Mark Perryman reviews books that can help frame our enjoyment of the Tour de France
There seems to be something about cycling that helps inspire fine sportswriting. Perhaps it is the landscapes and countries traversed, the solitude on a bike, the risk factor of a fall or worse, the extraordinary feats of human endurance, and human-powered speed too. Add a healthy dose of British elite level cycling success plus a dose of greenery and its no surprise that publishers are backing bicycling authors to deliver sales, for the most part with very good books too.
Of course it is Le Tour that galvanises this interest, every year, right across Europe, free to watch from the road or mountain side, on terrestrial TV live too. And this year the first two days are in Yorkshire, from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, then down south to London before crossing La Manche for the remaining three and a bit weeks of this most magnificent of races. Tim Moore’s French Revolutions is one of the best introductions to the scale and ambition of Le Tour from a cyclist’s point of view as he retells the experience of riding all 3,630km of one year’s route. Even for the keenest, and fittest cyclist such a venture would prove to be too far, and too much.
Ned Boulting’s brilliantly idiosyncratic How I Won the Yellow Jumper is his own inside story on how most of us follow the race, via the ITV coverage. This is the professional journalist as self-confessed fan, which in Boulting’s case, but not for many others, works to produce a wonderful style of writing. Part of what makes Le Tour so iconic, as with all the major global sporting events, is its backhistory, now stretching back more than a century.
The Tour de France to the Bitter End is a superlative collection of race reports from the Guardian beginning in 1903 to almost right up to the present with the Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012. Before Wiggins in terms of British riders the essential reference point was the story of the brilliant, yet tragic, Tommy Simpson. A career detailed in William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike. Road racing at this superlative level is sometimes described as a sport for individuals played by teams. Simpson’s final demise can in part be explained by his becoming a victim of this contradiction.
Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger is the classic account of a bitter rivalry between two cyclists riding the race supposedly for the same team, Hinault vs LeMond, in what Moore dubs the greatest-ever Tour de France, the 1986 edition. Whatever the year, on the roads of France and beyond the riders will be stretched out over many kms as they follow the designated route for the best part of four weeks, a compelling sports drama. It is the sheer range of the riders that Max Leonard captures so well in his book Lanterne Rouge choosing to write not about the winners, but those at the back, the very back of the race, and what keeps them going.
Ellis Bacon’s Mapping Le Tour provides the definitive insight into the scale of the endeavour of the race, beautifully illustrated, every edition of Le Tour catalogued, each stage recorded. Not only does cycling inspire and attract great writing, but it has a vivid visual culture too. A combination showcased in The Rouleur Centenary Tour de France with the very finest photography of the 2013 race alongside high quality reportage on each of the 21 stages, which ended of course with the second successive British Yellow Jersey winner, Chris Froome.
The Climb is Chris Froome’s newly published autobiography and details his extraordinary road to the Yellow Jersey via growing up in Kenya, school in South Africa, joining the European pro-cycling circuit, debilitating illness and last year’s eventual triumph. Of course this was a victory whether he likes it or not will for ever and a day be measured against Bradley Wiggins’ triumph the year previously. Read the Wiggins biography My Time to get some kind of inkling of the nature and the depth of the rivalry between the pair of them. Before these two was Mark Cavendish and expected to be very much a part of this year’s Tour too. The ferocious speed, not to mention the split second and millimetre perfect decision making required, of a stage finish seems to be almost the ideal environment for Cavendish’s very particular cycling proves how he has developed and excelled detailed in his book At Speed.
For many though whatever the scale of Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s achievements as British cyclists the long shadow of the sport’s drug problems remains so impenetrable as to cast such successes in doubt. The Armstrong case was eventually uncovered because of the dogged determination of the very best investigative sports journalism. And now with the revelations made spectacularly public and entirely unchangeable Armstrong’s team-mates are producing confessional-style books to help reveal the mire of performance-enhancing drug culture the sport had relationship become part of.
George Hincapie’s The Loyal Lieutenant the latest, and as such a close and long-standing team mate of Armstrong's, one of the most revealing to date too. Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies provides the panoramic view of perhaps the greatest story of decline and fall in the history of sport with a rare ability to get to grips with what Armstrong, the good the bad and the drugs, came to represent in and beyond his sport.
The Tour de France differs markedly from other sports mega-events - most obviously football’s World Cup - in the close relationship between spectating and participating. A huge proportion of those watching Le Tour in Yorkshire will be cyclists themselves, many pedalling their way to reach a prized vantage point n a hill climb. And lots in the weeks before, and after, will cycle a chunk of the official route with all the speed and energy they can muster dreaming of being in the mighty pellet on the day itself.
This is in many ways a do-it-yourself sports culture, armed with the Pocket Road Bike Maintenance handbook and the Cyclist’s Training Manual the advice will be more than enough to keep bike and body in the kind of shape to ride a Tour stage, or even two.
The binary opposition of recreation vs competition blurred by the race which is mainly against the clock and our own body’s capacity to perform at speed, to ride a ‘sportive’ the aim for some, as documented in Successful Sportives. A tad muscle-bound some of this stuff, certainly gendering the way cycling is consumed and practiced. A welcome relief therefore provided by Caz Nicklin’s pioneering The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook.
A sense of the potential inclusiveness of cycling is provided by Robert Penn’s almost philosophical It’s All About The Bike. Penn is a missionary for cycling, he makes no apology for his two-wheeled evangelism. A bike as mode of transport, a means to a holiday, a family outing, a race to the finish. All this and more Robert Penn promises we can expect from our bike.
The rich variety of inspiration cycle racing can inspire is admirably showcased in the latest volume of The Cycling Anthology. Ranging over history, philosophy, the mediation and culture of the sport, this is high quality writing for the seriously enthusiastic.
And my book of Le Tour ? Richard Moore’s superb Étape. There have been many histories of the Tour de France but instead of a dry chronology Richard Moire takes his reader to the core meaning of this most intriguing of races, the stages where the Yellow Jersey is decided by a lone break, a climb that defies human frailty, a calamity on the road, a rivalry unfolding. Its takes three weeks to ride the Tour, ever day filled with drama.
This book helps us to understand its ensuring and growing appeal, and to appreciate the tradition and culture this year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will be contributing to in no doubt its own very special way.
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Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.