Life After Lance – Graeme Fife's History Of The Tour Revised And Revisited

Tour de France, Graeme FifeThree years ago, back when I first started doing these Café Bookshelf pieces, one of the aspects of the cycling publishing industry that intrigued me was the way some cycling books seek to extend their shelf life by sticking a new chapter on at the end and whacking "revised and updated" on the cover.

On the surface, this seems like a great way to extend a book's shelf life. But nine times in ten this new chapter doesn't quite fit with the original book. The same tone as the author applied to the original is generally absent from the update, which can - and often does - unbalance the book. Authors who spent hours - days, weeks even - trying to bring their original manuscript to the perfect ending seem to just whack on an extension without giving any consideration to how it sits for a reader, what impact it has on the overall book. Which can leave the reader of the "revised and updated" version of a cycling book with something of a bad taste in their mouth (Daniel Coyle's Lance Armstrong's War being a perfect example of this).

Over the course of the last year, with the USADA judgement having come out, an awful lot of cycling books - Tour and Tour-related cycling books - have been left desperately in need of revising and updating, to take account of the fact that Lance Armstrong is no longer a seven-time Tour de France winner. Graeme Fife's Tour de France: The History, The Legend, The Riders is the daddy of updated cycling books. It's been going strong since 1999 and is now into its fifteenth edition. And is - it goes without saying - the one most in need of a solution to the Lance Armstrong problem.

For those not familiar with it, Fife's Tour de France is two books in one. The first is a travelogue from a mid-nineties cycling holiday up and down hills made famous by the Tour, with the story wrapped up in the racing history of the roads the writer rides along (Giles Belbin does something similar this year with his Mountain Kings). As a way of telling the Tour's history it's actually quite efficient, it allows you to focus on the highlights and not have to pay attention to the dull periods in history.

The history recounted by Fife in his travelogue more or less takes the Tour up to (what was then) modern times. And then the Festina Tour happened. So that needed a chapter on its own. And then the 1999 Tour was added as an extra chapter. And then 2000. And then ... and then the book began to resemble the sprawling mess of Gormenghast castle, its original design lost in the shadow of ungainly extensions, many of which were poorly planned and some of which are just badly executed, often being overtaken by events.

In 2006 - and for the next several years - the Tour didn't end on the Champs Élysées on the last Sunday in July, but extended into an odd afterlife (even in the years before 2006 the Tour often stretched on after its official end). How long did Oscar Pereiro have to wait before being declared the winner of the 2006 Tour, or Andy Schleck the winner of 2010? The samples from the 2008 Tour were still being tested how many months after the race ended? Look even at the 2005 Tour, which got an epilogue in August of that year when L'Équipe published their "Armstrong Lie" story.

And now - of course - there's the USADA report. The Armstrong Tours account for seven of the sixteen Tours whose story is sold in detail by Fife. Add in the two comeback races and that's nine. That's a lot of the story told by Fife in Tour de France. So it's worth considering how he reported it then and how's he revised it now.

In 1999 Fife was writing about "disgruntled French riders" who "were bitching about a two-speed peloton" in a "jaundiced climate of suspicion" in which the French were "clearly feeling hard done by." For Fife, the "gutter press" latched on to this feeling, "desperate for a story, eager to reopen the drugs scandal" of the year before. According to Fife, the media "turned on Armstrong." Journalists "whined" about the speed of the peloton, just one of a number of "thin straws" they seemed to be "clutching at." Christophe Bassons' "trumpeting himself as Mr Clean in a peloton composed largely of dope-heads" and saying the Tour couldn't be won without doping was, Fife tells us, "not helpful."

By 2000 Armstrong was "the ultimate professional" who "shrugs off extremes of weather." Having survived cancer he was imbued with "a supernatural capacity to absorb punishment." As for the doping, "happily," Fife noted, that story "hardly resurfaced" in 2000.

It was a happy Fife who wrote of the 2001 Tour, lauding Armstrong for the manner in which he "even addressed his unpopularity." But now there was the shadow of Ferrari hanging over Armstrong, their working relationship having been revealed: "rather naively and with belligerent unconcern for perception, valid or not, Armstrong said he couldn't see what the fuss was about."

In 2002 we're told about Armstrong's "high-revving style" in the mountains, "this sudden burst of his strength," the "dizzy whirring of the pedals, devouring a kilometre virtually every two minutes of uphill" which is "the hallmark of his superiority" and "derives from the exhaustive training methods and analysis which he and his support team apply to winning this race." Fife waxed lyrical - in a manner that has contemporary echoes - about the sacrifices Armstrong endured, from the core-strength workouts through weighing his food and on past reccying the route: "such meticulous provision added to a natural athleticism which he has honed to supreme physical efficiency is at the root of his supremacy." Those standing at the side of the road and crying out "Dopé! Dopé!" at Armstrong were "beer-swillers," a "moronic few more interested in ring-pulls than bike-racing." They were, in short, "abusive idiots."

In 2003 Fife seemed more concerned with Armstrong's observance - or not - of tradition than with anything else going on in the real world, talking of Armstrong's wish not to wear the yellow jersey in the opening prologue.

And then comes 2004. Let's pause a moment. 2004 is an important year. Maybe you can justify a few ostriches wishing to keep their heads in the sands over the previous five years, pretending to themselves - and the world - that Festina had flushed cycling's doping problem down the drain and that all was changed, changed utterly. But 2004 opened with the Cofidis affaire which ran all the way through to June - pausing only briefly to bury Marco Pantani - at which point the baton was passed to David Walsh and Pierre Ballester and their LA Confidentiel, before Armstrong himself picked the baton up and tried to bash Filippo Simeoni over the head with it on the road to Lons le Saunier. 2004 was the year in which sitting on the fence stopped being an option. You either believed in fairy stories or you admitted that the Tour had become a horror story.

So how did Fife handle the story then? Well, he reported what other people said, such as Greg LeMond's comment about Armstrong being "ready to do anything to keep his secret." Which Fife then balanced by noting that "LeMond's querulousness has already been directed at Merckx and conclusions about his judgement are not sanguine." As for Armstrong's judgement in chasing Simeoni, that "was another show of the Texan's gaucherie."

By the time the last lap - 2005 - came round Fife was busy noting how Armstrong was subjected to three random blood tests in as many days in the lead up to the Tour. And reporting press-room jokes about the Disco train having had an oil-change on the rest day. And finding something "baffling" in a rouleur like George Hincapie winning in the domain of grimpeurs. Yet at the same time those who openly questioned Armstrong were "detractors" who "resent what they see as his overweening power." Fife's summation of the Armstrong era is perhaps worth quoting at length:

"And so the Armstrong domination is over and he will stand apart, perhaps forever, as the rider with seven Tour victories. His place in the annals of the Tour is assured, but not, maybe, in its mythology. Both Merckx and Hinault raced with bravura against evidently stiffer competition than Armstrong has faced, and Hinault was beaten, yet came back to win. They fought for their wins in the cauldron of the Tour itself. Armstrong has done so on the lonely roads of training. He has removed the drama of the race itself to the calculations of his training rides and the laboratory."

* * * * *

That, of course, was then, that was how Fife told the story as it happened. What of the revisions and the updating necessitated by the USADA report, what impact do they have on the version of the history told by Fife? Well Fife deals with all that in the space of - give or take a dozen - three hundred words. Less than a page. With Fife spending a lot of time talking about Oprah Winfrey and no time at all talking about USADA. An alien reading Fife's history of the Tour might be inclined to think that one day Armstrong just upped and decided to confess to the Queen of the chat-shows, unprodded by external forces, that's how clearly he tells the story.

And while Fife takes the opportunity to kick Armstrong there is no time for him to pause and consider how he himself told the story of those years. There's no time to reconsider the withering criticism he seemed to heap on anyone who dared question the fairytale he was reporting on. There's no pause to wonder if the USADA report would have even been possible without the questioning of those Fife had so much scorn for. Fife, it seems, is a man who would suddenly like to forget Lance Armstrong. Fife, it seems, is a man who would suddenly like to forget history.

Back in 2010, when I reviewed the 2009 edition of this book, I noted that it was desperately in need of a radical overhaul, a comprehensive rewrite. Fife's history of the Tour is a book of two halves - well a book that's now one-third travelogue versus two-thirds Tour annual - and has long lost its balance. This is a book which is still tailed by an outro written for the original travelogue but which sits badly - very badly - at the end of the sprawling mess of annual updates.

Those annual updates themselves only tell a part of the story - the part that was obvious in the month or two months between the end of the Tour and their being written. The 2008 update, for instance, was overtaken by events with the post-Tour re-testing of samples. The 2010 update was equally upstaged by Contador's bad steak story. Here, in the aftermath of the USADA report, Fife and his publishers had the ideal opportunity to put right the wrongs of the past, to bring a fresh perspective to the story, to find a better line through the twisting turns of this messy history. Sadly it's an opportunity that has been squandered. And Fife's history of the Tour is badly weakened by such squandering.

Fife's annual updates do have a value, regardless of this major failing. The Armstrong part of the story is but one part of Tour de France - the largest part, yes, but just one part. Take a rider like Thomas Voeckler, who blasted into Tour-consciousness in 2004 and has been centre stage in recent years. A history like Fife's allows you a chance to track such a rider over the years, albeit only in passing. Few other histories have the time or the space to allow you to do that. Having more space - two dozen pages for the latest update - Fife has more time to weave in threads that will become more important in future years.

Sadly, though, it is the failures in the handling of the Armstrong side of the story that overshadow everything else. Maybe it is only appropriate that a book which began life as an incomplete history of the Tour has now grown into a book which is an incomplete history of the last decade and a half of the Tour's history. It is, nonetheless, regrettable that all involved here have done such a poor job of updating the past. As one of the most senior English-speaking Tour historians I had hoped for more from Fife and from this, the most senior of English-language Tour histories.

* * * * *

Graeme Fife's Tour de France: The History, The Legend, The Riders is published by Mainstream (1999, updated 2013, 558 pages)

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