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The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry

An ambitious literary novel from debutant Kiwi novelist David Coventry set in and around the 1928 Tour de France.

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The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry
The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry

The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry Title: The Invisible Mile
Author: David Coventry
Publisher: Picador (UK) | Victoria University Press (NZ) | Europa Editions (US)
Year: 2015
Pages: 312
Order: Pan Macmillan (UK) | VUP (NZ) | Europa (US)
What it is: A literary cycling novel re-imagining the 1928 Tour de France, which featured a French-sponsored team made up of three riders from Australia and one from New Zealand
Strengths: Some powerful and beautiful writing
Weaknesses: A simple idea made complex when what you really want from writing like this is a complex idea made simple

"I arrived in Canterbury, the flat lands and the unerring sky. It was 1921 and the sun bore holes in my eyes and shrank the lakes to salt mineral. At Timaru I borrowed a bike in borrowed shoes and raced in the dust storm ripping from the tips of the Alps across those dry plains to the side of the sea. The road was planted in the centre of the wind. The air shaped into a tunnel, at times narrowing to draw us towards the edge of speed, at others to wreck us in a swift twist of dirt and heat. It was a brute summer that could only be imagined.

"For 100 miles I paced beside men and older men, each of them breathing hard and some in the throes of a cough, rough patches of voice when they called out. We ran across creeks where there were no bridges, we scrambled in the dust as it rose around us, searching for the road, and when there was no road we ran in the mud, our bicycles held high above our heads. No man was free until he quit. The first run of the Classic since that rail car on the outskirts of Compiègne. I knew nothing of the men I rode beside."

So opens The Invisible Mile, debutant Kiwi novelist David Coventry1 delivering a take-your-breath-away blow to your solar plexus with the power and beauty of his writing. Three hundred pages of this await you. A joy that can only be imagined.

Why then, by the time I finally got to the end of The Invisible Mile, did I find myself disappointed?

* * * * *

The Invisible Mile tells the story of the 1928 Tour de France. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary Tour, the twenty-second edition of the race and only the second Tour to feature Australian riders2. But the first to feature a (French-sponsored3 and French-bossed4) Antipodean5 team made up of Australians Hubert Opperman, Percy Osborn, and Ernest Bainbridge6 along with New Zealander Harry Watson (the Tour's first Kiwi). The first, in fact, to feature an Anglosphere team7, a quarter of a century (plus) before the first British team8, nearly six decades before an American team featured in the race9 and more than eight decades before the next Australian team featured10.

As Tours go, the 1928 edition is an oddity, very, very far from our understanding of what early Tours looked like. The previous year, as a response to what he felt was the laziness of the trade teams, Henri Desgrange had introduced a new rule: on the flat stages there would be no peloton rolling along at touring pace and only stirring itself for the gallop to the line. Instead, these stages would be contested as team time trials. For the 1928 race that meant that stages one through eight and 15 through 21 were contre-la-montre, and only in stages nine through 14 (two stages in the Pyrénées, a transition stage and three stages in the Alps) and the final gallop to Paris would be raced in the normal fashion. Opperman - the most senior of the Ravat-sponsored Antipodean riders - reportedly called it "a crime that should never have been perpetrated on the roads of France."

The field in 1920s' Tours generally being about one quarter trade teams / top riders and three quarters touristes routiers, Desgrange sought to level the playing field somewhat by organising some of the touristes into regional squads. In a further concession to that quaint French concept of le fair play the Father of the Tour deigned to allow the teams to call in substitutes, either fresh squad members11 or riders who had previously dropped out12.

It was, basically, a Tour you would not recognise today. It was also boring beyond belief. Luxembourg's Nicholas Frantz, who had won the previous year, started the race wearing the maillot jaune and never once surrendered it, not even to one of his Alcyon team-mates. Two of whom filled the lower steps of the podium come Paris. The fourth rider home was an Alcyon-surrogate, from the affiliated Thomann squad. The only real high-point of the race came as the riders headed toward the Ardennes, Frantz wrecking his bike and having to complete more than 100 kilometres of the stage on an ill-fitting ladies bicycle.

Stage-by-Stage Results for the 1928 Tour de France Stage Winner Maillot Jaune
Stage 1
Sun
17 Jun
Paris (Le Vésinet) to Caen
(TTT)
162 starters, 141 finishers
207 km
6h29'03"
31.9 kph
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 2
Mon
18 Jun
Caen to Cherbourg
(TTT)
135 finishers
140 km
4h12'29"
33.3 kph
André Leducq (Fra)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 3
Tue
19 Jun
Cherbourg to Dinan
(TTT)
124 finishers
199 km
6h29'17"
30.7 kph
Gaston Rebry (Bel)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 4
Wed
20 Jun
Dinan to Brest
(TTT)
122 finishers
206 km
6h47'58"
30.3 kph
Pé Verhaegen (Bel)
JB Louvet
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 5
Thu
21 Jun
Brest to Vannes
(TTT)
116 finishers
208 km
6h43'36"
30.9 kph
Marcel Bidot (Fra)
Alléluia
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 6
Fri
22 Jun
Vannes to Les Sables d'Olonne
(TTT)
111 finishers
204 km
6h23'44"
31.9 kph
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 7
Sat
23 Jun
Les Sables d'Olonne to Bordeaux
(TTT)
103 finishers
285 km
9h21'33"
30.5 kph
Victor Fontan (Fra)
Elvish
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 8
Sun
24 Jun
Bordeaux to Hendaye
(TTT)
103 finishers
225 km
6h47'25"
33.1 kph
Maurice Dewaele (Bel)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Mon
25 Jun
Rest day
(Hendaye)
Stage 9
Tue
26 Jun
Hendaye to Luchon
77 finishers
387 km
16h13'10"
23.9 kph
Victor Fontan (Fra)
Elvish
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col d'Aubisque (1,709m) Camille van de Casteele (Bel) JB Louvet; Col du Tourmalet (2,115m) Camille van de Casteele (Bel) JB Louvet
Wed
27 Jun
Rest day
(Luchon)
Stage 10
Thu
28 Jun
Luchon to Perpignan
74 finishers
323 km
12h27'22"
25.9 kph
André Leducq (Fra)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col de Portet d'Aspet (1,069m) Antonin Magne (Fra) Alléluia; Col de Port (1,249m) Antonin Magne (Fra) Alléluia; Col du Puymorens (1,915m) Nicolas Frantz (Lux) Alcyon
Fri
29 Jun
Rest day
(Perpignan)
Stage 11
Sat
30 Jun
Perpignan to Marseille
73 finishers
363 km
14h41'50"
24.7 kph
André Leducq (Fra)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Sun
1 Jul
Rest day
(Marseille)
Stage 12
Mon
2 Jul
Marseille to Nice
73 finishers
330 km
13h40'50"
24.1 kph
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col de Braus (1,002m) André Leducq (Fra) Alcyon; Col de Castillon (706m) André Leducq (Fra) Alcyon
Tue
3 Jul
Rest day
(Nice)
Stage 13
Wed
4 Jul
Nice to Grenoble
73 finishers
333 km
14h00'36"
23.8 kph
Antonin Magne (Fra)
Alléluia
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col d'Allos (2,250m) Nicolas Frantz (Lux) Alcyon + Victor Fontan (Fra) Elvish; Col Bayard (1,246m) Antonin Magne (Fra) Alléluia
Thu
5 Jul
Rest day
(Grenoble)
Stage 14
Fri
6 Jul
Grenoble to Évian
71 finishers
329 km
12h35'32"
26.1 kph
Julien Moineau (Fra)
Alléluia
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col du Lautaret (2,058m) Antonin Magne (Fra) Alléluia; Col du Galibier (2,556m) August Verdyck (Bel) JB Louvet; Col du Télégraphe (1,566m) Camille van de Casteele (Bel) JB Louvet; Col des Aravis (1,498m) Julien Moineau (Fra) Alléluia
Sat
7 Jul
Rest day
(Évian)
Stage 15
Sun
8 Jul
Évian to Pontarlier
(TTT)
66 finishers
213 km
6h43'37"
31.7 kph
Pierre Magne (Fra)
Alléluia
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Major climbs: Col de la Faucille (1,323m) n/a
Stage 16
Mon
9 Jul
Pontarlier to Belfort
(TTT)
56 finishers
119 km
3h33'22"
33.5 kph
André Leducq (Fra)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 17
Tue
10 Jul
Belfort to Strasbourg
(TTT)
55 finishers
145 km
4h24'30"
32.9 kph
Joseph Mauclair (Fra)
Armor
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 18
Wed
11 Jul
Strasbourg to Metz
(TTT)
54 finishers
165 km
4h59'19"
33.1 kph
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 19
Thu
12 Jul
Metz to Charleville
(TTT)
53 finishers
159 km
4h36'15"
34.5 kph
Marcel Huot (Fra)
Alléluia
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 20
Fri
13 Jul
Charleville to Malo-les-Bains
(TTT)
41 finishers
271 km
8h47'31"
30.8 kph
Maurice Dewaele (Bel)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Stage 21
Sat
14 Jul
Malo-les-Bains to Dieppe
(TTT)
41 finishers
234 km
7h43'33"
30.3 kph
Francis Bouillet (Fra)
Alléluia
A
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Antonin Magne (Fra)
Alléluia
Stage 22
Sun
15 Jul
Dieppe to Paris (Parc des Princes)
41 finishers
331 km
13h35'02"
24.4 kph
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Nicolas Frantz (Lux)
Alcyon
Total Prize fund: 100,000 francs (12,000 francs first prize)

A Bouillet had abandoned the Tour on the ninth stage, Hendaye to Luchon, but his Alléluia team were able to bring him back into the race under the new substitute rule. He won the stage ahead of team-mate Magne but – unlike in 1903 when a similar rule applied – the stage victory is not credited to him as he was no longer competing for the general classification..

André Leducq and Nicolas Frantz

Team-mates André Leducq and Nicolas Frantz (right) toast their successes during the 1928 Tour de France

Final Classification
Place Rider Team Time Age
1 Nicolas Frantz (Lux) Alcyon 5,476 km
192h48'58"
28.400 kph
28
2 André Leducq (Fra) Alcyon + 50'07" 24
3 Maurice Dewaele (Bel) Alcyon + 56'16" 31
4 Jan Mertens (Bel) Thomann + 1h19'18" 24
5 Julien Vervaecke (Bel) Armor + 1h53'32" 28
6 Antonin Magne (Fra) Alléluia + 2h14'02" 24
7 Victor Fontan (Fra) Elvish + 5h07'47" 36
8 Marcel Bidot (Fra) Alléluia + 5h18'28" 25
9 Marcel Huot (Fra) Alléluia + 5h37'33" 31
10 Pierre Magne (Fra) Alléluia + 5h41'20" 24
Lanterne Rouge
41 Edouard Persin (Fra) Champagne + 26h56'19" 26
Meilleur Grimpeur
Victor Fontan (Fra) Elvish 36

The Ravat team at the 1928 Tour de France

The Ravat team at the 1928 Tour de France

Those, then, are the basic facts of the race. All of which you can immediately forget. For The Invisible Mile is not really the story of the 1928 Tour de France. Coventry takes the basic facts of the race and then - as Dave Thomas did in his novel set during the 1911 Tour, The Great Loop - discards them to tell a wholly different tale. The story of an imagined fifth member of the Ravat team, an anonymous second Kiwi, whose brother saw service in France during the war. And the story of the ANZACs13 at war and after the war. Both stories in service to a core message about history and remembrance.

Coventry has said that the book is "about trying to write about the war, trying to remember the war." He has also described the novel as "the act of remembering, as the narrator keeps moving towards the moment when he tries to remember what his brother went through." These being not atypical subjects for writers, there's a feel to The Invisible Mile that it is in places writing about writing. Using cycling as a backdrop to do this, we've been here before, Tim Krabbé and Uwe Johnson both told their stories using writers as their narrators, versions of themselves, and dwelt on issues to do with their craft. Coventry, however, chooses for his narrator the son of a doctor14 who appears to have no career outside of cycling. Some of his thoughts just don't feel like they should be his. Exhibit A: "This race, it goes on. A sentence unwinding in the hills." Exhibit B: "I stood balanced with my feet shifting the cranks back and forth minutely. Still moving, still in the race, still a verb in this sentence." Exhibit C: "An hour folds in on itself as if in the blackened hands of a typesetter compiling the words as we speak, making the octavo fold before the cut to make the page." Poetic such similes may be but do they belong to the character or the author?

This, I think, is where I lost faith in Coventry's story-telling: none of his characters feel real, blood and flesh, body and bone. They all feel like literary constructs, stilted by their brutalising servitude to the novel's core message, disconnected from story, disconnected from any semblance of reality, functioning only to stiffly mouth ill-fitting words about the remembrance of things past. So false do they seem, in fact, that at times the whole thing feels like another story opportunistically shoehorned into the framework of the 1928 Tour, neither benefiting from their enforced cohabitation.

As a novel about cycling - it would be more proper to describe it as a psychological novel than a cycling novel - The Invisible Mile suffers from the same affliction that drags down so much Tour-related fiction: everything is dialled up to eleven, with no cliché left unwielded. When Desgrange's mythic comment about the ideal of singularity15 got trotted out I felt like dropping the book and shouting "House!" so effortlessly does Coventry fulfil the needs of Tour cliché bingo. The amping things up, Coventry takes as his epigraph Henri Pélissier's much repeated comment to Albert Londres in that café in Coutances16 ("Nous souffrons du départ à l'arrivée.") and proceeds to treat the Tour as a symphony in suffering, relentless, each stage blending into the next in a prolix paean to pain, suffering and even death.

And yet, for all his suffering, Coventry's hero never seems to rest, spends many of his evenings either carousing à la Ernest Hemingway's País Vasco riders17, or in the company of the novel's femme fatale. He's with her in Caen at the end of stage one, (briefly) in Brest at the end of stage four, in Vannes at the end of stage five (where they watch the dawn rise over Carnac's menhirs), in Luchon at the end of stage nine, in Perpignan at the end of stage ten, in Nice at the end of stage eleven, in Grenoble at the end of stage 13, in Évian at the end of stage 14, in Metz at the end of stage 18, in Charleville at the end of stage 19 (another dawn spent together, this time a pilgrimage to the Somme accompanied by a team-mate), in Malo-les-Bains at the end of stage 20. Less the Tour de France, more a holiday romance.

How does our narrator keep going? The Duracell batteries of his day: ether, cocaine and ephedrine. None of which he procures for himself, all of it gifted to him. Some evenings Coventry's femme fatal wreathes him in a cloud of opium smoke. Which might explain the daze he seems to drift through the race in. Though in reality that seems down to a form of PTSD, a part of the non-cycling story Coventry tries to tell about the ANZACs at war and the effects of the war on others. The PTSD makes for pleasing symmetry as the narrator takes on the memories of his brother - tries to become his brother - who served in the war a decade before and who returned broken by the memories it gifted him. Neither drugs nor PTSD, though, make for narration to engage with, not here anyway.

I found myself wandering through the novel almost in the same hallucinatory daze as its narrator, hypnotised by the flowing stream of consciousness, staccato sentences and an arresting turn of phrase, never really sure where Coventry crossed the immaterial border between truth and fiction, between the imagined real and the imagined imagined, not always sure when his narrator was dreaming, dreaming within a dream or just functioning 'normally' within the novel's dulled reality. This of course is a much favoured trope in modern cinema, done well we get Inception, done adequately we get Existenz, done poorly we get the Matrix sequels. Done dirt cheap it's a trope that affords the generous reader the lousiest of literary cop-outs: what flaws there are in the novel are in the narrator, not the writer's writing.

All of that notwithstanding, The Invisible Mile is still a thing of (imperfect) beauty: the poor plotting (the denouement fails, on multiple levels) and the simple core message needlessly cloaked in complexity are still embroidered with writing that stirred me from the slumber I too often found myself reduced to:

"I listen and understand nothing. But my ignorance is trivial and extraneous, as if the invisible thing of a child's complaint. It's the fact the words are said. It's not the words so much; it's the extraordinary fact that they are spoken at this moment, at this time, in this place alongside this carving under these windows in this light. This physical instant. Latin, Greek, French, rhythm and the stage. Here's the blood, here's the bread. I sit through the moments when the congregation are seated, I arise when they get to their feet. The choir stands and they open their mouths in harmony. Colossal, massed. They are boys singing in robes. The whole building rumbles with the sound. Nothing separates me from the voices, certainly not comprehension, that is the last thing I need to be concerned about. It is in this moment, this physical moment, that these words come the nearest they will ever be to having a relationship with the hard edge of physics. This is the effect. Germ-like, hopping from breath to mouth. All a remedy for miles, for the invisible miles and the distances we make."

As the narrator/author said so many pages before: all stories are rhythm. Here, relentlessly so.

The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (original Victoria University Press cover)

The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry
(original Victoria University Press cover)

I suspect that, were I to know less about the Tour - were I not to be freighted down by more than six years of cycling book reviews - I might appreciate The Invisible Mile more, that were I to subscribe to the myth of epic sufferance others have shrouded the Tour in, I would appreciate The Invisible Mile more. That is either testimony to the truth of Coventry's core message - the failures of memory - or evidence of the novel's own ultimate failure.

1 A graduate of Victoria University of Wellington's creative writing programme, whose other alumni include The Luminaries author Eleanor Catton.

2 Don Kirkham and Iddo Munro rode the 1914 Tour.

3 The French bicycle company Ravat was actually being paid to allow the Antipodeans to ride, £1,200 the figure quoted in some sources, partly funded by Australian bike manufacturer Bruce Small's Malvern Star company.

4 MTN (Dimension Data) having successfully airbrushed Barloworld and the regional North African teams from the picture let's not consider the similarities with Africa's miss-identified first.

5 Of the four riders only Opperman returned, in 1931, riding in a team that included Ossie Nicholson (of the Year Record fame) and Richard Lamb.

6 It was, to say the least, highly disorganised.

7 The first British riders (Charlie Holland and Bill Burl) didn't arrive for another nine years, 1937.

8 The much celebrated Hercules-sponsored national squad that rode the 1955 Tour.

9 The Americans had already had the Italian-born Giuseppe Enrici in the 1924 and 1925 Tours but no American team featured before 1986 (despite at least two alleged attempts by the organisers to entice American teams to the race, one targeting the abandoned 1940 Tour, the other 1981).

10 Orica-GreenEdge in 2012.

11 As in the first Tour, where riders could sign up for specific stages.

12 As in the first Tour, these riders were not included in the general classification.

13 The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

14 It is largely a myth that Tour riders of old were hardy-handed sons of the soil, what statistics there are generally rubbishing the notion. Stars from Louis Trousselier (the son of a florist) to Lucien Petit-Breton (the son of a jeweller) to Henri Pélissier and his brothers (the sons of a dairy owner) could be said to have been middle-class. Even the Tour's quintessential working class hero, Maurice Garin, had left behind his chimney-sweep roots and become the owner of a bike shop in Roubaix with two of his brothers by the time the Tour was born. That said, Frantz, the winner of the 1928 Tour, was a farmer's son.

15 Despite so many Tour histories repeating an actual quote - "Le Tour idéal serait un Tour où un seul coureur réussirait à terminer l'epreuve." - no one can find a primary source for it. One Tour writer I have spoken to about it suggests the notion only gained currency after being used to talk up the return of the Tour after WWII.

16 Between Cherbourg and Brest, on the 1924 Tour's third stage, defending champion Henri Pélissier had quit the race, along with his brother Francis and their Automoto team-mate Maurice Ville, in consequence of a disagreement with the race's commissaires. Le Petit Parisien's Albert Londres interviewed them in a café in Coutances, gifting the Tour's history the legend of les forçats de la route (a phrase Pélissier didn't use in 1924 but had used when he quit the Tour in 1919).

17 In The Sun Also Rises.