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Cafe Bookshelf: Come Fly With Graham!

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Crib Sheet

Title: Graham Watson's Tour de France Travel Guide
Author: Graham Watson (duh!)
Publisher: Velo Press
Pages: 340
Order: HERE
What is it? Renowned cycling photographer's personal guide to following the Tour.
Strengths: Traveling in France 101; section on photography; section on famous climbs.
Weaknesses: Don't rely on this as a travel guide. Particularly if you don't drink wine.
Rating: ★★★ (3 of 5)

After 31 years on the job, cycling photographer Graham Watson knows a few things: how to photograph a bike race, how to get around France, and how to track down a nice meal. Watson has lived pretty well on the Tour de France circuit, within those legendary limitations, and 31 years at something as unusual and fascinating as his work means that it's high time he jotted down some notes.

Watsonguide_mediumWhat emerges is a collection of unique insight into certain aspects of the Tour de France, and a pretty enjoyable conversation about how to get around le grand boucle in some style. In some ways the book is an odd collection, a complete download of one individual person's brain, and what seems coherent to a Tour de France photographer may not seem so to, oh, a Minneapolis librarian or Boston banker or Seattle fish lawyer. That's where the travel guide idea comes in. By taking a large chunk of what Watson has to say and organizing it like a travel guide -- full of small, severable informational bits, generously interspersed with pictures and sidebars and graphics -- the editors (or perhaps Watson himself) have made the book very reader-friendly. You can easily surf around the book, dashing from one aspect of the country or the race, until something sounds interesting enough to really read.

Which begs the question, what's interesting about it? A few elements stand out. First, after some basic and Tour-specific travel tips, the book launches into a 100-page guide to the country itself, before turning to the pieces of the book where Watson's insights start to shine through. Feel free to head straight to Chapter 5, Mountains of the Tour, where Watson marries gorgeous picture after picture to a rundown of the Tour's legendary ascents. The text is a solid combination of Watson's course descriptions, memories of past episodes, and insights into why a certain climb -- or a certain approach to a climb -- tend to impact the race. Watson is not the first to tackle the subject, and maybe not the best, but his memories, his details and especially his pictures do add value.

Probably my favorite element of the book is where Watson adds the most value: Chapter 6, Photographing the Tour. Here the author is uniquely qualified to talk about the strange and arduous task of trying to reduce the race to pictures. Lens choices, positioning, lighting, how each stage or portion thereof poses different challenges to a photographer... hey, if photography isn't your thing, then this isn't the book for you. But I found this chapter really entertaining. It isn't easy forming an original thought about something as massive and well-documented as the Tour, so kudos to Watson when he does.

My main criticism of the book is labeling: Watson calls this a travel guide, but it really doesn't measure up in this regard. OK, reading short descriptions of the various regions of France is interesting, and his travel tips (when in the Midi-Pyrenees, try the roast turkey with walnuts!) are literally food for thought. But as a travel guide, this is a short list of pricey-sounding places to stay and eat in a few towns from each French region. Which is to say, it's really not a travel guide.

Maybe this is personal preference; maybe to some people a travel guide is just a handy list of suggestions to someone who has already paid a tour company to make all the important decisions. Alternatively, a travel guide can be something you read at home while daydreaming about a vacation, in no particular detail. But to me it's something else. Years ago I had the good fortune to try my hand at wandering around Asia with little more than some basic provisions and a Lonely Planet guide to whichever country I was in at the moment. That book became my decoder to the unfamiliar world around me, and I depended on it immensely to make innumerable choices as I got around. I really loved those books because they were so incredibly thorough and detailed, and if the book was new enough you could count on their recommendations to really make your journey come alive.

My favorite episode was when I visited a Khmer temple in Thailand, just over the modern Cambodian border. LP not only told me -- accurately -- that this was THE temple to visit in that area (back when crossing the border wasn't such a good idea); it also dissuaded me from hiring an expensive guide in the city (Khorat) for the long trip. Instead, the book led me to a public bus route that stopped at a dusty, deserted intersection deep in the northeastern Thai countryside, where I could hire a kid with a scooter to get me around cheaply. It all worked like magic... and if you get to that deserted intersection and see a woman with a food cart, I strongly recommend the Pad Thai.

If this is an unfair comparison, then at least it serves to illustrate what the book is and is not. Forget about it as a real travel guide, enjoy Watson's simpler informational nuggets, and dig deeper into the later sections where he himself digs deeper into the subject. For the, oh, 25th consecutive summer I will be touring France with the race solely by imagination, and as a guide to imagining following the race, Watsons words and pictures are more than adequate. If you're actually going to France, then Watson's Guide is worth perusing for some particular insights and starting the planning process, before you plunk down for a true travel guide.