Suze Clemitson was a voice on twitter: @festinagirl. A smart voice who obviously understood cycling and was desperate for it to get better - vocal and...moreSuze Clemitson was a voice on twitter: @festinagirl. A smart voice who obviously understood cycling and was desperate for it to get better - vocal and opinionated. When she announced that she was starting a blog of essays from the history of the Tour de France I added it to my feed reader and watched the collection grow. Unfortunately, I'm not good at reading online, so I ended up skim-reading large chunks and missing several years. My loss.
Eventually, once the blog had reached the 100th Tour de France (not 100 years since the first Tour de France of course, that was a few years ago), she hit upon the wheeze of collecting these essays up, updating a few of them with additional information regarding some recent doping revelations and questions around the new oldest ever winner of a Grand Tour: Chris Horner, into an ebook format. A bargain at £5 available from Velocast.cc. She's added new material to the blog too. It's far from just the base material for this collection, it continues to grow with new essays, articles and strong opinions.
But, back to the book itself. Split into twenty-odd chapters, each covering an 'era' of up to five consecutive years. Then each individual Tour de France has it's own section within one of those chapters. Right from the start it's clear that Clemitson's approach is going to be both personal and irreverent. From the very early tours we read about the facial whiskers that Wiggins could be jealous of and almost immediately that the Dutch "De befborstel" is the term for a moustache specifically grown to pleasure a woman – if I could just work that into a conversation at work!
What this book isn't is a list of stats, of winners and losers, lengths, heights, facts or figures. If that's the kind of Tour de France book you're after, then this isn't for you. What it is though is a series of stories that have helped the Tour into its place in history. Anecdotes, myths and legends. From the 1903 winner, Maurice Garin, through to Chris Froome's 2013 win. Clemitson makes no claim that all these stories are equally true, but surely even the most repeated (and embellished) story had a kernel of truth in it somewhere? Some are based around her own visits to watch the Tour, others taken from the extensive list of research books at the end of the book. Part memoir, part exploration of all the reasons why Clemitson is in love with the Tour. Topics explored include doping (obviously) and other forms of non-drug based cheating, but also the stupidity of some of the Tour's rules, definitions of panache, why some riders are hated and others adored.
The book took me a bit of a while to read – three weeks! But, that's a reflection on the amount of good reading in the book rather than it being a bit of a slog. And if long books scare you, don't worry. Just treat this as either 21 chapters or 100 essays to break it down into smaller more manageable chunks – I was managing a chapter a day. But for any fan of the Tour who wants to learn a bit more of the history and mythology of the Tour, and if you're happy to ignore the (very) occasional typo, this is a hard-to-beat collection of stories.(less)
If you're after a detailed essay on the 2012 cycling season, this isn't it. If you're looking for a sumptuous photobook on the Tour de France, this is...moreIf you're after a detailed essay on the 2012 cycling season, this isn't it. If you're looking for a sumptuous photobook on the Tour de France, this isn't it. If you're looking for the inside scoop on Team Sky, this isn't it. And, if you're looking for an insightful Wiggo biography, this isn't it either. Instead we have a book that doesn't seem entirely sure what it's trying to be – there are written sections, but they're a little light on detail. There are oodles of photographs, but the quality is mixed and none of the photographers are named or even differentiated.
Managing to not be a book about the tour, nor a Wiggo biography, nor even a team sky brochure. Instead it comes across as a fan's scrapbook built throughout Wiggo's 2012 year of domination. His "annus mirabilis". Much of it feels superficial, while the challenges to Wiggins's successes are mentioned, they are glossed over – the spat with Chris Froome is discarded as Froome merely being "off script", the media blow-up after Le Equipe's "UK Postal" headline and the subsequent twitter frothing is simplified to a simple reaction to an accusation rather than addressing Wiggins's potential responsibilities to answer what was an obvious question after the recent years of disappointment by cycling's heroes, Cavendish's sacrifices are mentioned but the reality of the world champion being sidelined wasn't really explored, even the WAG spat is trivialised to avoid the real frustrations that were behind those tweets. To an extent much of this makes some sense, this is an ode to Wiggo and his successes not a story of the Tour or of Team Sky. Other people are only mentioned in so far as they directly impact or affect that, but it leaves you feeling a little short changed. I had expected more from Friebe after reading his Cavendish biography, Boy Racer, and had been looking forward to his Merckx biography, Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal, too...
Having received this book for Christmas, it was interesting to end up reading it now. After Wiggo's 2012 "annus mirabilis" – the book covers his early season successes, his Tour de France win and his Olympic gold medal, but was obviously published too early to cover his Sports Personality of the Year award and eventual knighthood – last year, 2013 has been his annus horribilis as illness and poor form has plagued the first half of his year and he's had to watch team mates taking the wins he probably would have felt he deserved himself. It was good to remind myself what he was capable of though.(less)
It's hard to imagine a more 'explosive' start to a book about a rivalry between two of the greatest cyclists than the story of LeMond heading back to...moreIt's hard to imagine a more 'explosive' start to a book about a rivalry between two of the greatest cyclists than the story of LeMond heading back to the team bus with diarrhoea only to find the portaloo removed and instead having to take an enormous shit in a large box of promotional postcards bearing his rivals face – literally shitting on Hinault himself! Brilliant!
What follows is Richard Moore's exhaustively researched story of the 1986 Tour de France battle between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. Hinault, the Badger of the title, is the defending champion; LeMond, L'Américain, his team mate and also his rival. Normally, you would expect team mates to work together and Hinault, who is close to retirement, had at the end of the previous tour appeared to promise that in his final year he would work for LeMond to win the race. Moore has spent some time interviewing everybody involved in the story: Hinault and LeMond obviously, but also other team mates, directeur sportifs and rivals from other teams. While that level of research shows throughout the book in the details that really bring the story alive to the reader, it is also the book's only slight weakness – at times, the book risks reading as page after page of quotes lifted directly out of his interviews. You start to wonder where the voice of Moore is in all this.
The book is split into three sections. Like a mini-Tour de France itself: a Prologue where the scene is set, the rivals are introduced and the two main interviews are begun; the rest of the book is split into two halves – the Départ delves into the history between the two riders starting on the Renault team under Cyrille Guimard up to the 1985 Tour de France back together again this time in the La Vie Claire team, and the Arrivée describes the events of the 1986 Tour de France, stage by stage, attack by attack. Early comparisons are made between Hinault and LeMond, one French Breton, stepped in the history of cycling and European (French) tradition. The other American, new to Europe, barely speaking French with no real idea of what he was getting into. Such different people and such different such different styles of rider, they were never going to be friends, having read the book it is surprising they managed to work together even as much as they did. In a way, Hinault's dominant personality and LeMond's more submissive side led into the patterns of behaviour that they never quite manage to break completely.
The 1986 race itself takes up only half the book, each stage gets it's own section and much coverage is made of the psychological battle between the two riders. While I was aware of the result of the race and the story of the broken promise, I wasn't aware of the detail, nor of the ambiguity of that broken promise. It seems Hinault was always hedging his bets and never promised to directly help LeMond win. Promising to mix things up so that LeMond can win is not the same thing at all. Hinault attacks LeMond, several times, but still can't seem to make up his mind. Maybe if he wins he can say that LeMond just wasn't strong enough and he had to take over, if LeMond wins he can say he kept his promise. More likely I think, Hinault just isn't the kind of rider who can gift the Tour to somebody. He needs to know that you deserved the win. Did he want LeMond to show more initiative and to counter-attack (or even attack first). LeMond and Hinault were just such different types of rider. Even approaching the end of the book, and knowing the ultimate result, I was still sucked into that feeling of urgency. I needed to get to the end to see who won! In the end I think Hinault won, LeMond may have won the Tour, but Hinault totally outclassed him in the battle of style and psychology.
Interestingly in today's climate, drugs are briefly mentioned. It seems that while their use was pretty widespread in the peloton at the time Paul Köchli, the directeur sportif, shows repeated evidence of a very strong anti-drugs stance on the La Vie Claire team. How able he was to enforce that remains open to debate. Especially in light of the team owner's, Bernard Tapie, apparent blatant disregard for rules or ethics in his other businesses or sponsorships.
Ultimately, it's not a definitive explanation of why what happened happened. Moore presents Hinault's view of things, and he presents LeMond's view of things. The two don't match up and there's not much Moore can do to pick a line between them. He presents his own view very briefly at the end, but like all of our opinions it's a cop-out because nobody really knows what Hinault was thinking.(less)
The tale of young Ned Boulting. Fresh-faced and innocent as he joins the ITV Tour de France coverage team in 2003. Transferred in from other, lesser,...moreThe tale of young Ned Boulting. Fresh-faced and innocent as he joins the ITV Tour de France coverage team in 2003. Transferred in from other, lesser, sports Ned is completely green in the ways of cycling – as the description of Gary Imlach quizzing him demonstrates. "They have teams? I didn't know that." But, being on that journey with Ned is part of the joy of this book. He knows he knows nothing, but he's going to have a crack at it anyway. And on the way he'll learn (hopefully in time so he doesn't completely mess it up).
While I didn't learn much about cycling as a sport, I learnt a lot about the behind the scenes action. Just how off the cuff some of those interviews are. Just how randomly some of the ideas are generated (Ned's suggestion to film a night camping out with the fans for example). And much, as both a journalist and a fan, he can be there every day and yet still seem part of a totally parallel organisation from the race itself. I don't think I ever imagined that the racers and the journalists were best friends, but the almost adversarial distinction between the two groups was a surprise. I'd always kinda assumed that the British journalists, at least, were more matey with the British riders than this tale suggests.
The book's chapters are a little all over the place. I don't think a single one stays in the same year for the whole chapter. But this allows Ned to bring us even more into his journey from complete beginner in 2003 through to a seasoned professional in 2010. However, as the book was written in 2011, nearly two years before I read it, time (and some of the cast) have moved on. Interestingly, especially given very recent events, are the three chapters devoted to one Lance Armstrong (former Tour de France champion and now disgraced drugs cheat). At first, you have the expected Lance-appreciation chapter. Armstrong was coming to the end of his first career our young hero starts his story, and it's clear that as pretty much the only cyclist he'd heard of before he's pretty much in awe of the Texan. He goes so far as to describe his retirement as leaving the Tour "diminished by his absence". But this was a journalist still, presumably, unversed in the darker underbelly of cycling. Yet somehow, he manages to reconcile this with his clear description of Lance's, and the peloton's, disgraceful treatment of Filippo Simeoni.
His chapter on Richard Virenque leaves us in little doubt as to the distaste that his fall from grace left in the sport. But the two later Armstrong chapters start to reveal the slow realisation that Ned went through. Written between 2010 and 2011, he obviously doesn't have all the latest revelations to call upon, but it's clear that Ned has transitioned from a Lance fanboy to a much more cynical position. While this is sad in a way, it's much more honest with the reader than the entrenched positions that Messrs Liggett and Sherwen have taken.
As with the doping, a writer always risks getting caught out by things moving on after the book is written. In that case, the march of time hasn't made Ned look foolish. However, it was amusing to read him talk, with sadness, about Wiggins's Tour in 2010 as he totally failed to live up to Sky's expectation. Perhaps, he muses, Sky's plan will need to be about somebody other that Wiggins. Some younger, fresh, talent. Waiting to come through. Ahh, if only he could have had a rewrite in 2012!
Bookended with an only tenuously related tale of Ned waking up in Lewisham hospital after a cycling accident of his own after his first Tour de France. While not necessarily what readers are looking for in this memoir, it's inclusion is worthwhile for the punchline that it ends the book on alone. Overall it's a delightful story of somebody coming to both discover and love the sport of cycling, from the inside. It's hard not be charmed by the tale.
My 2012 edition came with an extra bonus of How Cav Won the Green Jersey tacked on the end. A much shorter tale of his attendance at the 2011 Tour de France, where after Cav pointed out how worthless the Green Jersey was because nobody ever remembers who won it, he went on to win it. Self-referentially, it includes an anecdote where Ned gives Cav a copy of this book How I Won the Yellow Jumper, and Cav asks him to sign it, as well as a terrible photograph of Cav holding the book and looking very shocked.(less)