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Quick-View: Christopher Thompson's Tour de France

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Christopher S. Thompson, The Tour de France: A Cultural History, Updated Ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.

Thompson, The Tour de FranceLast winter, during those dark days when there is no bike racing, I decided to read and review The Tour de France: A Cultural History, by Christopher S. Thompson. I bought the book, always a good first step. I even read it, and scribbled nonsense all over the pages, as I have the habit of doing. Then, I started writing a draft review, a review that I never got around to finishing it. There was a doping scandal or a bike race, or well, who knows why. Months dragged on, races happened, no review.

This book deserves to be reviewed at length. This is not that review, but instead a short overview - call it a quick-view - of Thompson’s history. This book is filled fascinating material, and I don’t really do it justice here. But I did want to bring the book to the Cafe party, because I do think many of you would enjoy reading it.

Below the flip, then, Gav’s Quick-View.

One note before we get started: The new edition includes a preface, which covers the Landis case and other relatively current issues. I’d advise reading it as an epilogue rather than a preface. But that’s just me.

Thompson, an Associate Professor of History at Ball State University, sets out in this book to trace the relationship between the Tour de France and French culture over time. His account begins in the 1890s, and he swiftly lays out the cultural landscape of France during a time period of significant economic, social, and political change. The late 19th century marked the emergence of an increasingly educated middle class, who had the time and means to pursue leisure activities. They read newspapers and magazines, shopped in the new department stores, and travelled as tourists to different regions of France. They also attended the World’s Fairs, which showcased the new technological marvels of the age, among them the bicycle. The Tour’s conception comes at the intersection of these changes, and Thompson neatly and concisely explains how the Henri Desgranges’ invention is a product of its time and place.

Politically, this period also marked a period of rebuilding for France after the defeat by Germany in 1871. The history students in the audience will recall that the Franco-Prussian War ended with humiliation as the Germans declared their newly-unified state from the halls of France’s Versailles castle. L’ouch. Thompson explains how the Tour mapped a geographical representation of French identity and served as a vehicle to celebrate French national unity. Thompson has done his homework and his analysis of school textbooks helps to demonstrate the importance of the Tour in imagining the French nation.

Thompson is at his best when he shows how the Tour represents competing ideals and how it becomes a space for arguments over wider cultural norms. At its outset, the Desgranges set out to create a Cult of Heroism around the Tour. This idea emphasized the human nature of the competitors and celebrated their extreme suffering. The cult of heroism sought to challenge the mechanized technology of the industrial society of the time. In short, to suffer was to be human. Thompson analyzes the early coverage of the Tour and finds that it emphasizes the human traits necessary for victory. Determination, ambition, will-power: these characteristics allowed the successful rider to overcome the Tour’s monstrous difficulties.

Yet, this Cult of Heroism did not go unchallenged, and over time, critics of the Tour used it to raise questions about cultural norms and assumptions. For example, Thompson devotes a chapter to examining the conflicting ideas about gender that the Tour evoked. In the main, the Tour in its early years reinforced traditional gender roles for women. Thompson highlights the efforts of Tour organizers to portray winning racers as models of masculinity. The podium presentations, for example, involved women - podium girls - in a role designed to show the winners as desirable and attractive. The author links these ideals to the fate of women's’ racing in France, which enjoyed little, if any support.

Thompson also includes fascinating analysis of the relationship between the Tour and debates about labor. He places the debates over doping controls into this context. Thompson does not entirely explain the shift in attitudes from acceptance of doping to opposition, though he hints that it is related to a wider cultural shift in the 1960s in which many perceived drug use as the purview of the counter-culture. At the same time, Thompson’s analysis usefully contextualizes events such as Bjarne Riis’s advocacy of a hematocrit limit as a protection of worker safety.

The book also makes a great deal of sense out of the Armstrong story. Thompson finds links between the portrayal of Armstrong’s 1999 victory and the themes of suffering and resistance at the heart of the Tour’s Cult of Heroism. During Armstrong’s later years, the press in France turned against him, deriding him as "le robot," and suggesting that he had relied on doping, rather than human qualities to triumph. To be a robot was to lose the human qualities that made for true heroics, according to the traditional narrative of the Tour that Thompson lays out.

With this book, Thompson has written a deeply researched and insightful study of the Tour’s importance in French culture and the ways in which the race both reflected, challenged, and communicated French identity. The research is prodigious and Thompson has burrowed deeply into the historical record.

Two areas are curiously absent from the book. First, the riders themselves are largely silent players in this account. We learn a great deal about Desgranges and his successor Goddet, but considerably less about the riders’ views of the race. Few stories from the race make it into this account. To some degree, it is unfair to demand this, since it is clear that Thompson is writing about the interaction between the Tour and French society not about the race itself. Still, greater attention to the riders and their exploits would add more depth to this valuable study.

Second, Thompson devotes surprisingly little attention to the relationship between the Tour and the French state. The absence of the state is particularly striking when Thompson turns his attention to the doping issue. He briefly lays out the main developments of the 1998 Festina Affair, writing that the authorities decided to crack down on doping. Thompson also alludes to changing attitudes in French society about drug use. Drug use of all kinds became associated with the social upheavals and revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s, a symbol for lawlessness and challenges to the social order. Were there political changes that led the French government to place the Tour under greater scrutiny? Why did the government choose to crack down the race and its riders in 1998? Thompson does not entirely answer these questions.

But these criticisms do not detract significantly from the value of Thompson’s study. Most cycling fans understand intuitively that the Tour de France is more than a bike race. Thompson helps us to understand why and to understand the deep connection between the Tour and French national identity. The essential French-ness of the race has often befuddled foreign observers, who at times can not understand the decisions the race organizers make or the attitudes found in the press. Thompson has made a great deal of sense out of this complicated story. This book should be essential reading for fans of the Tour.