Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Tour de France - Now and then.....

Here we are then - a couple of days from 'The Grand Depart' of this year's edition of The Tour de France. According to the experts this years race could be interesting, the organisers have tinkered with the route to hopefully provide something finely balanced and that offers possibilities for everyone - they're hoping for the excitement witnessed in this years Giro d'Italia which saw the leaders fighting for victory right up to the final day. That would be good.

Realistically there are probably a handful of riders in with a chance of overall victory - favourite is Chris Froome who will be looking for a fourth win and three on the trot. However, his form so far this year has been below par, is he still the strongest rider?

Lately I've been reading an interesting book - 'The Unknown Tour de France' by Les Woodland. Mr Woodland is a long-term cycling journalist and Tour devotee and he has put together a succinct history of the Tour. Originally published in 2000, this book has been around for a while although because much of its content is historical that doesn't really matter. I'm always interested in the history side of cycling - so this is a book that was always going to resonate well  - the style is engaging and humourous - combining well researched historical facts with the many Tour legends and myths.

The first section was the best for me - looking at how Henri Degrange started the Tour, the early races and the 'star' riders of the time. It's a real eye opener in terms of what the actual race was like back in the early 1900s. We all know that the TdF is tough - probably the hardest event in the sporting calendar - but reading through this book will open your eyes as to how hard it was - todays race is a breeze by comparison!

The book is replete with amusing stories - such as the story of Londoner J.T. Johnson who rode in the first Tour of 1903 -

He wore a jockey's silk shirt and coloured cap and carried a whip 'to keep off the dogs'. He was in second place after 60 miles but paid for his enthusiastic start when he ground to a halt at Vaudreil. Local cyclists managing the control station ran up to him...
'What's the matter Johnson?'
'I'm shattered'
'Get off your bike"
'I can't'
They carried him, literally, to the home of Monsieur Duval, the head of the train station, where he was laid down, undressed, massaged and given warm wine. Johnson told them he'd ignored the Doctor's advice and eaten just two sandwiches before the start. Duval fed him and left him to sleep. When word spread a local moneybags insisted on taking Johnson home for dinner. The Londoner, no worse than many a cyclist who has ridden too far and eaten too little, was happy to oblige. An hour later, fed, washed and content he told his host - 'Well thanks a ot, I'd better be going'
He scampered up the road passing one competitor after another - regained the hour he'd lost and finished seventh.

Riders in those early Tours often completed stages approaching 500km - starting at 2.30am and riding through the night, on bicycles with no gears on roads with no real surface - the book really gets into describing the hardship in some detail.

'We chatted for a while and he said he'd ridden the Tour de France 40 years earlier, in the 1920s, - I said the roads must have been very different - he said 'Qui monsieur, they were very rough surfaces then' I pointed at the way the riders would be coming and said I'd seen the climb in the days of Bobet and Coppi, when there were holes in the surface and stones and rocks on the road. Now of course they're in a very good state, more or less smooth like any other road. And he looke very surprised - Non monsieur, you don't understand. We didn't come up there. And he turned and pointed to a tiny goat track behind us, all rocks and tufys of grass and no more than two yards wide - 'We came up there'

Of course, for the testimonies of those like that forgotten cyclist to be given due weight, the investigating journalist must attempt to convey their experiences as completely as possible. Woodland doesn't disappoint, devoting six whole pages to the cycling technology of the day. Three of them go to a French bike, reputedly a veteran of the first Tour of 1903, which he turned up in the Midlands.

It was fun to read the many tales of the early years of The Tour, and I recommend his book wholeheartedly, it doesn't boil each year's race down to an anecdote and then sprint on to the next year. Instead the book is structured along thematic lines which gracefully move forward in time. So you get a chapter about the beginning of road racing and a chapter about the beginning of the Tour. You get a chapter about the mountains. A chapter about the yellow jersey. Chapters about doping and cheating. There's a chapter for the Brits and a chapter for the Americans and the Australians. You also get the (inevitable) chapters about Coppi and Anquetil and Merckx.

‘He gets a phial from his bag. “That, that’s cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums…” “That,” says Ville, emptying his shoulder-bag, “that’s horse ointment to warm my knees. And pills? You want to see the pills?” They get out three boxes apiece. “In short,” says Francis [Pelissier], “we run on dynamite.”’

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