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Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: The Story of the Tour De France Vol 1

When people talk to me about bike racing (especially during Tour de France season), my response nowadays is: "That kind of bike riding has nothing to do with the kind of bike riding I do!" The list of these differences is plentiful:
  • I don't ride with a follow vehicle with a spare bike.
  • I do all my own repairs!
  • I carry my own lugguage on multi-day trips
  • I don't care whether it is paved or unpaved.
  • I don't take drugs, other than the allergy medications prescribed for me by my doctor

In other words, the current Tour de France setup seems to be from another planet, as far as I'm concerned. Yet this was not always so --- the early races were purer --- you had to finish with the same bike you started with, even when the organization grudgingly allowed you to buy replacement parts:
Stage 14, the penultimate stage, put Scieur to the test. Well into
the day’s 433 kilometers, Scieur’s rear wheel failed with 11 broken
spokes. Tour rules of that time said that if the mechanical failure is
real and no repair possible a rider may replace the broken item. When
Scieur’s wheel broke there were no Tour monitors around to verify his
problem. After replacing the wheel he strapped the broken wheel to his
back and carried it for 300 kilometers to show the officials at the
finish that his need was real. Scars left on his back by the sprocket
remained with him for years. (Kindle Loc. 1436-41 )

Not for these heroes the easy quick wheel swap. As I read my way through this fascinating book (Kindle Edition), I found myself using the highlight feature of the Kindle repeatedly. The sadistic part of me, for instance, loved the story of how Mountain stages got added to the Tour de France:
With 2 months to go to the start of the 1910 Tour, Desgrange sent
Steinès to the Pyrenees to see if indeed, it was practical for the
riders to climb the mountains in the Tour de France. His
reconnaissance trip was very eventful. Ascending the Tourmalet his
car was stopped on the mountain by a snowdrift. Abandoning the car, he
set off on foot and lost his way on the snowy mountain at night. He
finally fell off a ledge of snow into a ravine. The locals who set out
to find the missing scout found him at 3:00 a.m. Steinès sent the
following famous telegram to Desgrange: “No trouble crossing
Tourmalet. Roads satisfactory. No problem for cyclists. Steinès“
(Kindle Loc. 640-46)

All the stories you'd expect to see from a history of the Tour is there. Eugene Christophe breaking his forks (multiple times), the unpaved nature of the roads, and even a reference to the wooden rims in use during those days. The prose does get purple at times, but the passion that the McGanns have for their subject never seems to pale. And then there's the whimsical:
On stage 19, from Metz to Charleville, about 100 kilometers from the
finish Frantz went over a railroad track and broke his frame. The
representative of the Alcyon bicycle company traveling with the team
panicked over the bad publicity sure to follow the news of the failure
of the Yellow Jersey’s frame. He wanted Frantz to travel to an Alcyon
bicycle dealer and get a replacement bike. The team manager, Ludovic
Feuillet, feeling that first and foremost it was his job to win the
Tour, vetoed the idea because of the huge time loss this would entail.
While this argument was going on, a woman with her classic lady’s bike
complete with wide saddle, fenders, and bell, was watching at the side
of the road. That bike was good enough for Frantz. He jumped on the
bike and tore down the road with his team. They did that final 100
kilometers at 27 kilometers per hour. Frantz ended up losing only 28
minutes. The old rule that riders had to start and finish on the same
bike was fortunately no longer in force.
(Kindle Loc. 2134-43)

I believe that if the Tour de France still had the equipment rules they had in the early days, I might be persuaded to watch it. It would definitely be a more interesting race. In fact, according to the book, until 1937, an individual could still enter the race as a tourist-routier, someone who took care of all his own accomodations/route, and attempt to win. (The highest placed finisher was 2nd) Finally, for those who want a historical perspective on doping, there's evidence here too that everyone doped in the 1950s:
Of all the contenders, Jean Malléjac’s collapse was the most
dramatic. Malléjac was 10 kilometers from the summit of Mont Ventoux
when he started weaving and then fell to the ground. He still had one
foot strapped into the pedal, his leg still pumping involuntarily
trying to turn the crank. The Tour race doctor, Pierre Dumas, had to
pry Malléjac’s mouth open to administer medicine. He was taken away in
an ambulance. On the way to hospital he had another fit. He had to be
strapped down both in the ambulance and later in his hospital bed. It
was assumed that Malléjac had taken an overdose of amphetamines, but
he always denied it. Half a dozen other riders also collapsed in the
heat, but none with the drama of Jean Malléjac. Was Malléjac some rare
exception and the other riders were clean? French team manager Bidot
later said that he believed that three-fourths of the riders in the
1950s were doped.
(Kindle Loc. 4943-51)

I bought this book on a Thursday night and finished it on the plane trip to Turkey on Saturday. This was exceedingly bad for I kept wanting to have Volume 2 present. For what it's worth this summer I did watch a stage of the Tour live on TV on a Saturday. It was boring as heck. Reading this book might well convince you (as it did me) that the best way to experience the Tour is the way it was experienced by Henri Desgrange's readers in 1903 --- by reading! Needless to say, despite my dis-taste for the way the Tour de France is run nowadays, I will buy volume 2 as soon as it is out for the Kindle. McGanns' writing and research has won me over.

[Update: I've now reviewed Volume 2: 1965-2007]

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