue to enjoy the reflected glory of his sucesses. That's fine, but let him speak of what he knows.

Here's a couple of reasons why it's important that Stephen Roche speaks out:

  1. Stephen Roche rode on the Carrera team alongside Marco Pantani, who has been proven beyond most people's reasonable doubt to have been doping systematically throughout his career, and is arguably the highest profile victim of doping in cycling's history (for a full account of Pantani's life, career, and terrible descent into madness and death, see Matt Rendell's The Death of Marco Pantani). The association with Pantani continued after Roche retired, with Stephen acting as cheerleader in chief during Pantani's Giro / Tour double year. Stephen Roche is a clever, perceptive man, and I would find it extraordinary if he wasn't aware that a new 'preparation' was being used in the early 90s, on his own team, of which he used to be a leader.
  2. Stephen Roche was the winner of the one of the last Tours which we can confidently identify as being before EPO. Lemond, Fignon, Roche and Delgado, whilst still playing team rôles, were nothing like as infuential after 1991 as they had been. This wasn't a gradual descent into obscurity, a slow submersion by the incoming tide of age, this was more akin to a passage from light into shadow. Did none of them discuss with anyone why this might be? Fignon is fairly clear in his autobiography that he knew what was going on, but had no interest in participating in the new arrangements. Robert Millar has obliquely made similar intimations. There is fairly clear evidence that Stephen Roche's blood values were manipulated as part of an early attempt to systematise the use of EPO. Is he seriously suggesting that he knew nothing at all about this?

The sport of cycling will not change unless it learns from the past. It cannot learn from the past if the witnesses stay silent.

 

As the cliché has it, you can't take a penalty at Wembley, but you can ride up l'Alpe d'Huez anytime. Well, anytime that the road isn't closed by snow or ice. This is part of the magic of the Tour. It will come down a road near you, or go up a road that you have ridden on, if you live in France or have passed time there, as most British people by now have.

For instance, my mother's family lived for a number of years in the Crau, an arid, stony plain between Arles and Salon de Provence. The Tour has passed through the village in which they lived once in my memory, and has passed within a few kilometres at least another 4 times, including Thursday's stage from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.

If you can't actually be there, by the side of the road, as the cavalcade passes, there is a vicarious thrill in seeing familiar thoroughfares and corners rush past on the television, as a backdrop to the unrolling drama (or in the case of the Crau, flat as it is, almost always a rolling intermission as the Tour transits from Alps to Pyrenées or vice-versa). That vicarious thrill is heightened if you have actually ridden down the roads, and doubled and redoubled if the road is a classified climb or, even better, a summit finish.

Eros Poli on his way to winning the Ventoux stage in 1994Having ridden up Mont Ventoux the year before, I thrilled to Eros Poli's crazy and magnificent solo breakaway up Mont Ventoux in 1994. The fact that Poli, at 190+ cm, is no-one's idea of a pocket-rocket jack-in-the-box climber, made it all the more enthralling.

Watching his obvious travails, I was reminded of my own plodding efforts on the mountain quite vividly, even down to the final hairpin at the foot of the Observatoire, which caused Poli to almost stall, and come to a dead stop on the ramp. The exact same thing had happened to me the year before. Admittedly, I was in the granny ring, pushing a much much smaller gear, whereas Eros was probably pulling a 39 or bigger, but as they say, it doesn't hurt any less when you are fitter, you just go faster.

This Tour de France is going to be very thrilling for me, as I know the roads of 2 of the key stages really quite well. As I wrote elsewhere, I have been up Ventoux several times. I have also ridden Alpe d'Huez 4 times, as well as the first climb of the following day, Col du Glandon, a few times.

This isn't particularly remarkable, as many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of cyclists have ridden those same climbs at least once, not least because l'Alpe d'Huez and le Col du Glandon form part of the course of the oldest and most famous (outside of the UK) cyclo-sportive, la Marmotte. The event dates from 1981 and, although it isn't quite as big as the largest of all European cyclo-sportives l'Ardechoise, it is, in my opinion, the best of them.

La Marmotte, unlike a Tour stage, but like most cyclo-sportives, describes a circle, and the finish is close by the start. It encompasses le Col de la Croix de Fer (or sometimes the Glandon, as the two climbs share exactly the same route from the south), the Maurienne valley, the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier, then descends through the Col du Lauteret, down the Romanche valley for a distance of 50km, at an average downgrade of 6%, to the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez. The finish is in l'Alpe d'Huez.

At 167 km it is almost as long as what is described as a Grand Tour 'Queen' stage, i.e. the hardest mountain stage, and has at least as much vertical ascent as you might expect at nearly 6000m.

It is, it goes without saying, a serious undertaking, for which you need proper physical condition, and during which you need to husband your resources. The first time I rode it, I was in ok shape, not really race fit. (I should point out, so as not to mislead any of my readers, that as a bike racer I was extremely mediocre, very much of the type of bike racer described somewhat unkindly as a career 3rd cat).

I had ridden the mountainous, but not monstrous, Mégève – Mont Blanc sportive the month before, and been taught a lesson by 2 middle-aged French guys, who were riding 1980s bikes, and not because they were rocking the vintage look. They were much, much better bike riders than me, and were also enjoying themselves much more than I was, despite the fact that we were riding only a little way in front of the back-markers. I rode away from them on one of the early climbs, only to find myself clinging to their slip-streams later on on the next climb, having been caught on a descent.

As always seems to be the case with older French guys with legs and arms the colour of leather, they descended like the proverbial stones and were laughing their way around the course, taking pleasure in their surroundings and the company. They understood better than I did the importance of sitting back and pedalling, to use Stephen Roche's phrase. I was still riding stupid.

UnfortunateIy I hadn't learnt my lesson, and I was taught it again, and received extra punishment for failing to pay attention on my first visit to the Alps. Alpe d'Huez was my educator.

I can still remember the awe with which I was struck when I turned onto the climb to Alpe d'Huez for the first time. It's not like Mont Ventoux or other climbs that have a gentle introduction. You turn off the flat valley road, go over a small bridge, turn left and there it is, rearing up in front of your front wheel, like a black cliff, impossibly steep.

The first time I rode up it as the finish of la Marmotte, I was utterly destroyed by it. I was over-geared, over-cooked and had stupidly used up what little I had left after climbing the Col du Galibier on the descent of Lautaret, messing about trying to share pace-making with guys who probably got to the finish an hour ahead of me. I got about half-way up the climb to the first hairpin, and I mentally cracked. The famous 21 hairpins – 21! – I couldn't even see the first one! I didn't know that the first lacet of the 21 is one of the longest, if not the longest.

I had already submitted before I even saw the first bend, and pretty soon was sat by the side of the road, trying to get my heart rate down. I can tell you that there is very little in this world that is more demoralising than watching other people ride bicycles up a climb that has forced you to stop, and climb off yours. I seem to remember that I stopped once more, and then finally managed to haul myself up into the village and across the finish line. 9 hours 40 mins or something around that mark. 90 minutes to get up the final climb! Nearly 3 times Pantani's record! Nearly an hour off a Gold time! The internal reproaches went on like this for a bit.

But apart from my time, and a few bad moments on the last climb, the experience had been magnificent. The start is in Bourg d'Oisans, on the valley floor at the foot of the cliff above which sits the village of Huez and the famous ski station itself, often known only as 'the Alp' by anglophone cyclists, as if it were the only mountain worth talking of. The road out of Bourg towards the valley that leads to the Col de la Croix de Fer runs straight and flat for around 10km.

I have ridden all sorts of cycling events, large and small, from Critical Mass in San Francisco to the Essex Road Race League, and I think that there is nothing in the wide world of cycling that is anything like the start of a really big, multi-thousand rider cyclo-sportive. The strongest sensation I felt was complete unvulnerability, mixed with a powerful sense of awe at what I was seeing on the road ahead of me.

I would guess that the first 500 starters (riders are allowed in this group by invitation only) are already starting the first climb to the reservoir above Allemond, some 20km away, whilst the back-markers are still crossing the start. The road is a river of cyclists, an amorphous mass of wheeled humanity humming along, occupying most of the road. A road closure, marshalls, police outriders – for the main field of la Marmotte, normally tens of thousands strong, all such things are irrelevant.

Louison Bobet leads Gino Bartali on le Col de la Croix de Fer (north side), Tour de France 1948

La Marmotte follows a really superb course. The Col de la Croix de Fer, even if it is climbed from the much easier south side, and the Col du Galibier, two 2000+ metre climbs upon which all of the giants of the sport have written their legends. The Galibier is climbed from the north, also far harder than from the south, and then after cresting the pass, always smeared with snow-banks, for it is cold even in summer at 2645 metres, a mind-bending 50km descent, through unlit tunnels, with hundreds of more or less gifted and crazy descenders weaving in and out of the groups that form on the drop down the Romanche valley from the Lautaret.

Falling, falling down the watercourse towards the final climb. Past the Chambon reservoir, past Les Deux Alpes, and into evocatively named Gorges de l'Infernet. The road twists and turns here, clinging to steep valley walls, and then climbs away from the river, through a tunnel and then, at last!, turns into the wide open valley in which is le Bourg d'Oisans. The road along the valley perfectly straight, following the cliff on the right, up which the riders know they will have to ride. The turn out of the Gorges de l'Infernet made all the hair on my body stand up, even the second time. The drama, the majesty of the physical setting is overwhelming.

I was better prepared in my second ride in La Marmotte. I trained harder. My brother gave me a pulse-meter, and I learned how to use it, so that I could better measure my effort. I rode La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise and did a Gold time, having enough strength left on the Dentelles de Montmirail to catch and drop other riders. I was in good shape.

I had ridden conservatively, trying to hide in the bigger groups and restrained myself from any show-boating or wasted effort. Arriving at the turn towards the last climb, I knew I had roughly 75 mins to get to the finish line to get my Gold time, a time I knew I had done a couple of days before. There was no stopping by the side of the road this time to put my lungs back in my chest.

I rode right on what I knew was my aerobic max, and backed off immediately if I went over. I took drinks only when I was riding on the flat part of the bends to avoid putting myself into oxygen debt. And I watched the time. 8h 50 was the time I was aiming for. It was going to be close.

The Tour normally uses a different route to enter the ski station proper these days, so doesn't pass Virage 1. La Marmotte does, and the final kilometre is another wall. I was out of the saddle a lot on this section, as I knew I was nearly out of time, and it didn't matter if I blew up. I reached the roundabout, 200 metres from the finish and was showing 8 hours 49. I sat up, and coasted over the line (actually a mat that registers the passage of a chip tied to your ankle).

I was too impatient to wait around to get my certificate, so I went and had a beer, got washed and changed, had another beer (or maybe it was a glass of sparkling wine? Or probably both.), and then went back and got my certificate. It was wrong. The time was right, 8 hours 49 minutes and 2 seconds, but the colour was wrong. It said 'Argent'. It should have said 'Or'. Not Or, as in equivocation, but Or as in unequivocally Gold. I turned around to ask someone to change the colour, as they had got it wrong. Then it slowly dawned on me. They had not got it wrong, I had. The Gold time for my age group wasn't 8 hours 50 minutes, it was 8 hours 49 minutes. I had missed it by 2 seconds. The time I had lost when I sat up and coasted over the finish line. 2 seconds.

Ok, it wasn't anything like as devastating as losing the Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day of the race, but I did feel pretty stupid. At dinner with my riding companions from the Gastrobiking organisation that had organised my trip, we encountered Veloventoux, also hosting some British cyclists, from the north of the country. On hearing my story, one of them piped up: two seconds? Might as well have been two hours!

This post was sponsored by Eureka Cycles, suppliers of Orbea, Moda and Ridley bicycles

 

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.

 

Inspired by Channel Four’s coverage*, I used to fantasise about riding in the Tour de France.  Of course, riding the Tour was just a dream.  Being an extremely average physical specimen and a smoker, I was never going to get the call from Cyrille Guimard or Peter Post.

However, I took the Tour into my work.  After all, because of the way that the work of a bicycle courier is organised (the more parcels you deliver, the more money you get), the daily life of a messenger (courier) is pretty much a race.  You are competing against the other riders to get your hands on the parcels before they do, get them in your bag, and get them delivered.

I modelled myself on the pros. I ditched the cut-down, upturned bars, started using ‘proper’ drop handle-bars and wearing cycling caps, and began to draft the wheels of other cyclists and tail-gate motor-vehicles, just like I had seen the pros do on the tv.

Theobald’s Road, a very slight incline, would be the lower slopes of the col du Galibier (I always preferred to imagine myself on Alpine climbs, never Pyrenean).  Percy Circus became one of the lacets of l’Alpe d’Huez.  I went on Sunday rides with mates, and started to ride harder and harder.  Occasionally, I was able to sample the delicious sensation of dropping a fellow cyclist who was trying hard to keep up with me, enjoying watching them drop away from my back wheel, thrashing like a drowning swimmer might.

I started doing actual bike races, on an actual racing bike.  (Ok, it was only the Tuesday 10s at Eastway). I had become a proper amateur cyclist.  I was ready to test myself against the Giants of the Road, on the roads of the Tour de France.

In 1993, I rode up Mont Ventoux, literally up it.  Nearly all ‘mountain’ roads pass between mountain peaks.  This is one of the very few mountain roads that takes you to the very top of a mountain.  And, for all that Mont Ventoux appears much older and far more eroded than the nearby Alps,  it really is a mountain, which, as I write this in February, has snow on it.

This was my first ride on roads used by the Tour.  I rode to the summit via Sault, having started that morning from my great aunt’s house on the Crau plain, about 100 kilometres distant from, and 1900 metres lower than the summit.  The climb from the Sault side is the easiest of the 3 road climbs, with a total elevation gain of around 1200 metres over 24 km, at relatively gentle gradients.

The weather was benign, being hot and not very windy.  I generally go alright in the heat, and I had plenty of water, so the dehydration so dreaded by cyclists wasn’t a problem.  Pretty much by chance, I wasn’t on an over-geared bike, being on a triple chainset, with a lowest gear of something like 28 X 24.

I had taken it relatively easy on the ride in, so my legs were reasonably ok by the time I got to Chalet Reynard, which marks the start of the hardest part of the ride, if you are coming from the Sault side.  Again, I was lucky with the wind, so was able to ride to the top without serious difficulty.  My first ‘major’ climb, and one of the most famous, and significant for a British cyclist.  I left a cap on the Simpson memorial.

5 years later, I would reach the foot of Mont Ventoux having danced my way over the Col de Murs, which had been designated a Cat 2 climb for that year’s Tour.  Arriving at Saint-Estève, which is where the real climbing starts, if approaching from the much harder south side, I had felt really strong, and attacked the first kilometre into the forest, thinking how easy it was.  Within another kilometre or so, I was sat under a tree, trying to inhale my lungs back into my chest.

The ride up through the forest on the south side is steep, and, as it is not possible to see very far through the trees, somewhat disconcerting, as it isn’t possible either to look back and see how high you have climbed, nor to look up and see how far you have to go.

By the time I hauled myself up to the Chalet, I was suffering, and the Mistral, which had been blowing all week, absolutely destroyed me mentally and physically once I was above the tree-line, and into the arena of the white stones, which make Mont Ventoux appear snow-capped when viewed from a distance.

If you don’t know what the Mistral is, you have never been to eastern Provence.  The Mistral is a wind that blows from North to South down the Rhone valley.  The wind is a regular feature of the climate of that part of the Midi, and is generally caused by an atmospheric depression in the Bay of Naples.  When it blows, it generally blows for 10 days or so, and is very, very strong.

The inhabitants have adapted to the wind by growing lines of poplars and pines to protect gardens and houses from the wind, and none of the older buildings in that part of Provence have any large windows facing north.  It is a wind that can whistle up insanity and disorder, not to mention ruin any number of days on the beach, or, indeed, any otherwise pleasurable outdoor pursuit.

The road from the Chalet to the summit zig-zags along the flank of the mountain, turning north and  west.  Every turn to the north forces the cyclist into the jaws of the roaring monster that is the Mistral, if it is blowing.  On that day it wasn’t blowing hard enough to rip me off the mountain, but it was more than strong enough to bring my speed down to a crawl, and to force me and my legs to crab desperately along the road in over-geared (39 X 26) discomfort.  Robert Millar describes this sensation as ‘blowing your brains out’.  Millar once said that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, the sensation of climbing on the limit of your endurance and beyond is the same.  You go faster if you are fitter, but the pain of grovelling in the gutter is the same, no matter how strong or weak you are.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the climb from the Chalet is the optical illusion.  As you ride towards the summit, the Observatory appears not be getting any closer for a considerable amount of time.  The kilo stones count off the distance remaining accurately, but in the hundreds of metres in between, with the mind in free-fall from the effort, the disorientation of this receding mirage can be very demoralising to an exhausted rider.

On that second time up, the temptation to get off and throw my bike off the side of the mountain was great.  It’s possible that the only reason I didn’t was that I wearing racing shoes, fitted with Look cleats, upon which it is virtually impossible to walk very far.  I made it to the top, but the climb of the mountain hadn’t been a pleasant experience.  I seem to recall that David Millar said he couldn’t understand why anyone would ride up Mont Ventoux for pleasure, and on this occasion it really hadn’t been a pleasure. On the ride down, I was virtually torn off the road by the cross-winds, which made it even less pleasant.

My 3rd encounter with the mountain was in 2004.  I had signed up for a week  with Veloventoux, a cycle-holiday company run by Craig Entwistle, who has probably ridden over Mont Ventoux more often than any other Englishman, alive or dead.  The programme was a few light rides, with La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise cyclo-sportive on the Saturday.

A few light rides, I say, but we rode up the north side of Ventoux on the Tuesday, completing my set.  It had taken me more than 10 years to ride all 3 of the roads up Ventoux, but some people do it in the same day, the so-called Cinglés du Ventoux (cinglé is colloquial French for ‘mad’).  With 160 hilly kilometres on the Saturday, we probably should have done nothing of consequence, and, almost certainly, we should have stayed away from the local produce.  Mont Ventoux is flanked by some of the most celebrated vineyards in France, Côtes du Rhône.

I am happy to tell you, dear reader, that we did neither, even managing to combine a very pleasant afternoon’s ride with the local touring club with an evening in the club h.q., a café-bar in Nyons, making an extensive inquiry into the nature of the local rosé, whilst hearing of the club members’ exploits on their various long-distance epics on Les Diagonales de France.

On Saturday, the big race.  Let’s make no bones about it, a big cyclo-sportive like La Ventoux is a big race.  There are motorcycle out-riders for the leaders, and proper prizes for the winners.  The roads are more or less closed by default in the bigger events, as there are thousands of riders, making the road pretty much impassable for anyone not participating.  Spectators line the route.  A cyclo-sportive is the closest that the mere mortal can get to riding the Tour de France, especially when the sportive uses a road like the road up Mont Ventoux.  It is hard not to get carried away at the start, and blow your legs off in the excitement of being in a huge group, riding on the roads that the stars use.

The other really great thing about cyclo-sportives for the extremely mediocre rider such as myself, is that, no matter how often you get dropped from the various groups that form and re-form, there’s always another one behind.  You might spend most of the day watching a lot of back wheels disappearing into the distance, but there’ll alway be a least one, not far away, that is coming back towards you.  So no matter how slow you are, relative to the fastest guys, there will always be someone that you can leave behind on the road, grasping futilely at your dead air.  The amateur can enact his (or her) fantasy of launching a race-winning attack on the run-in to the finish that will turn the general classification upside down, in the manner of Merckx, Coppi or whichever rider you prefer.

The course of the event is one and a half times over Ventoux, with a loop round to the north of the mountain, if you do the full route, thus making every finisher demi-cinglé, or half-mad.  The route also takes in two tremendous descents, first from the top of the mountain to Malaucène, and then from Chalet Reynard back down to Saint-Estève.

As on my first time, the weather was extraordinarily benign, being nice & warm without being too hot.  I can’t remember too much detail about the day, apart from one moment when I was foolishly sitting on the front of a smallish group with another guy, and, getting annoyed with our companions, who weren’t coming through to take their share of the wind, said in french, ‘look, 15 Frenchmen led by an Englishman and a Belgian’.  I do remember that at the feed station at Chalet Reynard, on my second time around, there were cups of wine available.  I also remember being a little disappointed by the meal supplied at the finish, the disenchantment being somewhat off-set by more free wine, and the Gold certificate that I ‘won’ for getting the requisite time in my age group.

The lack of detailed memories, however, does not erase the glow of having ridden in the tracks of Giants.

* I watched an episode from the late 80s again, looking for Stephen Roche’s attack on the descent of the Col de Joux-Plane, and was totally stunned to see that Richard Keys was the presenter in 1987!