Title: Rouleur Centenary Tour de France: 3404 kilometres, 21 stages, 21 stories
Authors: Edited by Ian Cleverly and Guy Andrews with contributions from Sebastian Schels, Simon Schels, Richard Williams, Geoff Waugh, Timm Kölln, Oliver Nilsson-Julien, Robert Wyatt, Ian Cleverly, Taz Darling, Guy Andrews, Paolo Ciaberta, Andy McGrath, Jakob Kristian Sørensen and Morten Okbo.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing/Rouleur Books
What it is: The Rouleur annual turned into a series of slices of life during Tour time.
Strengths: On top of the high-quality production values it's worth the price of admission for the pieces from Morten Okbo and Timm Kölln (plus their respective collaborators). And, of course, there's the wide range of photography to choose from.
Weaknesses: Spends rather a lot of time looking at life in media-land.
Measuring 32.6 x 25.8 x 3.2 centimetres and weighing in at a wrist-sapping 2.3 kilos Rouleur Centenary Tour de France doesn't just have an ungainly title, it's an ungainly book. But - as with most things the Rouleur folk do - it's beautiful despite all that.
In previous years Rouleur Centenary Tour de France would have had the more graceful title of the Rouleur 2013 Annual or some such. But this time out the Rouleur folk have changed things up a bit, with the whole thing being built around the 2013 Tour de France. Seven shutterbugs and seven keyboard-tappers were each assigned three stages of the race to cover and, between the fourteen of them, have captured slices of the Tour in words and pictures.
The Tour? Well not quite. This is not the Tour you watched at home or in the office or on the roadside. This is not the Tour you read about on the internet or in the newspapers or in one of the magazines. This is not the story of how a kid from Kenya came to be standing on the top step of the orange crates on the Champs Élysées, hand on heart and mouthing along to God Save the Queen. Nor is it the story of how Mark Cavendish got shouldered out of the limelight by Marcel Kittel, or even of how Nairo Quintano showed that the glory days of Colombian cycling might soon be returning. It's not actually about much bike racing really. Which, probably, is not a bad thing, not given that we're only six months on from the end of the race and everyone knows by now that you rarely really know much about any given Tour until several years have passed and the ties that bind have been unbound and the truth has been allowed drip slowly out in unguarded interviews and score-settling autobiographies.
Instead of recording that as yet unrecordable Tour de France, Rouleur's seven teams of shutterbugs and keyboard-tappers tell of alternative Tours. Ok, Richard Williams - who opens the book and whose words are set against images from Sebastian and Simon Schels, who train their lenses on Corsica and Corsican life as much as upon the race itself - doesn't deal much with any of the alternative Tours, the renowned fan of Miguel Induráin and the glory earned by his galleon-sail-sized lungs instead serves up some by-the-numbers stage reports of the race in Corsica. But Williams is, thankfully, the exception.
Williams and the Schels are followed by the one man writing-and-photographing team of Geoff Waugh who double jobbed the next three stages, serving up some words about the Tour's Bible (the Old Testament is the road guide, the New Testament full of fun factoids for the tired journalist to recycle) and the difficulties placed in his path in carrying out his chosen assignment. Which was to train his lenses on the Benjamin and granddads of the Tour, the nineteen-year-old Danny van Poppel ("the youngest Tour debutant since the Second World War" © every Tour report you've already read) and the forty-one-year-old Jens Voigt ("the nicest man in cycling" © every Tour report you'll ever read).
As well as sharing opposite ends of the Tour's age spectrum Waugh's photographs reveal something so inconsequential I might never have noticed were the two riders not juxtaposed in one shot: while Voigt's Trek bike has unashamedly nicked Bianchi's greeney-bluey-whatever-it's-really-called colour scheme, Van Poppel's Bianchi is a rather bland black, with the only nod to the maker's classic colour scheme coming in the handlebar tape. There's something not quite right about that and you have to think the two should really have swapped bikes.
Timm Kölln and Oliver Nilsson-Julien picked up the baton as the race powered into the Pyrénées and Chris Froome looked like he was going to run away with the maillot jaune without anyone putting up a fight and turn the race into another snore-fest, only for Garmin to wake us all up. But Kölln and Nilsson-Julien's eyes were not on the peloton, rather they were on the fans and the local communities through which the Tour was passing, especially those ravaged by the Garonne river breaking its banks only a month before the Tour kicked off and flooding Pyrenean towns and villages.
"We roll into a village off the main road to see what's going on. The furniture has been put out to dry in the gardens, or - let's face it - chucked out to be dumped. Mattresses, sofas, clothes; everything's ready for the bin. The significance of the mud really hits home. We're in a disaster zone."
From the Pyrénées we travel to the heart of media-land, where Ian Cleverly and Robert Wyatt report on reporting on the Tour, a fine old staple of the course, one much loved by Tour reports ever since the Tour was born and Géo Lefèvre filled columns writing about the difficulty of trying (and failing) to stay ahead of Maurice Garin.
Let me pause a moment and say something about Tour writers' journeys into media-land: too, too, too many cycling journalists think that they are the story. Too many. They wither on endlessly about themselves, about their problems getting from point A to point B during the race with the wrong (or no) media accreditation, about their problems with not bringing enough socks to the race with them, about their problems with the food, the currency or the language. Were their camera-toting companions to be so self-absorbed they would be spending their whole day photographing one and other or preening and posing for selfies, but thankfully the shutterbugs seem to realise that they are not the story. For the writers, though, the Tour is neither sport not spectacle, it's an opportunity for some self-indulgent travel writing. And most of it is crap travel writing for the simple reason that the best travel writing isn't about the traveller and even if it were the people writing the worst aren't nearly as interesting as they think they are, nor are their self-indulgent stories of the hardships of life travelling in the shadow of the Tour. It's high time they copped on and got back to writing about something other than themselves.
That said, not all journeys into media-land are a waste of space, not all reporting on reporting is without merit. Cleverly and Wyatt, for instance, spend some time covering life in the Eurosport trailer with Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly. Wyatt's photos reveal some of the tricks of the trade - from the open Twitter screen to the annotated start-list - while Cleverly spends some time talking to the much-maligned Kirby:
"I think people have started to get me now. We are all different as commentators and I think people have finally started to like me, which is good. I got over 200 emails at the end of the Tour saying how much they enjoyed the coverage, I'm still learning an awful lot, but I'm enjoying it."
The next three stages see Guy Andrews and Taz Darling spending some time in the winners' enclosure looking at life behind the podium ceremonies, from the logistics of setting up this little media-land enclave every single day (well, every other, as there's two sets of kit that leap-frog each other along the race route) to the production-line-like process of getting the stage winner and jersey wearers from finish line through the media pit onto to the podium and back into the lion's den of journalists' tossing questions (as 'proper' cyclists are supposed to abhor all unnecessary walking, the riders' association really should press for a conveyor belt to be installed).
Andy McGrath and Paolo Ciaberta continue the book's sojourn in media-land with the obligatory piece about cynicism and the doping questions put to the riders in Tour press conferences in recent years before quickly moving on to Alpe d'Huez and - ahead of the Alpe - the far more interesting subject of the Tour and the French and the pressures heaped upon the shoulders of whoever is this year's designated heir to Hinault ("the last Frenchman to win the Tour" © everyone):
"Like a Wimbledon wild card getting through to the third round, any fringe performer who pokes a lance into the battle for the maillot jaune gets disproportionate media expectations and attention."
And then we're into the last three stages. And the exception to prove the rule about not reporting on reporting on the Tour: Morten Okbo. Let's join his second contribution - aptly, titled Breathless, he located atop the mountain at Annecy-Semnoz - this bit coming two-hundred-fifty words or so into it's opening (and only) sentence:
"... I can't tell who is winning down there, I see a couple of riders and one might be a yellow dot and another might be a white one but sitting here on top of the this mountain overlooking, oh I don't know, four per cent of France, the Tour being decided in front of my own eyes makes me think of, well, it makes me think of nothing, nothing and everything because I have come here with an idea and a novel in the bag whose release dates back one hundred years ago and this novel is by the French writer Marcel Proust and I thought I had nailed it for the article but now, here on this mountain top, all this is swept aside, because emotion beats intellect, my stomach is always there for me when my head won't listen and what I witness now is what the Tour de France is about because this is what it does to people, it brings people together and not apart; there is optimism and not pessimism ...."
And on and on Okbo continues for another seven hundred fifty words or so, a single sentence of perfectly punctuated Proustian complexity, wholly lacking in full-stops (it doesn't even end with one, Okbo closing out with a question mark instead). In all three pieces, Okbo writes about himself while also writing about the Tour, but gets away with it not so much for what he says - though there is substance here as well as style - but for the way in which he says it, he daring to do something different and really change things up. It's a gamble that pays off well.
There is, of course, more to Rouleur Centenary Tour de France than words, they are actually only a small part of the book, the real meat and two veg of the book being the photography. I've previously said that I'm not often excited by the road racing side of cycling photography. And I meant it. Each of the photographers in Rouleur Centenary Tour de France does have their share of images that made me stop and look - some more than others - but whereas I'm willing to express strong opinions on writing I won't do the same about photography. Showing being better than saying, you have examples aplenty of the photography peppered throughout this piece, so make up your own mind.
Overall, Rouleur Centenary Tour de France is something of a curate's egg, Okbo (in words) and Kölln (in photographs) in particular being its saving graces and justifying the expenditure of time and money on it. Plus, of course, the whole thing is served up with Rouleur's typical production values, making the book an object of desire in and of itself. There will be better tellings of the one hundredth Tour, but will any be as well produced as this one?