We have had a couple of very slim brushes with the Tour de France in the last few years. In 2016, our daughter was lucky enough to be in France when the Tour came through. Three years previously, we were in Paris just before the conclusion of the 2013 Tour so we rode the route of the last stage on rented bikes the day before the pros.
Several years ago we received as a gift a very nice ‘coffee table’ book on the Tour de France, covering the history of the event and full of reproduction memorabilia, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. I’m a sucker for a beautifully produced book like this and the postcards, letters, hand-written notes and maps add a whole extra dimension to it – even if they are only reproductions.
The story starts at the end of the 19th century, painting a picture of the cycle racing scene at the time that lead to Henri Desgrange’s idea of the Tour in 1902. When it was first run in 1903, the Tour was only 6 stages but each took at least 24hrs to complete and there were no transfers between stages, each started from the end of the previous stage. It’s fascinating to read about the hardships that the early riders had to endure (not that it’s easy now, but riding at the start of the 20th century was quite different!).
It describes the backstory to ‘the jerseys’ – yellow, green and king of the mountains – and covers all of the major figures throughout the years such as Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and LeMond. Stashed throughout the book are pockets for the memorabilia – it includes route maps, the rider’s rulebook from 1910 and press cards from the early years.
The copy that we have is the fifth edition from 2012. One of the fascinating aspects for me comes from reading a book in light of information known only since the book was published – in this case, it’s about doping. It’s not a fault of the authors, they couldn’t yet know, and it needn’t detract from enjoyment in the book, as it didn’t here for me.
Whatever your views on doping, it has had a long history with the tour and is discussed in the book. From Henri Pelissier in the early 1920s who was happy to share in interviews his use of pain-killers and stimulants, to the death of Tom Simpson on Mount Ventoux in 1967 (that, while undoubtedly tragic, was also thought perhaps to be an inevitable conclusion of doping at the time, that it enabled riders to push themselves too far) to the modern era of doping at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries.
While many of the famous doping cases had already become public knowledge and are covered, the Armstrong story hadn’t yet really exploded when this book was written – that was not until late 2012, with the Oprah interview in January 2013. In this book, he’s still a clean rider.
It’s hard to avoid the irony when in discussing the 1999 Tour, the book says about him:
“Armstrong won the prologue time trial at Le Puy de Fou, but it was still too early to predict how the 1999 Tour would unfold. The main sentiment was one of relief that a rider untainted by the doping revelations that nearly sunk the 1998 Tour was the first wearer of the yellow jersey in this so-called “Tour of Redemption”.”
Oh, how sentiments can change with time…