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The Tour de France, by Christopher S Thompson

A cultural history of the Tour de France.

The Tour de France - A Cultural History, by Christopher S Thompson
The Tour de France - A Cultural History, by Christopher S Thompson

Christopher S Thompson - The Tour de France, A Cultural History Title: The Tour de France - A Cultural History
Author: Christopher S Thompson
Publishers: University of California Press
Year: 2006 (updated 2008)
Pages: 385
Order: University of California Press
What it is: A history of the Tour de France that focuses on culture, not cycling
Strengths: A fresh perspective on the history of the Tour that is full of fascinating titibits of Tour trivia
Weaknesses: Hindsight brings the past alive, attempts at foresight fail when it comes to discussing the present

The Tour de France is, first and foremost, about business. All other considerations - including sport - are secondary to commerce. Born of the need to boost the circulation of an ailing newspaper - L'Auto-Vélo, edited by Henri Desgrange - the Tour is and always has been about the making of money.

Profit being deemed a rather base motive, the Tour has wrapped round itself - and had wrapped round it by others - alternative meanings, narratives that seek to sell the Tour to different audiences. As Christopher S Thompson tells us in The Tour de France - A Cultural History, the race's working class fans, they got sold the story of working class heroes who go to scale the ladder of social class through their efforts in a sport that valued meritocracy. Those already higher up on that ladder who feared revolt by those below, they got sold the story of the Tour's riders as a professional class that did not threaten the social status quo. Women, they got sold the story of cycling as a masculine sport from which they were excluded.

Thompson's The Tour de France is a history of the Tour that looks to the gaps between representation and reality, a history of the Tour that talks more about the narratives that became associated with the Tour than it does about who won what, how and when. It is one among a small class of (English-language) Tour-related books - a grouping that includes Benjo Maso's Sweat of the Gods, Hugh Dauncey's French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History, along with the collection of essays Dauncey edited with Geoffrey Hare, The Tour De France, 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings and Values and Eric Reed's new Selling the Yellow Jersey: The Tour de France in the Global Era - that helps explain some of the myths and legends of the Tour by explaining the world that formed them and in which they first took hold.

Originally released in 2006 Thompson's The Tour de France was re-released in 2008 with a new preface, which - taken in conjunction with the Epilogue, which is part of the same story, both taking as their subject what were then recent doping scandals - offers as good a place as any to begin talking about the book itself. For the four years before 2008 the sport of cycling had lurched from one doping crisis to the next, the death of Marco Pantani, quickly giving way to the Cofidis affaire, David Walsh and Pierre Ballester's LA Confidentiel, Tyler Hamilton, L'Équipe's Mensonge Armstrong scoop, Operación Puerto, Floyd Landis, the Telekom confessions, Michael Rasmussen, Alexandre Vinokourov and his blood brother Andrey Kašečkin, Iban Mayo and a host of lesser stories that constantly rained down upon the sport, barely a month going by without some new blow landing. With so much happening it was easy to get lost in the fog of it all, fail to see what was important and what was not and then jump to conclusions about what the future held. With the rest of the book dealing with events from fifty and more years ago and thus benefiting greatly from the focus hindsight offers, Thompson's attempts in the old epilogue and the new preface to apply foresight to the sport's recent doping problems seem out of place, a Kiss-me-quick button badge pinned to a Saville Row three-piece suit.

This is not to say that Thompson has nothing to say on the subject of doping, just an acknowledgement that he is at his best when dealing with the past, not the present. In dealing with doping's less recent past - the book's final chapter - Thompson brings a fresh perspective to a problem that has become bound up with too oft repeated platitudes, starting with his acknowledgement of an important fissure in the Tour's response to doping: from the outset, Henri Desgrange took a somewhat contrary position on doping, arguing in his 1898 training manual La Tête et les Jambes that young riders should eschew stimulants but allowing that they had their place in certain races. Desgrange's successor, Jacques Goddet, was similarly conflicted, sometimes hitting out against doping, sometimes defending it. (Of Goddet's successors, I think only two can be said to have taken strong positions against doping: Jean-Pierre Courcol, whose response to the Delgado affaire of 1988 was to resign; and Patrice Clerc, who was booted out of ASO at the end of the ProTour Wars. When it comes to Desgrange and Goddet's latest successor, Christian Prudhomme, it is worth remembering that he has denied that two-time Tour winner Bernard Thévenet - whose 1975 Tour victory is being celebrated by ASO this year - ever confessed to having doped his way to the maillot jaune.)

The modern era of anti-doping - the rule-bound era of anti-doping that replaced issues of ethics and morality with hard and fast rules (some of which were poorly drafted) - began in the 1960s, when the French government, along with the government in Belgium, brought in legislation which made doping in sports events illegal. These laws in part grew out of events on the Tour in the 1950s, particularly Jean Mellejac's collapse on Mont Ventoux in the 1955 Tour, which helped spur Tour doctor Pierre Dumas to spearhead a new anti-doping community within the medical profession, which in turn lobbied government for action on the matter.

The action that eventually came along challenged various representations of Tour riders that had been attached to them in the early years of the race. The most important of these was the notion of cyclists as ouvriers de la pédale, workers of the pedal, a narrative attached to them by Henri Desgrange in response to class-based criticisms of early Tour riders:

"The ouvrier de la pédale image was sufficiently flexible to allow the organizers to portray racers both as humble, disciplined factory workers and as proud, self-sufficient artisans belonging to a self-regulating guild. In either case, L'Auto argued, these young workers were being civilized by the race whose rules transformed them into 'elegant' and responsible citizens. In addition to being heroic 'giants of the road' who inspired French youth to engage in physical exercise, Tour racers, according to L'Auto, were model workers who contributed to social stability and deserved to be emulated by their male working class fans. At its core, then, the organizers' campaign to portray Tour racers as ouvriers de la pédale was an attempt to shape working-class identity in ways that would improve the moral and material conditions of the labouring masses and in so doing calm middle-class fears about the challenges those masses posed to the social order."

As a self-regulating guild, riders objected to the new anti-doping laws being imposed upon them - and not on all workers - and called for the right to decide for themselves what was and was not a danger to their health. Defending the imposition by the state of the new laws Jacques Goddet called on the riders to accept that, as inspirational heroes, they had additional responsibilities which other workers did not have. Goddet's position here, Thompson argues, contained a fundamental contradiction:

"Heroes are by definition worthy of emulation. The heroic status of Tour racers was conditioned by their exploits, which were made possible, according to [Jacques] Anquetil and others, only by the use of stimulants. Now that the use of stimulants (and other drugs) was deemed an important social problem requiring legislative and regulatory attention, the prospect of young people emulating the heroic behaviour of Tour racers was, to say the least, problematic."

Goddet was not alone in tying himself in knots. The riders were doing it too. Following the death of Tom Simpson in the 1967 Tour the call went up for easier and fewer race days, while at the same time the riders continued to defend their right to self-medicate. That an easier race would negate the need to medicate - the need to dope - seemed to be lost on the riders. Goddet responded by suggesting that certain measures could - and would - be taken to alter the race's itinerary in order to protect the riders from themselves. This, Goddet claimed, would be in keeping with the Tour's continuing evolution and would maintain the race's historic link with "the march of modern times" - if society at large was confronting its drug problems, so too would the Tour.

This idea of the Tour being in step with the march of modern times may seem a bit odd in an age in which the sport in general and the Tour in particular are seen as being somewhat antiquated, tradition-bound throwbacks to bygone times. But when it all began, modernity was very much a part of the story the Tour sold. L'Auto-Vélo itself was at the fore of two great forces at the turn of the twentieth century: cycling which, even though it had been around since the 1860s, was reaching further and further out from its initial middle-class base as the cost of bicycles tumbled through the 1890s and became affordable to almost all, no matter their wage; and the French automobile industry from which most of the initial backers of the paper were drawn.

L'Auto-Vélo's original shareholders Shares Francs %
Jules-Albert, Comte de Dion, of Dion-Bouton Cycles & Automobiles 192 96,000 48.00%
Gustave Adolphe Clément, of Clément Cycles & Automobiles 50 25,000 12.50%
Etienne, Baron de Zuylen de Nyevelt, of the Auto Club de France 20 10,000 5.00%
Édouard Michelin of Michelin Tyres 20 10,000 5.00%
Gaston, Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, of the Aster Automobile Company 12 6,000 3.00%
Charon, Giradot & Voigt Automobiles 10 5,000 2.50%
Panhard Levassor Automobiles 10 5,000 2.50%
Gustave Rives, of the Auto Club de France 5 2,500 1.25%
La Française Cycles 5 2,500 1.25%
Renault Automobiles 2 1,000 0.50%
Hurtu Cycles & Automobiles 1 500 0.25%
Others 73 36,500 18.25%
400 200,000 100.00%

The Tour itself was a revolutionary undertaking. While road races such as Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Roubaix were already established fixtures on the cycling calendar, the truly popular part of the sport was taking place in the hundreds of vélodromes throughout France, most of which had sprung up in the 1890s. When L'Auto trumpeted the Tour by calling it "the gigantic professional race that will revolutionise the world of cycling" it was a case of the hyperbole - for once - being true, with the Tour quickly rising to be the most important road race there was and equally as quickly spawning imitators at home and abroad. Today, the track races that once overshadowed the Tour are all but forgotten while the Tour has become synonymous with cycling.

But it wasn't just in a sporting context that the Tour sought to associate itself with progress. It also claimed a role in dragging France out of the three-decade funk it had been in since being beaten in the Franco-Prussian War. This was achieved through what the Tour's organisers sold as their great crusade to bring about regeneration through sport. From the off, fans were expected to want to emulate the heroes of the Tour, draw inspiration from the race and get on their own bikes (or, better still, buy new bikes upon which to get).

One of the clearest ways in which the Tour has associated itself with modernity has been in the changing roles of different media formats. Here's Thompson:

"The development of various motorized forms of locomotion and the proliferation of consumer goods during the Tour's early decades soon rendered anachronistic the bicycle's image of technological modernity and of the burgeoning consumer culture of early twentieth-century France. Yet while the bicycle's modernity faded, the Tour itself remained modern. As its successive organizers sought to establish the race first as France's, then Europe's, and finally the world's most popular annual sporting event, they not only relied on but actually fuelled innovations in two trends that have characterized modern societies in the twentieth century: the increasingly pervasive commercialization of sport and the development of new mass media capable of covering athletic competitions for ever-expanding audiences."

In 2010 Christian Prudhomme noted that "newspapers created the Tour de France, radio made it popular, television made it rich." Today, we're in the midst of a new media revolution, and understanding of how the Tour is handling this fresh change can be informed by knowing how previous change was handled. The changing media formats have each impacted not just how the race was reported - and how the riders were represented to the fans - but have each also impacted the race itself. The Tour's radio years, for instance, saw the introduction of individual time trials, a racing format that suited the new medium of radio more than it did the old of print. Television brought with it summit finishes, exciting finales of key stages that played to the strength of the new medium. Television also brought with it - or, eventually brought with it, in the 1980s - new wealth for the Tour's organisers, wealth which others (the teams, the UCI) have for decades eyed enviously, creating tensions behind the racing that can and do spill over into the racing itself.

Thompson's failures when it comes to discussing doping in what was then the present - or recent past - when The Tour de France was first published highlight the problems that arise when using the past to predict the future. But the past can be a valuable tool when trying to understand the present. Understanding of the current round of the revenue sharing debate rumbling on in the background (Velon, on-bike cameras and the prospect of a WorldTour graced only by teams endowed with franchises for life) can only be enhanced by understanding how the Tour has responded to similar issues (the evolving media landscape, rider strikes etc) in the past.

Bigger than that, though, is the question of what the Tour today means to France and the French. We are, the pundits would have us believe, on the cusp of a renaissance in the fortunes of French cycling, a French revolution spearheaded by the nouvelle vague, a generation of riders coming of age and set to return the Tour to its glory days of, well, Frenchness. In the decade and a half since cyclisme à deux vitesses and the three decades since that last French success in the Tour, the Tour has draped itself in new narratives, given itself new meanings in which the (lack of) success of home riders has been downplayed while the story of the Tour as a French institution has been played up. In a new era of French success, that narrative will be rewritten again. If we really are on the cusp of that era, then now is the perfect time for you to give time to Thompson's cultural history of the Tour, to see what the representations of the Tour in the past can say about the changes set to be wrought on the narrative today.

And even if we aren't really set to see a new era of French success you should read Thompson anyway. It really is one of the best books about the Tour de France that has yet been served up to the race's English-language fans.