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Ultimate Étapes, by Peter Cossins

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Passo dello Stelvio
Passo dello Stelvio
© Gruber Images

Title: Ultimate Étapes - Ride Europe's Greatest Cycling Stages
Author: Peter Cossins
Publisher: Aurum Press / Quarto Publishing Group UK
Year: 2016
Pages: 224
Order: Quarto
What it is: A detailed look at 25 iconic pro stages linked to make a theoretical Tour of Europe. Part photo book, part practical/virtual touring guide.
Strengths: Gruber Images (and lots of them)! Touring ideas galore.
Weaknesses: Perhaps too touring focused for some? Mediocre graphics.
Overall Assessment: 9 / 10

Instead of the Tour de France starting abroad every year or the Giro and Vuelta sneaking into France for a stage or two, many of us have speculated how much fun a Tour of Europe would be. With this in mind, Author Peter Cossins has created a twenty-five stage hypothetical Tour route beginning in Yorkshire and finishing in Madrid.

The only rules: each stage must replicate an historic stage from a Grand Tour or other pro race, and - if possible - the finish of each stage should be reasonably near the start of the next (a forgivably long transfer post stage 7 permits a superb Tro Bro Léon stage in Brittany).

The result: Twenty-five stages weaving across Europe visiting nine countries (UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain). Happily, the author never belabours the Tour of Europe concept. But it gives him the framework to visit some of the most beautiful regions in Europe. Don't worry: This is not another "Alps" book, although we'll certainly visit. And it's not another "classics" books, although we will ride the Tour of Flanders and a Tour de France version of Paris-Roubaix. Instead the author has also intentionally chosen a wide variety of lesser known roads - Corsica, The Black Forest, Yorkshire, the Dutch coastline, an Austrian Alp, Le Cinque Terre, Tuscany, the Camargue, Asturia, northern German lakes, some Swiss Alps, etc. - while still finding the time to pedal up cycling legends such as Passo dello Stelvio and Alpe d'Huez.

Is it a good list of 25 stages?

Having once written 100 Climbs better than Alpe d'Huez, I was initially worried when I saw Stage 15 titled Cycling's Greatest Climb - referring to the Alpe. Note, in 2015, Mr Cossins published Alpe D'Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling's Greatest Climb. But I'll forgive the author. There are only a few Alpine stages here, and several are interesting choices. In fact, overall, I enjoyed the tremendous variation of locations. The author clearly knows the roads of Europe, and I am confident almost everyone will find plenty of intriguing yet unfamiliar locales on these pages.

WHICH GENRE?

There are all sorts of cycling books: histories, guides, training plans, photo-books, etc. So what is this?

First, It could be a stand-alone photo book. It's a big coffee-table book, and beautiful. The majority of "page real-estate" is filled by photos. And perhaps 75% were snapped by Gruber Images (the balance primarily Corbis/Getty images). Note: All the photos in this review are from Ashley and Jered Gruber of Gruber Images. I can loudly and happily recommend the book for the photos alone:

A Pro Cycling History Book? Let me be clear: this book is not about 25 exciting pro stages that had memorable racing. Many chapters barely discuss the historical stage selected let alone mention who won.

The Ultimate in the book's title is referring to the roads/routes. So while throughout it is full of anecdotes involving pro cycling, it is primarily written in the context of why a region or route is interesting. eg. how a famous race began, its unique terrain, the prevailing weather, where an incident/attack occurred, etc.

Chapter/Stage 19 Corsica: When the itinerary of the 2013 Tour de France was announced, the race's then route director Jean-Francois Pescheux couldn't disguise his glee as he considered the third stage between Ajaccio and Calvi on the island of Corsica. "It's the kind of stage we've been looking for for years ....... It's simple - there's not a single metre of flat."

Corsica:

A Touring Guide Book?: No doubt this is the primary goal, and it had me drooling, brainstorming, and note-taking throughout. Beyond the photography, this is the book's strength but, perhaps for some, its weakness. As a cyclo-tourist who is always "route planning," I liked it. Others may be less interested in the sheer amount of specific route detail provided.

How practical is this as a touring guide book? I'll explain in more detail below but I'd summarise my reaction as follows: Many of the chapters made me want to drop everything and visit a particular region with my bike, but not necessarily ride the suggested stage. Or even feel equipped with enough information to ride the stage. It feels like a jumping off point: "wow, I want to cycle Le Strade Bianche (photo below), this book gives me loads of ideas, where can I get more information?"

THE BOOK'S FORMAT:

After the briefest of introductions the balance of the book is 25 chapters, one per stage, divided into several sections which I'll discuss below.

Introduction

The first few paragraphs of each chapter provide an introduction to the region being discussed. Often, but not always in the context of pro racing. Mr Cossins is a good writer: it's breezy, engagingly written, usually quite interesting, but brief. There are no deep dives here, just short anecdotes or tidbits of info: Why does Tro Bro Léon have more punctures than Le Strade Bianche? Why is Sustenpass such a delight to descend? What are the origins of Paris-Roubaix in two paragraphs. It's all good, if not the focus of the book.

Main Body

This surprised me. The majority of each chapter is the author walking us through each stage. First, he clearly knows each route. These are detailed and enthusiastic descriptions, lovingly highlighting points of interest, or occasionally how a stretch affected the chosen stage result. I am just not completely certain how interested some readers may be in this much detail. At its best it's a fun virtual Tour of interesting regions, other times perhaps it's too much. Below are the first sentences or first part of first sentences taken from eleven sequential paragraphs in stage 20 through the Côte d'Azur. It omits much, and unfairly removes coherence to the writing, but perhaps illustrates a point

I concede it's perhaps a silly idea of me to do this but I feel it's important to highlight that the meat of this book is quite detailed descriptions of every stage. It's designed - I think - for a cyclo-tourist planning to ride them. Fair enough. It could also be interesting to the virtual tourist looking to explore Europe by book.

1. Although Cannes lies due east of Brignoles, the route heads off to the north through Le Val and towards the first of nine climbs.
2. Beyond Bajols the road climbs steadily again to Tavernes where rather than continuing north towards the awe-inspiring Verdon Gorges, a thrilling division on another day, the route turns eastward for the first time.
3. After rounding the ceramics centre of Salernes, the road gets a little busier - and better surfaced.
4. Next up, soon after the military centre of Draguigan, is a Paris-Nice favourite, the Côte de Tuillières .....
5. Now, in what has long been one of the key battle grounds in the "race to the sun," there's hardly more than a hundred metres between hills.
6. This restorative interlude ends as the road winds ...
7. Approaching the medieval hill-top village of Seillans, renowned as one of the prettiest in France ...
8. Rather than staying on the eastward path to Cannes, the route turns ...
9. Cresting it, the route drops only briefly before climbing again ....
10. From this, the highest point of the day, the road tumbles down through the woods ...
11. Higher up the road is bordered by villas ...

Got it? Very detailed. But perhaps useful detail.

As mentioned, every stage is based on an historic stage. But the pros race on closes roads. I do worry that many of these routes, have sections, especially early on that are just not the best or quietest option for a cyclo-tourist. The author occasionally seems aware of this and recommends alternate or quieter ideas.

The Professional Perspective

Throughout the book - but not every chapter - are block-quote sections with perspective on the region/stage/climb from a pro or cycling expert. Additional shorter quotes are added in the margins throughout. It's nicely done and adds flavour:

Stage 14 "Romandie Double Cross" - "this stage was a sentimental journey around some of the roads and slopes where I had trained when I went to the UCI school in Aigle as a naïve kid out of Africa" - Chris Froome

Sportives / Other Riding

Every chapter spends significant time detailing a few cyclo-sportives in the region. This is not just a simple list, but includes long descriptions of each event, what it entails, and/or why it is worth riding, as well as links to official event sites. From the regions I know well, it's an informed list. Again, it's a great brainstorm tool for cyclo-tourists, perhaps less interesting to others.

Finally, the author provides other ride ideas in each region. Again, I can only speak for a few of the regions I know well, but his advice strikes me as knowledgeable and on target. Definitely a helpful start for any cyclo-tourist planning to base themselves somewhere.

Stage 13 part of "Other Riding" section: "Another way to include the St Gotthard from Andermatt is to head east over Oberalppass and then south over the Lukmanierpass reach Biasca, then return north up the Ticino valley to Airolo and over the St Gotthard."

Graphics

Every chapter includes a graphics section of the stage. It includes stats for every categorised climb, a stage profile, and a map. I was both excited to see a graphics section, and a little disappointed. I suppose it's quite difficult to provide a useful map for stages that can run a couple of hundred kilometres or more, far more difficult than just describing a single climb. But I found many to be barely labeled and barely helpful - see below and judge for yourself. However, importantly, the book provides a link to interactive maps of all 25 stages available at www.bikemap.net - from there it is also possible to download a gpx file for a bike GPS. Well done.

(below is a low quality scan of part of a page, but you get the idea)

Looking at a each chapter in its entirety, I more often felt an interest to visit a region, or further research a region versus the desire to download the proposed route and cycle it. It very much felt like an informed review of possibilities than the definitive plan.

The Photos

My favourite coffee-table cycling books are the Mountain High / Mountain Higher series by Daniel Friebe and photographer Peter Goding. An important reason (not the most important) is the photography by Mr. Goding. Without debating whose photos are better, let me note a major difference between the books: Virtually every photo by Mr. Goding is landscape only, no cyclists. The photos in Ultimate Étapes are more varied. Plenty of beautiful shots involving pros:

Plenty of my favourites: awe-inspiring landscape with a brave cyclist somewhere in the frame:

And some landscape-only shots too:

If you are a fan of the Gruber's work - I certainly am - you will love this book.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I liked this book a lot. I enjoyed the concept of a European Tour and the chance to combine information on twenty-five such varied stages into a single book. I will probably (hopefully) even use the book to plan a trip or two to places/roads that were not remotely on my touring radar. Separately, without a doubt, on quiet rainy evenings I will open the book to any random page simply to enjoy the photography.

(All photos used with permission from Publisher)