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Cafe Bookshelf: Dissecting the Proto-Tour

The First Tour de France, by Peter Cossins

Maurice Garin, champion of the first Tour de France
Art in Media

Title (UK): Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep - The Tale of the First Tour de France
Title (US): The First Tour de France - Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris
Author: Peter Cossins
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press (UK) | Nation Books (US)
Year: 2017
Pages: 368
Order: Penguin (UK) | Nation (US)
What it is: Pretty much what you’d expect from the title, and the 368-page format.
Strengths: Thorough; revelatory in the details; told in a way that transports the reader to 1903.
Weaknesses: Lack of illustration, at least in the advance version. We Tour fans love a good map.

One of the more debatable subjects in cycling is the origin of the Tour de France and what exactly was wrought by the active, sometimes twisted, mind of Henri Desgrange. Part of it has to do with whether it was Desgrange who deserves the credit in the first place, as opposed to Geo Lefevre, the cycling writer for L’Auto whom Desgrange recruited to help get things moving at the new sports sheet. Another part might have to do with exactly what the race was supposed to look like, as it evolved over the years into its modern form, with Desgrange in charge of some of the smartest as well as the silliest innovations. Plenty of other details remain the subject of debate, like who shouted what about “assassins” at whom, but what could use some agreement is the nature of the race’s founding.

The First Tour de France is just that: a definitive statement on the events leading up to and including the inaugural 1903 race, painstakingly researched by author Peter Cossins, whose ability to obsess over the Tour de France is well established by now after efforts on the Tour’s Yorkshire turn, a deep dive on Alpe d’Huez, and a well-liked picture book on the best stages. Each of those works might fit neatly into the modern Tour-fan consciousness, but this new effort is something those books weren’t: essential.

Peter Cossins - Tour de France 1903
Peter Cossins's history of the birth of the Tour de France - UK and US covers

In my experience there’s a thing people do, where we encounter the unfamiliar and immediately start emphasizing the differences. Go to China or Mexico or Bangladesh and see how the people maybe don’t look like you or eat the same things you like or make choices that seem at all like what you would do. Look back in time and discover the ways our forebears did that seem weird or foolish. Or even make shit up about aliens and inevitably you’ll come up with green skin, unfathomable diets and eerie powers.

Inevitably though, at least when our fellow humans are involved, if you pay close enough attention to those Bangladeshis or ancestors or even Bangladeshi ancestors, you start to detect how they are like us, connected to us, and maybe lived a lot like we would if put in their shoes. There is a sense not of alienation but of connection and satisfaction that comes from understanding on this deeper level how humanity really is.

In The First Tour de France, it is this very category of satisfaction that underlies the experience of soaking in all the details of the 1903 edition of Le Grand Boucle. Or to put it bluntly, I can’t believe how much that race resembles cycling today.

Hardcore fans undoubtedly know the basic outline of the inaugural running of the Tour, the victory by Maurice Garin, maybe the nature of the route, and so forth. So too are the stories of Henri Desgrange, legends and laugh tracks, well known to us already. Cossins blows past the superficial bits we all think we know, though he tests the veracity as much as possible of some of the legends, and by as much as possible I mean he looks at the scant info available from century-old newspapers and tries to decipher what was closest to being true. And all of that is a service to mankind, at least to the sliver of which gets obsessed with such things.

But when I said this book is essential, it’s not because of how it sorts out some Desgrange nonsense. It’s how it takes you back to the race itself. By digging through all those old race reports — from more than just L’Auto, because several other publications were hot on the trail of the first Tour — Cossins produces a deeply researched and detailed description of the race that toggles between background information on the race’s organization and the individual stages, with long stretches of real-time-style stage reporting one chapter at a time.

The effect of this, especially the latter, is soaring. I grew up before live video of the Tour was a given, at least in the US, and hung on the edge of print reporting of stages, so the format itself is very comfortingly familiar, but I would never have expected to feel the same about the content. And yet, by delving down into the moment-by-moment account of the race, we can see:

  • riders losing hope of overall victory and targeting stage wins;
  • alliances forming and dissolving;
  • weather affecting strategies such as gearing low before heading into the teeth of the Mistral;
  • teamwork separating the top riders from the rest, from pacing to sharing water to having a person in the next village with a fresh bike;
  • incidences of bad behavior, from subterfuge (and overheated accusations of subterfuge) to outright cheating, notwithstanding an infrastructure aimed at preventing such;
  • fans turning out in droves at every stop, even at absurd hours as stages ran through day and night.

And so on. The end result is an instantly recognizable race, not some weird, knuckle-dragging australopithecan facsimile of the more noble thing but the thing itself, apart from some formatting overhauls. A race that is forever in doubt because it hasn’t been done before (then, at all; now, just shape-shifting) and creates excitement in the anticipation of surprise. More profoundly, a race that visits small towns unaccustomed to feeling connected to places like Paris or Marseille or Bordeaux, where cycling’s established events had been running for a while. And a race that promotes exploration and challenge and confidence in a simple package, riding a bicycle, something that apparently meant quite a lot to a French population deflated by war with Germany, and something that still means a lot to us and our often quite sedentary and disconnected lives. The Tour de France was a stroke of absolute brilliance from day one, even if it wasn’t divine intervention but just the mashup of six-days and point-to-point racing.

As your humble reviewer I have almost nothing to pick apart here. I suppose it’s a bit of a slog to get to the start of the race, but I understand why and there’s no harm in skipping ahead if you aren’t thrilled by every step of Desgrange Said/Giffard Said, though it is fascinating just how far-reaching the effects of the Dreyfus Affair were. Also, the advance copy has not even a whiff of illustration, and while I don’t expect a photo of the entertainer who could fart out O Sole Mio, the lack of maps is kind of frustrating, though for all I know they may turn up in the version that goes out for sale.

But that’s about where my criticism ends. And if the backdrop is something that can be taken or left, the stage reports are literally thrilling, 114 years after the fact, since before now nobody knew much about what happened on the stages apart from people hunting around the archives of L’Auto and its rivals. It’s an essential work the way stand-alone books on modern Tours will never be. It’s Cossins’ first stab at an important part of history since his book on the Monuments, and I look forward to him taking an interest in 1904.