Athletes on Wheels – Touring the History of the Tour de France

Duncan R. Jamieson
Dept. of History, Ashland University

Martin Smith (red) The Daily Telegraph Book of the Tour de France 272 sidor, hft., ill. London: Aurum Press 2012 ISBN 978-1-84513-545-4
Martin Smith (red)
The Telegraph Book of the Tour de France
272 sidor, hft., ill.
London: Aurum Press 2012
ISBN 978-1-84513-545-4

A million plus people will be stretched out along the streets of Paris, or in the Alps or the Pyrenees, waiting for hours for a streak of color to flash by in a matter of seconds. Millions more around the world will also be watching this spectacle known as The Tour de France, undoubtedly the world’s most demanding and grueling sporting event. Riding high performance bicycles at speeds most urban commuters would envy, packed tighter than NASCAR competitors, the peloton charges from point to point in day long stages over three weeks in July. That rider with the fastest overall time is determined the winner, who gets millions in prize winnings and endorsements, along with the honor of wearing the coveted Maillot Jaune – the Yellow Jersey, a symbol of winning and endurance recognized the world over. In fact, the Yellow Jersey did not appear until 1919, when Tour organizer Henri Desgrange accepted the idea to dress the overall winner in a distinctive jersey. He chose yellow because it was the color of his newspaper, which sponsored The Tour, L’Auto. Avid cyclist Desgrange co-founded his sporting paper to compete with the more established Le Vélo, and then introduced The Tour to boost circulation. As might be expected, Tour coverage varies by locale. Founded in 1855, the London based Telegraph (The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph are related publications which share stories but which have separate editorial staffs) has covered the Tour since its inception in 1903.

Following a brief introduction Smith, formerly an assistant sports editor at The Daily Telegraph, has culled the paper’s archives to present a year by year history of The Tour and its outstanding riders. There are stories of triumph and heartbreak, stories of outstanding athletes who perform, without resorting to banned substances, seemingly superhuman feats, and stories of those who rose to the top only to fall because their victory was tainted by one banned substance or another.

Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on The Tour specifically, or sports overall, or the human condition in general, but the seeming emphasis on drug use is disturbing. To those of us naïve enough to believe that just maybe Lance Armstrong won The Tour cleanly, it is sad to read Smith’s introduction which focuses on drug use and then story after story of the drug busts, the failed drug tests, and the riders fallen from grace. At the same time, perhaps this makes the achievements of Eddie Merckx and Greg LeMond, to name just two, more impressive.

Overall, the joy of the book is the individual stories written as The Tour progresses. While certainly reading this from cover to cover is preferred, it is also a case of looking at the title of the article, deciding that’s something of interest, delving into it and then moving on to find the next nugget. While there are a couple of long time Tour correspondents, who are outstanding, there are many different authors included. Here one has the chance to look into the genre of sports reporting through the lens of one iconic sporting event. While Smith has the advantage of picking the best, to be able to cover this and engage the reader day after day for three weeks demonstrates the best of sports reporting. To borrow the title of Armstrong’s book about fighting cancer and winning The Tour, “It’s not about the bike.” Yes, you get a feeling for what it’s like to hurtle down a curving mountain road at heart stopping speeds surrounded by dozens of bicyclists. You can feel the skin peeling off your extremities as you slide along the rough pavement after a fall. You sense the dogged determination as the bleeding riders remount and continue on without a second’s thought. But more these are stories of human beings propelled along by a desire to achieve. Most of the riders will never wear the Yellow Jersey nor even win a stage, but they ride selflessly for the thrill of being a part of The Tour.

The strength of the book is the fascinating stories told in each of the articles. There one can learn a great deal about individual riders, about the protests riders staged at various times against the drug testing or the treatment of riders, and about acts of violence and sabotage that have taken place from The Tour’s inception. As the paper is British, it comes as no surprise that while The Telegraph covered the first Tour, little interested existed until Englishman Tom Simpson rode in the 1960s. Sadly he was one of three men to die in competition, his 1967 death climbing Mont Ventoux in part due to drug use. The first Tour participant to die during the race was French racer Adolphe Heliere who drowned during a rest day. In 1935 Spanish racer Francisco Cepeda died plunging down a ravine, and Fabio Casartelli crashed at fifty-five miles an hour descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet in 1995.

In addition to the Yellow Jersey, there are articles about the polka dot jersey for the best climber, the green jersey for the rider with the most points, and the white jersey for the youngest (under 26) rider leading. My favorite, however, is the red lantern, the designation for the slowest rider. While it was for a while something to be coveted, The Tour directors determined to make the race more interesting and the slowest rider would be dropped. As a result, the red lantern changes hands regularly. Given the rigor of the race, even the last man deserves much credit, even if the brooms sweep him up at the end of the day and the red lantern passes to another rider.

Beyond those interested in bicycling in general and bicycle racing in particular, this edited collection will intrigue anyone who enjoys excellent writing and dramatic sports reporting.

Copyright @ Duncan R. Jamieson 2013

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