Title: We Rode All Day
Author: Gareth Cartman
Publisher: Gareth Cartman
What it is: A cycling novel, telling a story of the 1919 Tour de France, through the voices of riders and organisers
Strengths: It’s an imaginative approach to the subject
Weaknesses: As with all historical novels, its interpretation of history is open to debate
What passes through your mind when you’re riding? If you’re any good ... nothing.
So opens Gareth Cartman’s novel We Rode All Day, which offers a version of how the 1919 Tour came to be won by Firmin Lambot and lost by Eugène Christophe. Unlike Dave Thomas’s The Great Loop and David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile – which took the history of the 1911 and 1928 Tours and mostly chucked it in the bin for a more creative take on those races – Cartman here stays as true as he can to the historical record of who won what, where, when and how, but with the author bringing considerable imagination to the table in the way the story is told.
Narrated largely by Eugène Christophe, with Firmin Lambot, Henri Desgrange, and Jean Alavoine offering supporting testimonies and Honoré Barthélémy, Henri Pélissier, Léon Scieur, and Maurice Machurey chipping in their tuppence worth occasionally, this is a polyphonic spree of voices, each imagined by the author based on period reporting. Here, by way of example, is Barthélémy, late in the race, complaining to himself about the state of his toes:
Ah man, me nuggets. Right, I spent last night with me right nugget in a bowl of ice, not nice it was, not nice, and I swore to myself if I make it to the end of this race, I’m seeing a proper doctor, as I’ve got some money now, quite a lot of it, and that toenail’s coming out.
This stage up the Galibier is meant to ‘sort us out’. It’s sorting my toenails out, I’ll tell you that. First sign of a climb and it’s like all the boredom and the pain and the agony of racing on flat roads has gone, and I’m leaving all the other riders behind, or rather they’re disappearing into the distance.
I didn’t even try.
The 1919 race threw up some of the Tour’s more enduring stories, constantly being recycled in miscellanies and anecdote-filled histories like those of Les Woodland, such as Léon Scieur sewing up a tubular in a rain-soaked doorway, a commissaire looking on to make sure he got no help from spectators, not even with threading the needle.
The race has also given us some of the Tour’s more memorable images, such as this:
This was also the Tour that gave us the first yellow jersey, a mid-race innovation that has become a sporting icon, one with a complicated origin myth (Whose idea was it? Why was it yellow? Was it really the first or was there one in 1914?):
Perhaps most importantly, this was the Tour that catalysed the myth of Eugène Christophe’s march down the Tourmalet in 1913, an event largely overlooked at the time and which only took on significance in later years. This was also the Tour which helped catalyse the myth of les forçats de la route, Henri Pélissier exiting the race after having dismissed it as un truc de forçat (in his reporting from the 1924 Tour Albert Londres never actually used the expression les forçats de la route, instead calling the riders les martyrs de la route – it was only later that multiple stories were woven together to create a better legend).
It’s an important Tour, then, but today is somewhat lost in the shadow of those greater myths it helped to generate.
We Rode All Day, sadly, doesn’t do as much to drag the race into the light as it could, preferring instead to view the Tour through the myths it helped spawn. Take, for a start, the opening, a prologue set in the 1913 Tour, Christophe marching down the mountain, his mind a whirl with thought as he forges the myth of Marie-de-Campan. That not only acts as a bit of foreshadowing for the end of the 1919 Tour – Christophe’s forks once more broke, but this time he was just two stages from victory, wearing the maillot jaune, and sitting on a lead of nearly half-an-hour over his closest rival, the Belgian Firmin Lambot – but it also establishes that this is a story seen not as it would have been in 1919, but rather through a more modern lens.
When the myth of Marie-de-Campan was established is hard to pin down. Certainly it had taken hold by 1951, when the the French federation erected a plaque on the wall of the forge in which Christophe carried out the repair of his forks, a moment recorded by print and broadcast media, with the march down the mountain and the repairs in the forge re-enacted for a modern audience. But when the story of his life and career was serialised in Miroir des Sports between November 1922 and April 1923 the incident wasn’t presented as the drama it’s since become. A decade after the event and Christophe made relatively light work of it. Yet here he is at the start of We Rode All Day, reliving that day in 1913:
In these parts a witch preys upon cyclists. They say she has green teeth, and there are rumours she has cousins, sisters, evil twins cast around the cycling world, ready to strike a cyclist down for hunger, ill luck, mechanicals. One in the Alps. One in the Arenberg Forest near Roubaix. And one here, in the Pyrenees. She found me here, at the top of the Tourmalet, at the top of my form, and she turned my whole world upside down in a split second that nearly never ended.
If We Rode All Day has a point to make, and isn’t just an interesting recreation of forgotten voices, then that issue of luck, the witch with the green teeth, is a part of it. We’ve met her before on the Café Bookshelf, most notably in the writings of Paul Fournel, where she was la sorcière aux dents vertes and acted as an elaborate synonym for la fringale, the hunger knock. Here, she’s a more generalised anthropomorphization of luck, as seen when Christophe breaks his forks in Raismes, with victory in the 1919 Tour all but in his grasp:
There was a level crossing and a town square, a few piles of rubble and smashed windows,. So many aching memories live here. Soon Raismes would be a distant memory.
Then the handlebars dipped from under my hands. A centimetre or two, no more, but enough to alarm me. I started to lose control, jerking to the right, to the left. No no no no no no no no, this can’t be happening, not now, this can’t happen now.
In the distance, I swear, the laughter of a witch. The Chorchelle d’Arenberg, risen from her pit.
Contrasting Christophe’s belief in a personified version of luck, We Rode All Day offers ample examples of incidents where others took a different view of luck. Here’s Henri Pélissier all but within touching distance of victory in the opening stage:
I’m riding into the back streets of Le Havre, with Rossius in the distance, Van Daele nowhere to be seen.
Henri Pélissier, the milkman’s boy come good. Oh Dad, oh brother, oh lost brother, if you could see me now. Here comes the port, here come the crowds, they’re egging me on, cheering noises, a wall of sound – THIS is what the Tour is all about. The pain and the wounds, the mental torture, this is why you ride, Henri Pélissier, on his way to victory. Henri Péli...wait...no, not the back wheel. NO NO NO NO NO. Not now.
Not the back wheel. I’m so close. I was so close.
The chrrr, chrrr, chrrr, the sound of wooden rim on road, the sound every rider dreads, it’s skidding, it’s scraping, I can ride this out, yes? The tube keeps some air. I panic. Look back. Here comes Rossius – I’m going to have to get out of the saddle and hit the pedals harder than ever. Forget the puncture, just ride, just ride.
No please, God, don’t do this to me. Don’t take my wheel now.
Both riders feel they’ve been unlucky, but Pélissier’s is a more generalised form of luck, he blames his misfortune on an abstraction he probably doesn’t even believe in. Christophe’s take is much more specific.
Aside from offering comment on the role of luck in cycling, what does We Rode All Day have to say for itself? Well, being the first Tour after the war, it has something to say about the wartime experiences of some of its characters, most notably Christophe and Pélissier. Pélissier is seen as a bit of a coward, the Henri Desgrange character imagining the Paris-Roubaix champion to have been a “shirker” and “war-shy”. Christophe, his memory of the war is of “rain, mud, and disease.”
This misses out the complexity of what actually happened. Desgrange, the decorated war hero, spent most of the war in L’Auto’s offices in Montmartre, from where he organised races that ‘war-shy shirkers’ like the Swiss star Oscar Egg or the American star Bobby Walthour took part in (both being from countries then neutral in the war) and which riders like Pélissier and Jean Alavoine also participated in, when they could get leave. Christophe’s war saw him spend the first year in Paris as a mechanic in a cycling division, then he was assigned to his old sponsors Peugeot, working on engines for aeroplanes, and then he served as a mechanic in an air division. Pélissier, he didn’t join the war until 1916: his compulsory military service in 1910 having been cut short on health grounds he wasn’t mobilised when the fighting began but volunteered after the deaths of a brother and a brother-in-law. Like Christophe, he started out in a cycling division, like Christophe he ended up in an air division, where he served as a telegraphist. Neither had what we today think of as a ‘proper’ war, the war we know from Siegfried Sassoon and Blackadder. How many cyclists did? Oddly, even with the war’s centenary celebrations now over, this is a question we still don’t have an answer to.
In a way, what we have going on here is the same issue David Coventry tried to explore in The Invisible Mile and ultimately himself fell victim to: we’re using a romanticised image of a past that never was in order to recreate a bye-gone era. That becomes a major problem when people believe the recreation to be true to life. This complaint can probably be made of a lot of historical fiction. Sadly it can also be made of a lot of the books and articles published that claim to tell the Tour’s history. Like We Rode All Day, with its anachronistic references to the Arenberg half a century and more before it became a part of cycling’s mythos, much of the Tour’s history is today told through a modern prism of hardmen and a race for madmen. We’ve fallen for the myths of the Gods.
For me, the real problem with this is that it has the unintended consequence of dehumanising the people whose stories are being told. We reduce them to caricatures: hard as nails, and with balls of steel and no life outside of cycling. How much life outside of cycling do we see in We Rode All Day? Pélissier, we’ve seen him thinking of his father, as do Jean Alavoine and Honoré Barthélémy. Few think of their mothers. Only one remembers he has a wife. Four weeks around France and only one – only once and on the last day of the race to boot – remembers he has a wife, and a child.
Ultimately, here, the riders don’t need a life outside of cycling, they don’t need to feel like real, rounded characters, for they are not the real stars of We Rode All the Day. The real star is the Tour de France itself. Here’s the Desgrange character, neatly summing up what the novel’s really about:
Men need sport. Without sport, without sporting heroes, without the sacrifice of athletes pushing themselves to the very limits of human potential, man grows indolent. It was indolence that lost us the war in 1871. We shall never return to those days, at least not under my watch. And if we have suffered in the last four years, we need to make sure there is no repeat of this suffering.
Men need men. Inspirational examples of what man can me.
What better example can there be than the great Eugène Christophe, carrying his bike down the mountain in 1913, to repair the bike by his own hands in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan. A man whose very own motto is you never leave a job half done. Christophe, the old Gaul, the tradesman who never gives up, who never says ‘I can’t do this’, what better example of a man can there be?
Does it matter if the legends have outgrown the deeds, if the myths have left the real men lost in the shadows of stories meant to inspire? That’s for you to decide.
You can find an interview with Gareth Cartman on the Café Bookshelf here.