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French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France, by Tim Moore

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Is the thought of watching nearly two hundred lycra-clad men tear-assing round France for three weeks terrorising sheep and disrupting the sleepy afternoons of sleepy villages enough to give you a fit of the vapours? Then perhaps you need to take the Tour at a more gentle pace. Which is exactly what Tim Moore did ten years ago when he shadow rode the route of that year’s race.

Title: French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France
Author: Tim Moore
Publishers: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2001
Pages: 277
Order: HERE
What is it
?: A cyclo-tourist takes on the Tour de France.
Strengths: Moore’s an innocent abroad, so you see the Tour through fresh eyes.
Weaknesses: Could probably have done with some piccies to brighten it up.
Rating: ★★★ (3 out of 5)

Born in a post-millennium Moët-fuelled hangover, Tim Moore’s bright idea was to ride the route of the 2000 Tour de France, setting off a good six weeks before the race’s start and covering the 3,630km route as quick as he could. Naturally, his endeavour was not without difficulties. Some more obvious than others. With the most obvious being that Moore wasn’t what you might call a cyclist. In fact, he didn’t even own a bicycle until a week before he set off for France.

Oh how the British love amateurism. Particularly when it comes to athletic endeavours. The five Ps (proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance) are – generally speaking and abusing a whole nation with the sort of silly cultural stereotyping that makes books like this what they are – totally alien to them. Every other year the BBC celebrates the plucky daring-do spirit with its Sport Relief challenges: send Cheryl Cole up Kilimanjaro in her manolo blanaks; make David Walliams swim the Channel all the while spitting out sea-water and Little Britain catch phrases. I blame Blue Peter. Reared on an annual diet of seeing that programme’s plucky presenters set tasks like swimming the Atlantic or roller-skating up Mt Everest (I exaggerate, but only a little) must play havoc with the psyche of a nation.

Even as an amateur though Moore's preparation for this epic endeavour seems a little ... well, lacking.  Subscribing to the old adage that good climbers are born and not bred he limits himself to a couple of visits to the gym and faith in his genetic inheritance. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re not all just being gulled into believing a whopping big fib when you consider how much space the cycling journalists give over to the big question of whether the Tour favourites have prepared enough or not.

As if being athletically challenged wasn’t a challenge enough on its own, Moore further hamstrings himself by riding with panniers. I’m afraid that I’ve never really got panniers and have always had an uneasy relationship with them. If God invented the bicycle then it was one of Satan's minions  who invented the panniers, just to destroy the sleek line of beauty of his rival’s great creation. I learned early that all you really need can be packed into a saddle bag – still like a cold sore on the lips of la Gioconda, but less visually offensive than the wart that would have been panniers. But it’s not just clothes that Moore weighs himself down with. There’s also the tools of his trade: The Rough Guide to France, Bernard Hinault’s biography, Paul Kimmage’s A Rough Ride, Ralph Hurn’s The Yellow Jersey and several back issues of Procycling magazine. If only they’d had e-Readers a decade ago.

Moore is, first and foremost, a travel writer and the little library in his panniers provides most of the book’s cycling lore. But what he lacks in cycling knowledge or ability, he makes up for with some good writing. Here he is on Eddy Merckx’s main trade team sponsors – Faema and Moltini – and how riding for C&A probably hastened the Cannibal’s retirement:

"I guess I’d give it some oomph for a nice espresso-maker [Faema], and the thought of a plate of sliced salami [Moltini] might give you something to aim at when the bonk came knocking, but you just can’t imagine Eddy grinding through the Casse Déserte under a merciless sun, driven onwards by the terrible, soul-swallowing prospect of a world without slacks!"

Or how about his description of what it must feel like to be a ville d'étape:

"It’s like spending a year getting dressed up for a big date and then being showered with tacky gifts, rudely groped and roughly dumped all in the space of one afternoon."

The book’s best passages come when Moore reaches Mont Ventoux. As part of his preparation he’s watched a video about Tom Simpson. He’s also chosen to wear an old-school Peugeot jersey – a nod to Simpson’s trade team. As he sits in his car contemplating the Ventoux and what climbing it will take out of him, he describes the video of Major Tom’s last ride. Here Moore achieves something few others who’ve covered the same ground have achieved: he wrings some emotion out of a tale worn thin with its retellings. For those four pages alone the book is worth the read.

But what follows is the real icing on the cake: Moore has decided – for some reason he doesn’t really adequately explain – that ephedrine and caffeine tablets are necessary to complete his undertaking. The passages in which he attempts to procure an ephedrine-laced hay fever remedy make you wish that more of the writing about doping in cycling could bring a smile to your lips or a chortle to your throat.

Moore doesn’t just honour the memory of Simpson, he pays homage to early – and even more recent – Tours with his alcoholic indulgences: if a Champagne-filled bidon could get Hinault up an Alp, then surely a half-a-litre of rosé every lunch time would see Moore breezing up the ups like he had a katusha up his arse? If nothing else, you have to admire the man’s constitution.

Moore’s ride is also a fitting tribute to the dramas of the very earliest Tours – when men were men with stupid big moustaches, bikes were as heavy as a Beckett play and if you didn’t feel like doing the full stage distance you just let the train take the strain. But as Moore discovers, one of the Tour’s greatest anecdotes could never have happened if we’d had to wait to today to invent the Tour – on modern French trains, there’s no room for bicycles. But even that doesn’t stop him lopping great big chunks off the big loop. Give thanks they didn’t have Avis in Maurice Garin’s day.

That Moore doesn’t seem to like the French – or even, for that matter, France itself – doesn’t really come as a surprise. That’s just one of the tricks of the genre. And it’s not as if Moore doesn’t equally disparage Italians, Swiss, Germans and even fellow Britons along the way – he’s not a dour xenophobe but a witty misanthrope and don’t we all love one of them? But of course, the butt of most of the joking in the book is Moore himself and his general incompetence: leaving his passport behind in the hotel and having to ride back to get it, riding off with his wife’s car keys in his back pocket and having to ride back to give them to her, getting a puncture and only then realising he doesn’t have a pump with him.

Reading the book a decade after Moore’s ride, I wondered what became of his bicycle after the book was written, the PR tour done and he’d moved on to his next adventure. When last seen in the book’s epilogue it’s rusting away slowly out back with the kids’ bikes, a nesting spot for spiders. It’s almost a pity he didn’t emulate Pierre Brambilla and chop it up with an axe before burying it in the back garden.

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