Cafe Bookshelf: Barnstorming Through the Tour

Crib Sheet

Title: Blazing Saddles: the Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de France
Author: Matt Rendell
Publisher: VeloPress; Quercus (UK)
Pages: 320
Order: HERE
What is it? A year-by-year history of the Tour's most colorful episodes and characters.
Strengths: Just so bloody entertaining.
Weaknesses: I guess if I'm going to give something five stars, I should leave this part blank. Can't think of anything.
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5)

British author Matt Rendell likes a good challenge. His first foray into writing cycling books was a 2003 piece on Colombian Cycling Heroes. Next was a book about riding the 2003 Tour with Lance, which sounds boring until you realize (as I just did) that it's Victor Hugo Pena's experience, not yet another writer's. Last year came The Death of Marco Pantani, an astounding journalistic feat delving down into ultra-sensitive, foreign territory. It was here I noticed Rendell and made a mental note to look for his next work.

Blazing_mediumAfter traveling the sensitive worlds of Colombian society and the Pantani family's inner sanctum, Rendell has turned to yet another monumentally challenging task: finding something original and interesting to say about the history of the Tour de France. Search "Tour de France" at Amazon.com and you'll be deluged with books on Lance Armstrong, repackaged race reports from the sport's most prolific journalists, a few larger retrospectives on Tour history, from studies of the Tour's place in the world to, say, the history of British riders in France. On and on.

What Rendell came up with is a book that takes a brief look at each edition of the Tour and tries to ferret out a story or two that adds color to the sport. It's a reference guide, mostly: ostensibly there's no running narrative, apart from the strangeness of humanity and the fact that the Tour's original director Henri Desgrange was a dangerous lunatic. Call it 92 stories about the Tour de France, if you will.

For much of the book, the stories are pure fun... at least from enough distance. Desgrange's live tests on the riders -- new rules concocted on the fly, routes over grueling and untested roads, etc. -- probably didn't seem like fun to the participants, bent as they were on winning the race and the glory and bristling against Desgrange's attempts to put on a good show. An example: prior to 1921, riders couldn't replace broken parts; they had to fix them or just carry on as is. In 1921, Desgrange allowed the riders to replace broken parts, but only if they carried them to the finish for inspection.

Leon Scieur had to carry a buckled wheel strapped to his back for 300 kilometers. The cogs cut deeply into his skin, scarring him for life. But he won the Tour de France.

Stories like this, or the bitter personal rivalries, or stories like Bottecchia singing on his bike, or Bahamontes comically waiting on a mountaintop for people to catch up, are light amusement to a reader in 2008. But the dark shadow of drugs begins creeping into the picture in 1923 and slowly advances, before taking over the book in the 1990s. The last two entries, concerning the last two Tours, could not be less fun, and Rendell has little to add beyond what we all know. Again, there isn't an explicit running narrative per se, but the anecdotes themselves, taken together, tell plenty.

But there's much more in the Tour's underbelly than well-documented doping cases, and the book's essential value lies in bringing many of the lost stories back to life. My own highlights are the portraits of the great champions. There's the arrogant Anquetil:

'...One of his greatest successes lies in giving Louison Bobet a complex: Louison eats grilled food, Jacques preferes marinated oysters; Bobet drinks mineral water, Anquetil sends the champagne corks flying; Bobet sleeps ten hours, Anquetil spends half the night driving, then appears at the start of a criterium the following day, fresh as a cucumber.' Anquetil's own summary was more succinct: 'To prepare for a race, nothing beats a good pheasant, champagne and a woman.'

And of course the insatiable Merckx:

During the 1968 Tour of Italy, Eddy Merckx was sharing a room with the Italian rider Vittorio Adorni. Merckx was first overall, and Adorni was second. The third-placed rider, Felice Gimondi, was more than ten minutes behind them. Merckx opened his suitcase, pulled out a map, and showed it to Adorni: 'Look! Tomorrow, we attack here!' Astonished, Adorni stammered, 'Attack? Attack who?'

Anecdotes without a purpose are just that, but the Tour de France, in its 105 years, is full of anecdotal evidence of the majesty and madness of the event. Rendell's selection probably only scratches the surface in 320 pages; hell, you couldn't capture all of this subject in three thousand pages. But Blazing Saddles carefully picks out those stories which lend both color and insight into the world's greatest race and the utterly abnormal people destined to ride it. As we emerge collectively from the monotonous domination of Armstrong and Indurain and from the shame of the latest doping era, and as (hopefully) the Tour de France restores its honor and dignity, it's a relief to think Cycling can maybe be fun once again.

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