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The Tour de France ... To The Bitter End, edited by Richard Nelsson

A collection of cycling articles.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

Graun_medium Title: The Tour de France ... To The Bitter End
Author: Richard Nelsson (editor) (Introduction by William Fotheringham)
Publisher: Guardian Books
Year: 2012
Pages: 362
Order: Random House
What it is: A history of the Tour de France, as reported in the Guardian and Observer newspapers in the UK.
Strengths: A few of the early pieces - from the twenties through to the forties - are worth the price of admission.
It's light, slight, disjointed and doesn't have an awful lot to say for itself that hasn't been said thousands of times elsewhere.

"There is little I can tell you about Aglaura beyond the things its own inhabitants have always repeated: an array of proverbial virtues, of equally proverbial faults, a few eccentricities, some punctilious regard for rules. [...] you would like to say what it is, but everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say."
~ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I feel story for those who produce the many, many (too many) books re-telling the history of the big buckle. I am sorry for them that they are competing in such a crowded marketplace (a marketplace about to get even more crowded as we lurch toward the one hundredth Tour next year). But I am especially sorry for them that we are now entering a new, revisionist phase of cycling history. A phase in which seven years of Tour history - as many as were lost to World War II - now require re-writing. A phase in which the history you thought you witnessed is set to be replaced by a new, alternative history. Think of all those authors who thought that the final chapter left for them to write for their Tour 100 book would be a round-up of Tour 2012. Think of them and how they are going to deal with the history re-written by USADA's recent judgement on Lance Armstrong.

The Guardian newspaper offers an ideal solution to this problem in the way they utilise their Corrections & Clarifications column. A solution they may yet need to reach for themselves given their own recent entry into the Tour history marketplace with The Tour De France ... To The Bitter End.

Edited by Richard Nelsson (with an introduction by William Fotheringham) The Tour De France ... To The Bitter End is a collection of newspaper columns from The Guardian and it's Sunday sister, The Observer. The Graun's rival, The Daily Telegraph, entered this market three years ago with The Daily Telegraph's Book Of The Tour De France (edited by Martin Smith). That offered three articles from 1903 (each of about a hundred words each), another hundred-worder from 1904 and the same again from 1909 before taking a great leap forward to 1961 - suggesting that the Little Englanders in the Torygraph forgot that France existed for half a century. The muesli-munching, sandal-wearing tree-huggers in the Graun open with a hundred-word squib from 1903 and an even shorter one from 1905 before leaping forward to 1924 and serving up a thirteen-hundred-word feast. If you think I'm going to go on and give you a year-by-year word count for the rest of the contents, forget it: the more important point is that you're seventy-odd pages into the book before the sixties come around. Unlike the hacks in the Torygraph those in the Graun were aware of le Tour before the arrival of Tom Simpson.

A brief excerpt from William Fotheringham's introduction helps paint a picture of To The Bitter End's take on the Tour. In the quote that follows Fotheringham is talking about a briefing he was given in 1994 by the Graun's then sports editor, Mike Averis, and the paper's then cycling correspondent, Stephen Bierley, when he first started reporting on the grande boucle:

"The key thing to remember, they told me, was that on days when there was not much developing in the race overall, a day perhaps when the stage victory went to an obscurity of foreign origin who might not be of great interest to British readers, I should have no fear of writing what we hacks call 'colour.' In Tour terms, that means digressing far from the bare facts of the action into what might loosely be described as 'Tourism' - evoking and explaining the cultural, social, scenic, gastronomic and political context that makes the race the unique event it is."

This issue of obscure foreigners not being worth reporting on has long been one of my bug-bears with the way the Graun reports the Tour (it is equally true of other Anglosphere newspapers, but since the Graun used to be my paper of choice it was always more annoying there): if one of their own or a Big Gun isn't winning, the race is only worth writing about as a colourful, and often daft, event. Something that elicits a wry smile at how crazy our Continental cousins can be. That's not to suggest I don't like colour pieces: the opposite is true. The evocation of the cultural, social and political context of the race is something I value highly (the gastronomic and the scenic ... meh).

My issue is more about balance, about fairly reporting the race. How are the general British public supposed to know who Pierrick Fédrigo or Tommy Voeckler or Pierre Rolland or a host of others are if those reporting the race for them gloss over their existence in favour of colour commentary? Consider, perhaps, how the policy the Graun's sports desk applies to cycling might be applied to football: should a goal scored by "an obscurity of foreign origin who might not be of great interest to British readers" be overlooked in favour of some brief comment about the history of his club or the quality of pies available at his ground? (Actually, many match commentaries would only be improved by such a policy, so perhaps I should quit digging this hole now.)

It is the colour pieces which form the better part - in volume and quality - of this collection of newspaper columns (specifically, those that aren't simply regurgitating the same old too oft told facts and fancies from The Dummies Guide To the Tour De France). Consider, for instance, these quotes from that 1924 thirteen-hundred-worder:

"One upon a time there was an honest young mason who had three young children and a wife whom he adored. Now it came about that in one month, without speculation or luck, by his own hands and legs he won his fame and fortune and bought the biggest house in the village where he will live happily ever afterwards. This is one of the twenty favourite themes of modern folk-lore; its catchword is 'quick and honest riches'; its latest setting the 1924 Tour de France, or the story of Ottavio Bottecchia, champion cyclist."

The article - written by William Bolitho - goes on to wax lyrical about the Tour, noting how it is "the living Iliad." It continues:

"Bottecchia is a young mason from Frioul in Italy. He fits the legend of the poor young man who loves his family exactly; for the rest, he hates the bicycle, thinks of nothing else but home. He cares nothing for honour, has no ambitions but that best house in the village, never smiles, never talks, and all the other professionals hate him. He is long and thin, with a nose like [a] pick-axe. Last year he appeared for the first time and won second place. As soon as he was well, on the money he had gained he went into diligent training for the big race again. His rivals in Italy, particularly [Giovanni] Brunero, after discussing the oaf and the upstart with their national talent for criticism, put him out of their minds and wiped out the memory of his snatched win in their lesser triumphs on the track, on the road, throughout the year. Bottecchia helped them to forget by keeping on training for the Tour de France in strict seclusion."

The notion that Bottecchia trained in strict seclusion - like Bradley Wiggins or Cadel Evans this year - is tempting to believe, especially given the view put about by many that it was the Americans (first Greg LeMond and then Lance Armstrong) who began the tilt toward training only for the Tour. Certainly the Italian won nothing of note between the 1923 and 1924 Tours, so it may actually be true. Let's dip back into Bolitho's prose:

"[The] whole run is done, with hardly a break, between two lines of spectators ranged round the border of France like an ornamental edge of applause and curiosity. In the wildest parts of Brittany and Savoy there is never a kilometre without a waiting car or motor-cycle. In the big towns on the evening of arrival they mobilise regiments of police to keep a streak of road open to the control table. [...] The course turned into dolorous allegory. [...] For the first week the lonely shingled paths of Brittany, past dour Stations of the Cross and innumerable exiled churches, then past the 300-mile stretch of sand down the Atlantic side. Then come, in the Basque country, the Justices of the Peace, those calm, inhuman shoulders of the great Pyrenean range: Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, which no car can climb without resting to cool, which separate and inexorably classify the racers."

And then comes the actual racing and Bottecchia's victory:

"The young mason of Frioul entered Paris a conqueror. A delirium of flowers and voices waited for him; best of all, the envelope with the cheque. The people, those strata too near the fundamental needs of life to taste any of the refined virtues of amateurism, understand Bottecchia, the professional of professionals, who only fought for money. For them the acted legend has the end they most approve."

The dichotomy in the way the race is reported - it is, in To The Bitter End, at once gloriously mythic and at the same time disdainfully base - recurs in following years. As the race enters the 1930s The Observer's unnamed correspondent notes how

"the athletic prowess which the average Frenchman really admires is not a matter of games, but of endurance, This volatile, vivacious, loquacious and nervous race instinctively respects the man who can doggedly endure to the bitter end. It is a most curious illustration of national psychology, but there can be no question of the truth. The Frenchman may despise a man who is not quick. He may delight in himself being supple and adaptable in finding shortcuts and turning difficulties; but he reserves his loudest cheers for persistence."

Some of the fun of reading books like To The Bitter End is seeing the present in the past. Take this bit from Jock Wadley - a print version of Phil Liggett from way back when - reporting from the 1961 Tour:

"Yesterday, the July 14 holiday crowds cheered [Jacques Anquetil, winner of the time trial between Bergerac and Périgueux]. Tomorrow, when he rides his lap of honour at the Parc des Princes track in Paris, he will not expect so unanimous a vote of approval, even though he will have carried out his promise and worn the maillot jaune from the first to the last day. The public like a race, and there hasn't been one in the Tour this year. The fault is not Anquetil's but his rivals'. [...] If a section of the crowd does boo Anquetil tomorrow, it will be because they are unable to dissociate him from the French national team which he captains. Besides slowing down the race, the 'chase everybody' policy of the Tricolors has robbed many a lesser light of the chance of getting in the headlines and the money. If it had been left to Anquetil's challengers, the Tour would have been a leisurely ride."

Doping is an issue that fills a lot of space in To The Bitter End. Here it's curious to see the naïve hope the issue has elicited in some. Take Peter Lennon from back in 1964:

"When the Tour de France riders came panting into the Parc des Princes, Paris, after a 2,800-mile jog around the nation, their muscles threadbare - some in a state of collapse - many of them must have realised that they were probably the last representatives of old-style, heart-tearing cycle racing. A few days before, the Secretary of State for Sport, M Maurice Herzog, had announced that this autumn the French Assembly will vote on, and without doubt pass, a law forbidding the use of stimulants in sport. [...] With modern methods of detection it will no longer be necessary to perform a cumbersome analysis of sweat and saliva; a urine test on the spot will be sufficient to reveal the quantity and the kind of drugs that have been used."

Money also crops rather a lot in the Graun's Tour reporting: the cost of the race, the prizes on offer, riders' salaries, appearance fees etc. Add up all the numbers and you get a pretty good idea of how the Graun views the Tour: not as a sport, but as part of the entertainment industry, a business. There's also rather a lot of navel gazing going on as, over the years, Graun journos have tended to fill in the space between winners worthy of being talked about by talking about that which they know best: their own profession.

"The cyclists are the heroes of the Tour de France, but behind the images seen daily by millions of viewers lies a media circus that cranks into gear as each stage comes to an end."

So spoke Pedro Blasco in 1994, and he continued on in similar vein for another 500 words. Back in 1977 Hugh McIlvaney was sending this back from the race:

"[The reporters] chased along in complaining cars, driving in a style that is rarely seen outside the Place de la Concorde or Hyde Park Corner, and most of the time they found themselves looking at nothing more informative than the damp shirt of a police motorcyclist up ahead. At first such enforced remoteness is disturbing to someone accustomed to the press box at Cup Final or the ringside of a championship fight. But before long the mind adjusts to the uniqueness of the Tour. Its dramas are not so much witnessed as absorbed and its story cannot be rendered or understood as a succinct and rounded narrative, only as a living accumulation of folklore over the twenty-two days of it duration. Its proper tradition of reporting is by word-of-mouth, tales brought back from a shifting battlefield."

That claim that the Tour's story cannot "be rendered or understood as a succinct and rounded narrative, only as a living accumulation of folklore over the twenty-two days of it duration" may explain the shape and structure of To The Bitter End. There is no succinct and rounded narrative here, no thread holding the pieces together other than the Tour itself and the view that the race is, well, colourful.

We could also look to the contributors to find the right criticism of To The Bitter End. During the 1978 Tour Geoffrey Nicholson described the race as being like "one of those big, untidy Victorian novels which suffer from having first appeared as a magazine serial." A comment that could be made of the book itself, its component parts themselves having first appeared as newspaper columns.

A look at the list of (named) contributors will give you some idea of the quality of the writing contained within the covers of To The Bitter End: Pierre Ballester, Stephen Bierley, Pedro Blasco, William Bolitho, Christopher Brasher, DW Brogan, Charles Burgess, Dennis Campbell, Jeremy Campbell, Philip Carr, St John Donn Byrne, William Fotheringham, John Gale, Adam Glasser, Garry Hogg, Frank Keating, Arnold Kemp, Martin Kettle, Peter Lennon, Phil Liggett, Hugh McIlvaney, Donald McRae, Norris McWhirter, Tim Moore, Andrew Mulligan, Geoffrey Nicholson, Mark Redding, Matt Rendell, Matt Seaton, François Thomazeau, JB Wadley, Peter Walker, Richard Williams, Zoe Williams and Richard Yallop.

Let's pull something from the only woman on that list, Zoe Williams:

"even [the riders'] cheating has an old-world charm; one racer had someone hide in the bushes and pass him a lead pipe on the way down a hill, to speed his descent. It's got everything - ingenuity, physics, human frailty, friendship and shrubbery. Having said that, most Tour cheating isn't about gravity all, it's about drugs. They are inveterate caners, the racers, and always have been. In 1924, Henri Péllisier said to a journalist: ‘That's cocaine to go in our eyes, chloroform for our gums, and do you want to see the pills? We keep going on dynamite. In the evenings we dance around our rooms instead of sleeping.' I find this pretty tickling - where all other athletes roll over in shame or denial when they're accused of chemical enhancement, cyclists say; ‘Well, we're engaged in a feat of epic proportions. This is mankind against nature. Of course we're going to take drugs!'"

Some of the colour comes with a Continental twist. Here, for instance, is l'Équipe's Pierre Ballester - yes, he of Breaking The Chain and LA Confidential - from 1994, when le Tour made its second visit to England:

"In the end, they're not very different from us, these English. They study the professionals' bikes admiringly, they murmur reverently when an unknown cyclist swishes past, they hang around the starting line stuffing themselves - sweet, savoury, hot and cold, all in the same mouthful - they get all excited over a name they recognise, they even talk knowingly about sets of gears they've never seen before."

Ballester goes on:

"It was a time of England made in France and vice-versa, of stolid picnics on windy verges, of beer on pub terraces, of polite incomprehension. ‘But how am I going to get home to feed my dog?' asked an incredulous old lady, prevented by the barriers from getting to the other side of the village. ‘You've only got a couple of hours to wait,' replied an impassive bobby. ‘Stay where you are and enjoy the show.' Delightful, the English sense of humour."

Enough with the colour. Time to talk of the pachyderm in the pantry: revisionism. The issue of the seven Tours that Armstrong did or didn't win. A January 2012 article from Richard Williams serves as the penultimate piece in To The Bitter End and sums up the tone with regard to Armstrong. Entitled ‘Case Closed: Armstrong's Record Will Be Left For History To Decide' Williams' piece came in the aftermath of the Federal case against Armstrong having been dropped:

"It would have been nice to have established the truth, either way, and put it beyond dispute. A suggestion that the US Anti-Drug Agency [sic] will continue the pursuit seem unrealistic: [Jeff] Novitsky has the resources but could not find the incontrovertible evidence that went beyond a matter of one man's word against another (or, in the case of Emma O'Reilly, the former US Postal masseuse who told her story to David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, the authors of LA Confidential, one woman's word). Case closed then. There will never be a smoking gun or a dripping syringe."

As I said on opening this review: the people who pull these books together have my sympathy.

Overall, To The Bitter End makes for an odd, disjointed reading experience. A couple or three articles do stand out (Bolitho's 1924 piece quoted above, a 1943 piece from Garry Hogg and a 1947 piece from DW Brogan) but mostly To The Bitter End is the same old same old seen all too often in books about the Tour. Whether the lack of actual race reportage - To The Bitter End is mostly colour - is a pro or a con, well that I have yet to decide. One of the downsides of having very little racing action is that it's hard to see - from To The Bitter End alone - how the Tour as succeeded as a sporting event. The upside, on the other hand, is that you don't really need to know anything about the Tour in order to get something from this quirky but colourful collection of newspaper columns.