Graeme Fife's history of the Tour De France - cunningly entitled Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders - is, quite possibly, the most pupular English-language book about the grand boucle. Fife made himself available for interview recently but before that appears, let's have a quick look at the book itself.
Title: Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders
Author: Graeme Fife
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year: 1999 (updated annually since, this edition 2009)
What it is: A history of the Tour de France, anecdotally up to 1997, annually since.
Strengths: Possibly the only English-language Tour book that's updated every year.
Weaknesses: It's a book of two halves, the history of the race from 1903 to 1997 and then from 1998 todate being told in radically different ways.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
Originally published in 1999, Graeme Fife's Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders was a history of the Tour as seen through the prism of the race's high points: "I want to see he mountains the Tour crosses, to ride them, to seek out the compulsion of this majestic, crazy, perdurable, inspiring, heroic cycle race." What we got was a sort of French Revolutions (a good year or two before Tim Moore's book was published), Fife setting out to ride the key mountains: Alpe d'Huez, the col du Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier, Izoard and Vars, ending up on the Ventoux. Each climb allowed Fife to tell a different part of the race's history alongside his own story.
If you've read any of the other Tour histories - which range from the brief but satisfying Blazing Saddles through to the comically incompetent A Race For Madmen - you'll be familiar with many of the stories told, especially of the early races. But stop a moment and remember something: this book was originally published more than a decade ago, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular to tell this story in English. Some of the stories now so familiar from other books first appeared here. And even after having been strip-mined by other authors Fife still has stories that don't often appear elsewhere, like Henri Desgrange's decision in 1928 to allow some of the lesser, regional teams, call upon substitute riders over the course of the race.
Or there's the tale of Hugo Koblet and the Swiss tax authorities. Having mentioned recently Freddy Maertens' thirty-year battle with the taxman, the tale told by Fife of Koblet is probably worth repeating.
Koblet had won the 1951 Tour, his first time to even ride the race. That was the year of the famous Brive-Agen stage, celebrated by Tim Krabbe in The Rider and deconstructed by Benjo Maso in The Sweat Of The Gods. In the aftermath of the race, Koblet got into an argument with the Swiss tax authorities over precisely how much he owed them, each side disputing the figures offered by the other.
One day a tax inspector turned up at Koblet's home, determined to resolve the dispute. He showed the pédaleur du charme two photographs, Swiss cycling stars from a bye-gone era, both mort. "They won a lot of races," the taxman told Koblet, "as you have. And they wound up destitute, dependent upon public funds to live. They owed the daily bread of their old age to public charity. So since you're going to end up the same way, don't bitch about paying taxes - you're contributing to the fund you'll have to draw on one day."
As it happens, the taxman was wrong about Koblet dying destitute. He wrapped his sports car around a tree in 1964, six years after having retired. He was thirty-nine years old.
The first half of the book then is travelogue mixed with an anecdotal history. As a means of delivering the Tour's history - the essential elements of it anyway - this works remarkably well. What you get is an economical - albeit incomplete - history of the Tour's first ninety-five years, all done and dusted by the book's mid-point. You don't get page after page of ‘this happened and then that happened and then something else happened and he won.' It's the highlights reel, stories linked by association and not temporality.
The second half of the book is an entirely different beast of a book. The original theme of the book - the Tour through the prism of the mountains it passes over - has given way to potted histories of each of those twelve editions of the race. The tale of Fife's original journey - which seems to have been completed in 1997 - was augmented in the original book with two final chapters, telling the stories of Tour 1998 (l'Affaire Festina) and 1999. In the revisions the book has gone through since, the Tours 2000 through 2009 have been added to the mix (the 2010 update will be along shortly). These past dozen Tours receive the same space given over to the first eighty-four.
Individually, these annual updates can contain gems. Fife's viewpoint allows him to see events in their historical context. Take Tyler Hamilton's famous injuries, the broken collarbone in the 2003 Tour and the broken shoulder in the 2002 Giro. At the end of the section in the 2002 update detailing these physical mishaps we get, parenthetically, the story of Honoré Barthélémy who, in the 1920 Tour crashed and broke bones in both wrist and shoulder, as well as losing an eye. Rather than abandon, Barthélémy rode on, six more stages - six more 1920 stages - finishing up in Paris eight overall. With a broken wrist, broken shoulder and minus an eye! In offering us this story you can almost hear Fife telling Hamilton to HTFU.
Taken collectively they offer something else. Pick any current rider - Thor Hushvod, Fabian Cancellera, whoever - and mark their progress Tour to Tour. David Millar, for some reason, stands out for me. He enters the story in 2000 and on his first day in his first Tour he wins the prologue and wears the maillot jaune. Millar told journalists that he'd "always thought of cycling as having an epic, romantic scale. It's a beautiful sport, a great sport. I've always liked the epic nature of all that suffering. That appeals to me a lot." Epic suffering just about sums up all of Millar's experiences in the Tour. Each Tour he's high on hope but low on delivery, mishaps and mayhem blowing any hopes of a jersey or a decent GC position. A few more stage wins - 2002 and 2003 - seem almost like consolation prizes.
Millar's tale also offers insight into one of the dominant stories of these past twelve Tours: doping. Having talked up his chances between 2000 and 2003 Fife drops Millar like a hot potato in 2004. He becomes a "fallen idol." Even mentioning him is infra dig, with Fife castigating Stu O'Grady, who won a stage in the 2004 Tour and "rather tactlessly dedicated the win in part to his friend, the disgraced Millar." A laudable attitude to doping, some might say.
But consider Fife's choice of language when discussing l'Affaire Festina and its immediate aftermath. The health checks brought in by the French Federation were "harsh" and "draconian." The journalists who talked of doping were "gutter press," engaged in a "witch-hunt." Anyone who questioned the high speed of the race "whined." French riders who dared to talk of a two-speed peloton were "disgruntled" and "bitching." Christophe Bassons "trumpeting himself as Mr Clean" was "not helpful." While Fife appears to have no difficulty with Jacques Anquetil's claim that you can't win the tour a l'eau Bassons' claim that that you can't "win a Tour stage just by turning the pedals" was "bleating." Had Fife heaped even half as much scorn on dopers and doping I probably wouldn't have much of a problem with these comments.
Perhaps Fife's flaw is an over-eagerness to believe in renewal, a dope-free future. In 1999 he was already talking of the "post-EPO era" despite there being no test for the drug or any evidence that the sport even wanted to clean itself up. In 2000, he drew comfort from anti-doping samples being stored for future testing as soon as an EPO test was approved. When, in 2001, that EPO test caught the Euskatel-Euskadi rider Txema del Olmo, Jean-Marie Leblanc declared that this was "proof that the EPO test worked perfectly." We're still waiting for the stored samples to be tested and tell us their story. Officially anyway.
Doping also highlights a flaw with the book: it only tells the story of the Tour as it develops over three weeks in July. This is particularly a problem with the 2008 Tour, with the post-Tour retrospective testing of samples not being included in Fife's history, and so Leonardo Piepoli, Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl still stand as stage winners.
Maybe what the book most needs at this point is a comprehensive rewrite, correcting the various minor errors that have crept into it with each annual update, remedying the more obvious major errors such as the 2008 retro tests and perhaps taking pause to expand upon things like the political infighting between the ASO and the UCI, touched upon briefly in the 2008 update but otherwise ignored. Although with history still in flux with regard to the Armstrong era maybe such a rewrite should be held off until Jeff Novitzky has had his say.
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You'll find an interview with Graeme Fife on the Cafe Bookshelf.