Title: Étape - The Untold Story of the Tour de France's Defining Stages
Author: Richard Moore
Publisher: HarperSport (UK) / VeloPress (US)
Order: HarperCollins (UK) / VeloPress (US)
What it is: A tour through the Tour in a couple of dozen stages
Strengths: As usual with Moore, the real strength of the book is the many, many people he spoke to in order to tell these stories
Weaknesses: Honestly, I could maybe live happily without ever reading another account of the last stage of the 1989 Tour de France. But maybe that's just me
The Tour de France is complicated. In order to make it seem easy to the casual fans who come out like sunflowers every July we pretend that it is all about a race for the yellow jersey, that the drama is all about who will reach Paris quickest. We lie to them. Because we have to. The fact is, were we to try and tell the sport's once-a-year fans how truly complicated the Tour is, their brains would probably melt. And we'd feel bad about having to clean up the mess.
Unlike those casual fans, us diehards well know that there are many, many races within the Tour beyond the race for yellow, from those for stages and the ancillary classifications through petty little grudge matches between teams or riders and all the way down to the deeply personal desire of some riders to just get round the goddamned course. And, throughout the Tour, as our interest in the race for the maillot jaune waxes and wanes, we switch our focus to these other races.
For some riders, the Tour de France is all about one single stage. One day out of twenty-odd and that's it, job done. Such a rider was prologue specialist Chris Boardman: "At the 1994 Tour, everybody went for a three-week race," Boardman tells Richard Moore in the opening chapter of Étape. "I went for seven minutes." And in those seven minutes Boardman scored an impressive result: the Tour debutant took the maillot jaune on his very first outing in the race (consider that all the other Brits who'd taken stages and/or jerseys in the Tour had all served an apprenticeship before their moments of glory came around: Boardman was thrown in at the deep end and was swimming like a fish).
For other riders - for other teams - the Tour is about maintaining their position relative to one and other. And sometimes that can actually mean that losing is more important than winning. Back in the 1980s and into the 1990s two such teams were the squads bossed by Peter Post and Jan Raas. Post was sort of like the Patrick Lefevere of his day, his TI-Raleigh riders rocked the one day races. Maybe Lefevere's boys have been more dominant in the classics and semi-classics but they don't have one thing Post's boys had: a Tour de France title, in 1980, when Joop Zoetemelk won.
Peter Post then, he was a bit of a genius. With a flaw: not everyone liked him. And one person who didn't like him was Jan Raas, his top rider. And at the end of the 1983 season Raas upped sticks, took something like half of Post's team with him and set up shop as Kwantum (which, after regenerating through Superconfex, Buckler, WordPerfect, Novell, and Rabobank went Blanco before becoming today's Belkin). At which point the Tour - in particular - was served up with a brilliant rivalry, Post Vs Raas, a rivalry unlike most others, because each was willing to lose in order to stop the other winning.
You can go through many Tours through the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s where there are stories told about how Post and Raas toyed with one and other. For Étape Moore has found one of the best: the 1992 Tour, stage seventeen, where Frans Massen and Marc Sergeant got away in a break with Jean-Claude Colotti (riding for Roger Legeay's Z squad) and built up a quarter hour lead over the peloton behind. And then Post and Raas ordered their riders not to work in the break, for fear of helping the other to win.
Now you will often get riders marking each other out of the race back in the peloton - you probably know at least one story of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi doing this - but off the front of the race? That's special. So special that the Tour's bosses had to give Post and Raas a stern talking to, for bringing the race into disrepute, after the stage (which Colotti won, with Massen and Sergeant duking it out for first and second loser status three and a half minutes behind him).
So the Tour, it's about winning, it's about not letting someone else win. It's also about surviving. And one of the annual unseen survival stories is that of the sprinters in the gruppetto in the mountains. Mark Cavendish's recent second volume of autobiographies - At Speed - is quite good on this subject and for Étape Moore adds more detail to one of Cavendish's stories of survival in the mountains, expanding the story by getting it not just from Cavendish's perspective but also from his Sancho Panza, Bernhard Eisel.
Another thing we don't always tell the newbies is that there's more happens on rest days than they realise. Every year there's contract negotiations, for the post-Tour critérium circuit and for what team riders will be with the following season. Every few years there's a doping bust. And sometimes there's some real farce. Which there was in 1991, when Motorola's Urs Zimmerman got thrown off the race for the crime of travelling from Saint-Herblain in the north-west of France to Pau in the south-west by car and not by the charter flight the Tour had laid on for the riders. Quite a few people know this story, or think they do, believing that Zimmerman travelled by car because he was scared of flying. That was the explanation put out by Jim Ochowicz at the time and almost universally accepted ever since. But, as Zimmerman tells Moore, Ochowicz was talking shite (my paraphrasing of his words).
And what we really don't want to have to tell the Freds is that a win is sometimes not quite what it seems. We know of the dirty deals done dirt cheap: of the nod and the wink and the money that changes hand or the lodgement made to or withdrawal from the karma bank. We know that riders gift stages out of honour: the champion elect lets another take the stage glory he having the bigger glory to bask in. And we know that, sometimes, there's peloton politics behind what happens on a stage. In passing, Moore mentions one such stage in the 1976 Tour, when Freddy Maertens - en route to equalling the record for the most stage wins in a single Tour - let Jacques Eclassan take a victory, as a favour to his Peugeot team, a simple act of friendship. And in detail Moore discusses another such stage, also in the 1976 Tour, when the whole peloton allowed Super Ser's José Luis Viejo take victory, because the sponsor was threatening to pull the team from the race as a result of their lack of results.
All this complexity and more is dealt with by Richard Moore in Étape¸ which offers a tour through the Tour de France through individual stages from 17 editions of the grande boucle ranging from 1971 through to 2012. It's almost like a Tour mix-tape, a collection of greatest hits (Merckx, Hinault, etc), album tracks (Chiappucci, Pelier, etc) and B-sides (Nelissen, Viejo, etc), some of which you are already familiar with, some of which you will be hearing for the first time.
Étape may seem like it's competing in a crowded marketplace but, really, the hundreds of Tour books out there can be broken down into different categories and in the day-in-the-life category - one stage of a Tour that captures something important - there are maybe only two other titles: last year's Le Tour 100, by Peter Cossins et al; and 2003's Golden Stages, edited by Richard Allchin and Adrian Bell. The key difference between Étape and those two books is that Moore, having selected the stages he wanted to write about, went back to the protagonists themselves and built the picture up based on interviews with people who were actually there (so, for instance, the Post/Raas rivalry story mentioned above contains interviews with Massen and Sergeant, as well as Hillaire van der Schuren, who was there that day, and Leo van Vliet, who knew Post and Raas).
As with Golden Stages, the story of one stage is rarely restricted to that single stage: it is often set in the context of other stages of that year's Tour, other editions of the Tour, or other races throughout the season and throughout the careers of the riders Moore is talking to and about. And, of course, Moore cheats: the stage Moore picks for Merckx is actually three, all from the 1971 Tour (Orcières-Merlette, Marseille and the Col de Menté), the author justifying bending his own rules (which are really only guidelines anyway) by (correctly) stating that "to speak of stage 11 or 12 of the 1971 Tour de France in isolation would be like talking about only one half of a great football match. To then ignore stage 14 would be like not mentioning extra time in a World Cup final."
By now you will probably know that (for the most part) I like Moore's books, rate highly In Search of Robert Millar, Sky's the Limit and Slaying the Badger. I like the way Moore tells his stories, building them up by talking to as many people as he can, and - through careful editing and selection of interviewees and quotes - building up a multi-voiced story. And while Étape appears to lack the single, driving narrative of his previous books, it is very much from the same mould, Moore letting people who were there tell the story (or appearing to let people who were there tell the story - he himself adds much to the tales told, adding detail his interviewees omit and, of course, controlling the overall direction of the story).
One of the difficulties Moore has had to confront in Étape is how to deal with the subject of doping. Take as a for instance one of the stages discussed in detail, Claudio Chiapucci winning in Sestriere in 1992. This was a stage which at the time recalled - and even today still recalls - for many the exploits of Fausto Coppi, who won in Sestriere forty years earlier, when the ski resort made its first appearance in the Tour and the campionissimo put in a performance that put his ascent of Alpe d'Huez (also making its début) two days earlier so far into the shade that people soon forgot about that mountain.
According to Chiappucci this "was an escape in the Tour where my rivals didn't give me any favours. I wasn't let loose like an unknown domestique. They knew who I was and that they couldn't give me space because it'd be difficult to catch me. They thought that I wouldn't be able to make it. They thought that I'd crack. But my legs and the fans were my salvation." But it was also an escape which, now, Jean-François Bernard says "symbolised the arrival of the heavy artillery." Stephen Roche, on the other hand, challenges the claim that Sestriere clearly marked the arrival of Gen-EPO, saying that "If you accuse Chiapucci, you doubt all the achievements of cyclists and athletes in general."
As with Pantani in the 1998 Tour, there are differences of opinion as to how - or even whether - we should acknowledge such exploits. And when it comes to Lance Armstrong there are differences of opinion as to how - or even whether - we should acknowledge his very existence. Moore will win as many friends as he does enemies for the manner in which he deals with Armstrong in Étape, where he gives the former seven-time Tour winner not one but two chapters, discussing stages from the 1995 and 2003 Tours, Armstrong winning into Limoges three days after his team-mate Fabio Casartelli died descending the Col de Portet d'Aspet, and Armstrong falling and rising again on the road to Luz Ardiden in 2003.
Personally I don't believe we can - or should - take an airbrush to Armstrong. We haven't done it to any of the riders who admitted to doping in the years before it was an offence. We haven't done it to riders like Bernard Thévenet - a two-time Tour winner - who admitted in the 1970s that he had doped. We haven't done it to Eddy Merckx who three times failed dope tests. Why should we single out Armstrong and others of the Gen-EPO years, especially when there are so many of that generation who we are pretty sure doped - especially the Tour winners - even if they have yet to publicly acknowledge what really went on in those years? The real question is how we tell the tale, how much we acknowledge the role played by doping. And - I think - in Étape Moore does a good job of that when it comes to Armstrong.
Étape, then, is - like the Tour de France itself - complicated and that complexity is actually the hidden central narrative of the book. And, because of the way Moore handles that complexity, even seasoned fans of the sport may find themselves reaching the end of Étape and thinking of the Tour in a different light. Finding fresh appreciation for just how complex the Tour really is.
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