Title: The Great Loop
Author: Dave Thomas
Publisher: Dave Thomas
What it is: A cycling novel set in the early years of the Tour de France, when the world was black and white and the racing very, very colourful
Strengths: Some wonderful writing, particularly in the evocation of time and place, elevating this above many of the other recent cycling novels
Weaknesses: It is at heart a love story wrapped in a melodrama
"Gustave dropped the hoe, straightened up and wiped his hands on his smock. He took some papers and a good pinch of tobacco from his tin, and putting the breeze to his back, rolled and lit a cigarette. He then called to Toinot who was struggling some distance behind. The labourer gave a grin of relief and shuffled over the rows of tender green shoots, pulling his own tin from his pocket."
So opens Dave Thomas's The Great Loop, a self-published cycling novel set during the 1911 Tour. Described in the blurb as a love story - Béatrice loves Gustave who loves Camille - this is a much, much more intelligent novel.
In the four years since I started doing these Café Bookshelf book pieces, there has been an explosion in cycling books. Every week it seems there's a new history of the Tour (hush your mouth), a biography of a star of the past or an autobiography of a star of the present. There's even books about other races, from the Giro to the Classics. Less noticed has been the rise in the popularity of the cycling novel.
A few years ago, if you were to have asked a cycling fan to recommend a cycling novel they'd have been picking from Tim Krabbé, Freya North or Ralph Hurne. Some of the more knowledgeable British fans might have added James Waddington, while their American counterparts might have namechecked Greg Moody or Dave Shields. Tops, you were getting to choose from among six writers.
Two things, though, have changed that: the return-to-favour of self-publishing has seen new titles added while the internet has opened up the present to the past and helped some old gems be unearthed. Chief in this latter category is the brilliant The Third Book About Achim, by Uwe Johnson, which Herbie Sykes brought to my attention. Among the former are writers like Ross Goldstein (Chain Reaction), David Ward (It's All Downhill), Jonathan Budds (Consumed), and Kimberley Menozzi (27 Stages), all of which have been reviewed on the Café Bookshelf. [You can also add in Frank Dickens (The Great Boffo) and David Chauner (High Road).] And now we can add to that list Dave Thomas's The Great Loop.
Like almost all of the novels I've just namechecked - from North, Hurne and Waddington to Goldstein, Ward, Budds and Menozzi (and even, at a slight stretch, Johnson) - The Great Loop is a love story. While many, many cycling fans are true romantics - we want to believe - it seems strange to me that so many cycling novels should boil down to affairs of the heart, but this is actually the way it's always been. Christopher Thompson's superb The Tour de France - a cultural history of the pre-WWII Tours - offers all sorts of insight into the early Tours with one of its more fascinating titbits being a roundup of sorts of various early cycling novels, all of which were, effectively, boy-meets-girl stories. Thompson namechecks Théodore Chèze's Claude Lenoir (1907), Robert Dieudonné's Le Vainquer (1922), Berbert Ou la Vie Ratée (1929) and Frangins (1931), André Reuze's Le Tour de Souffrance (1925), and Jacques Chabanne's Microbe (1929). And - perhaps most surprising among all the novelists named by Thompson - is the great myth-maker Henri Desgrange himself, with his own fin de siècle cycling novel, Alphonse Marcaux (1899).
Generally speaking, all of those early cycling novels were against love, toed the line when it came to the notion that great champions should live like monks and eschew pleasures of the flesh, and especially eschew affairs of the heart. Modern cycling novels, on the other hand - from North's Cat to Menozzi's 27 Stages - take the view that you can win the Tour and win a woman's heart, both at the same time.
All of that is by way of context to The Great Loop's love story, but really the novel isn't simply a story of boy meets girl, girl dumps boy, boy shows his mettle at the Tour and ... and the end you'll have to read the novel to find out. It's actually a lot more intelligent than that. If you must reduce The Great Loop to being a love story, then the true object of its affection is the Tour de France itself.
The basic story is about Gustave Charrier, a farmer's son from Sainte Hélène in the Indre (another Ploughboy of the Tour de France) who signs on for the 1911 grande boucle as one of the isolés, the unsupported cannon-fodder Henri Desgrange annually granted entry to in order to make up numbers and bring the Tour closer to the heart of the common man.
The 1911 Tour was one of the more incident-packed editions of the big buckle. The race discovered the Alps, having invented the Pyrénées the year before. Paul Duboc got done in with a Mickey Finn just as he looked like he might take the race lead. Maurice Brocco got called a domestique after being caught in flagrante aiding another rider (that it was one of his own Alcyon team-mates hardly mattered, the Tour then being very much a race for individuals, even when teams were allowed to enter).
Thomas takes the basic facts of the race - who won and how - and tosses them in the bin in order to create an alternative history, in which familiar incidents are recast in new guises (we get the poisoning and the assistance but also incidents from other years: in one scene Thomas recalls a famous photo of Ottavio Bottecchia in the 1925 Tour dousing his face with a soda siphon and recreates it in his alternative version of the 1911 Tour). The palette isn't overloaded, you don't have all the Tour's greatest hits crammed into one story (one of the many mistakes Ralph Hurne made in The Yellow Jersey) but you have enough to keep you smiling along as you recognise the source of some new incident or accident.
Much of the racing action is well described, as this passage shows:
"'How can we possibly race like this?' He got a moment's respite as the peloton paused, gently checked its momentum as if it were a great beast adjusting its eyes to the dark. But the roar of the following cars increased, their headlights illuminated the road ahead, and the pace was redoubled. The first of the vehicles was now directly behind him and this made him nervous - he had little experience of riding near motor traffic and feared being mown down if suddenly forced to brake. He decided to move up the field a little, but this was no easy matter, for the group was tightly bunched and at first no one would let him through. Finally a gap appeared and he managed to squeeze in alongside Octave Lapize, who scowled, causing him to shy away.
"'Hold your line, damn you!' snarled Marlot from the other side.
"As he moved back across Lapize shouted: 'Kid, you'll bring us all down. Stay at the back.' And with that, they squeezed him out, as if from a tube of paint.'"
But even the detail of the race itself is often allowed take a backseat to Thomas's evocative recreation of the places the Tour passes through. Take this paragraph from the rest day in Marseille:
"Down below, on the seaward side of the jetty stood a row of enormous stone blocks - a buffer against the worst that the sea could offer. A gang of naked urchins dared each other to dart in and out between them, leaping back at each huge wave. The riders watched for a while, then turned and walked back in the direction of the lighthouse. The water in the Bassin de la Joliette was still as a millpond, covered in a thick layer of grease and rags, broken packing cases, a growing circle of discarded flour. A dead dog, obscenely swollen to the size of a pig, revolved slowly in the currents near the exit to the open sea. They watched as a great liner, long and low in the water, manoeuvred lazily out into the middle of the basin. She was painted all white, except for two jet-black funnels. Gustave squinted and eventually she drew nearer. 'Le Calédonien,' he pronounced."
It is the quality of this colour that really sets The Great Loop apart from other cycling novels, particularly the more recent self-published ones. The basic story of the novel - the story of Charrier's fortunes in the Tour - may be melodrama (which, in many ways, suits the story of the early Tours, or at least the reporting of them that history has handed down to us) but the mise-en-scène rises above that to deliver something more intelligent. As well as the quality of the background colour Thomas often cuts quickly within and between scenes in the manner of some of the better TV dramas, sometimes offering up short scenes the meaning of which only becomes clear several pages later.
While Thomas does play fast and loose with the truth of the 1911 Tour, discarding many real characters for his own creations (Ernest Paul, half-brother of François Faber, becomes Ernest Pinaud) he also makes some good use of some of the real riders of that era, in particular Henri Alavoine, who fulfils the role of Charrier's mentor in the peloton. One of the best drawn of the real characters, though, is Henri Desgrange, this extended passage from the novel hopefully capturing the bluff and bluster - and power - of the Father of the Tour, here trying to chivvy the riders to carry on after a very bad day in the Alps:
"'My brave boys!' cried Desgrange.
"'Why did you make us do it, Monsieur?' demanded Jacquet. 'Some of the fellows nearly died yesterday.'
"'Ah, but look how far their fortitude has brought them.'
"'We've not come for any fine speeches,' warned Faber. 'I've got a young teammate lying in the hospital, and no one knows if he'll walk again.'
"'Derain, poor Child of the Indre,' sighed Desgrange. 'He fell in battle.'
"'Talk some sense!' shouted Lapize. 'We are sportsmen, we never agreed to be soldiers.' He whispered noisily in Faber's ear, and the Lion nodded in agreement. They both stood up, and Jacquet hurried to join them.
"'You'll have to find yourself some more donkeys,' announced Faber. 'We're pulling out.'
"'Oh, don't be so stupid,' said Desgrange heatedly. 'You'd stop now, when you've endured the hardest day?'
"'We all know that's not true,' said Lapize. 'If we get yesterday's weather in the Pyrénées then they'll be truly spiteful.'
"They turned to go. Abran got up too, and walked over to the window. But Desgrange wasn't finished yet. 'So you're all going to quit, are you? And which races do you think will be open to you after that? Paris-Roubaix? Not a chance! Bordeaux-Paris? Forget it! Do you think you could make a living on the tracks? Well, don't bother turning up at La Cipale, the Buffalo, the Vél d'Hiv,' he counted them off on his fingers, 'because I won't have you! You arrive here as if you were a Revolutionary Council, and tell me how to run my race...'
"He paused for breath, took his handkerchief from his top pocket and mopped his brow. The riders looked at each other and Jacquet cracked, retaking his seat. 'We're sorry, Monsieur. It's just that we're exhausted and at the end of our tether.'
"Desgrange beamed at him. 'Which just shows me the mettle of which you are made,' he said gently, gesturing to the others to sit. 'You'll ride on because you know that most of France still waits to acclaim you. Besides, it would be a great pity to stop before the Pyrénées, and miss the improvement in prize money.'"
* * * * *
Now I'm not going to make any elevated claims about the plot of The Great Loop, it is a simple love story wrapped in a melodrama: Charrier, the kid from the country, falls head-over-heels in love with practically the first woman he sees in Paris, while the final resolution of the Tour itself is a little bit obvious and not very likely. But where Thomas takes some very intelligent risks is in the overall writing. He doesn't pander to the reader, over-explaining the basics, a certain level of familiarity with the sport is assumed. And the more you know your Tour history the more - I think - you may appreciate some of the more understated aspects of the novel, such as the use of Henri Alavoine as Charrier's mentor, he being one of the unsung heroes of the Tour who died in the war that was already a shadow on the horizon in 1911. Mostly, though, what I really enjoyed in The Great Loop was the quality of Thomas's painting of the background colour, which hooked me early and kept me turning the pages. This is a novel in which atmosphere pushes plot off the page.
As a rule with these Café Bookshelf pieces I only try to tell you what a book is about and maybe offer some additional context. I don't often tell you whether or not you should read something, that's for you to decide, based on the evidence. But sometimes I do find myself enjoying a book so much - Sweat of the Gods, We Were Young and Carefree, The Third Book About Achim¸ Maglia Rosa¸ Slaying the Badger - that I break that rule and tell you you must read it. This is one of those books: The Great Loop is a great cycling novel and you really do have to read it for yourself.