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George Wheatcroft


A history of the Tour de France 1903-2003

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

Most books about cycling are, naturally, written by cyclists, but Geoffrey Wheatcroft does not appear to be among their number. This becomes evident in the first few pages, where he admits to having driven in his car to the top of the Col du Galibier instead of cycling up in the proper manner. He describes himself as "general purpose journalist", though one with an interest in sports writing. The book is therefore designed to appeal to the wider public as well as to cyclists.

As the subtitle implies, this is a historical treatment of its subject, and it provides a year-by-year account of events. The obvious danger here is that of repetitiveness. Wheatcroft has sought to avoid this by including numerous digressions, so that the Tour is constantly being set in the context of political events, notably the two World Wars; there are also many literary asides. Wheatcroft appears to have a good knowledge of, and liking for, French life and culture and his writing is lively, although he occasionally yields to the temptation of using distinctly uncommon words. For example, I had never before come across "degressive", and nor has the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (though thanks to the Internet I have ascertained that it does exist).

The Tour has naturally changed and evolved in the 100 years of its existence. Henri Desgrange, its founder, always regarded it as his personal property and on numerous occasions introduced arbitrary modifications of the rules. Some of these represented ultimately unsuccessful attempts to prevent the riders from forming teams. There has been a continual trend towards ever-shorter stages. In the early years the stages were astonishingly long: one was 482 km and others were little short of this. The riders were often expected to start off in the small hours of the morning and of course to ride on through the night; men were men in those days. My favourite story concerns Eugène Christophe, who repaired his broken fork in a blacksmith's forge but was penalized because someone else had worked the bellows. After 1923, however, riders were no longer expected to do their own repairs.

Although spectacular crashes occur during the races they are seldom fatal; in fact only three riders have died while actually racing, one of whom was Tom Simpson, the British rider, on Mt Ventoux in 1967. Once off the saddle, however, things are rather different. Recreational cycling is generally held to be good for health and cyclists, as a breed, are supposed to be long-lived, but this is not always true of former competitors in the Tour, a number of whom have died at relatively young ages. Wheatcroft seems to believe that this may in some cases be due to the demands that racing at this level makes on the physical system.

All forms of professional sport today are continually acquiring notoriety because of doping, and cycling is no exception. There have been a number of well-publicized scandals and numerous riders have acknowledged that the use of illegal substances is almost universal. Lance Armstrong, however, the current wearer of the yellow jersey, has repeatedly denied that he uses drugs of any kind—a denial that gains credibility from the fact that he has already had more than enough drugs in his system as a result of his successful cancer treatment. This has not prevented critics from making allegations against him, but he has never been caught out by testing and it is difficult to avoid the feeling that the accusations are due to envy.*

Armstrong, of course, is American, and this reflects the progressive internationalization of the Tour. Over the years more and more of the winners have been from outside France. Some of the stages have also been held outside France—even in England. And yet the character of the Tour is distinctively French: there is still little interest in it in Britain, for example, outside cycling circles, and the terminology is thoroughly French (Wheatcroft provides a helpful glossary). There is also an appendix giving summaries of the main Tour facts for each year that the event has been held.

The book is sparing of technical details about bikes and team tactics and is therefore not primarily intended for racing enthusiasts, who would know about such matters anyway. It contains a number of fascinating photographs, one of which shows Jacques Anquetil riding a bike which appears to be fitted with a (British) Brooks saddle.

*Since I I wrote this review in 2003 the truth about Armstrong has, of course, spectacularly emerged. See The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle.

22 December 2003

%T Le Tour
%S A history of the Tour de France 1903-2003
%A George Wheatcroft
%I Simon and Schuster
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-7432-3110-4
%P xv + 378 pp
%K cycling
%O illustrated
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