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Dirty Feet, by Les Woodland

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The monument to the Father of the Tour on the Col du Galibier
The monument to the Father of the Tour on the Col du Galibier
CAP / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

Title: Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France
Author: Les Woodland
Publisher: McGann Publishing
Year: 2021
Pages: 197
Order: McGann Publishing
What it is: A brief history of the Tour de France
Strengths: As well as retelling many of the usual anecdotes Woodland opens himself up to questioning some of the stories that have become stock-in-trade when telling the Tour’s history
Weaknesses: Woodland is, at times, playing fast and loose with the truth in order to sell a story about the Tour being a race for supermen

A long, long, time ago I reviewed Les Woodland’s Crooked Path to Victory and noted that, enjoyable as it was, it lacked a central argument pulling together all the tales told. It’s a criticism that fits most of the prolific cycling historian’s offerings: they’re packed full of enjoyable anecdotes but generally they lack a strong thread pulling all the stories together. No such criticism could be made of Woodland’s latest offering, Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France.

Desgrange saw sport and the Tour in particular as social engineering. He wanted not just a cycling champion but a champion so mighty, so inspiring, that he would lead French youth out of their bow-legged, half-educated gloom. With that would come greatness for France.

Desgrange never spoke publicly in favour of what we now call social Darwinism, the belief that society should be manipulated so that the advancement of the strong over the weak could be accelerated. But that, through example if not force, was his aim. Desgrange wanted not so much a sport but, in his own words, a race so hard that only one man could survive. The survival of the fittest, therefore.

Some of the evidence Woodland produces to support his claims is weak. For starters, we have yet to see proof that Henri Desgrange ever said that he wanted a race so hard that only one man could survive, while we have plenty of evidence of him interfering in order to keep riders in his race. Given that Desgrange was a journalist first and foremost, and that the Tour was designed to sell additional copies of L’Auto, it’s actually kind of hard to believe Desgrange ever did claim to want a race so hard only one man would reach the Parc des Princes. Who would buy L’Auto if that actually came to pass?

That said, I’m willing to park my scepticism the day Woodland or anyone else produces evidence showing Desgrange really did dream of just one rider making it back to Paris. Until then, it’s going to take a lot of helium for me to hoist aloft my disbelief where this tall tale is concerned.

More seriously, Woodland is – not for the first time – calling Desgrange a racist:

[Desgrange] wrote in the first issue of L’Auto that, thanks to sport and the backing that his paper would give it, ‘our race will soon find itself radically transformed’, but there was no explanation of just what he meant by ‘race’. It could, of course, have meant simply the human race but social Darwinism was at the time also being used to justify the domination and colonialism of black men.

Desgrange’s support of – well, his possible knowledge of the discussion of – social Darwinism, could that mean that Desgrange was a racist? Gosh! One feels almost tempted to say that extraordinary allegations require extraordinary proof. Hell, I’d settle for some ordinary proof. But, thing is, if you go to that first issue of L’Auto – and it’s only a click away today on Gallica – and you actually read what Desgrange wrote, you find him saying this:

And soon our race will find itself radically transformed. Like the Anglo-Saxon race, it will henceforth spread everywhere...

Ask me, it’s pretty damn clear what Desgrange was talking about. And it wasn’t Black and White.

Woodland, though, is married to the idea of it being Black and White. To buttress the claim he brings up the story of Henri Desgrange, Major Taylor, and a wheelbarrow full of centimes. Long story short, one time Desgrange paid cycling’s first Black world champion with 10-centime coins, so many that Taylor needed a wheelbarrow to cart the coins away. Or so the story goes, anyway. And Woodland tells us it’s a story told everywhere. Daniel de Visé tells it, Woodland informs us. As does Marlene Targ Brill, someone I’d never before heard of before but whose Amazon profile tells us is “the author of over seventy award-winning books.” Those books cover everything from lung cancer and diabetes to concrete mixers and garbage trucks. The very definition, I think, of eclectic tastes and just the sort of author you’d want to cite to support a claim like this.

De Visé and Brill may be the only two authors Woodland can think who repeat this shaggy dog story but I can add Peter Cossins and Geoffrey Wheatcroft. And Les Woodland himself, who on at least two previous occasions has served up the wheelbarrow story as Gospel. Funny how he forgot to mention that.

Now, though, Woodland no longer quite believes the story. Or, more precisely, he no longer believes the bit about the wheelbarrow. But he still believes Desgrange was a racist, and the existence of the wheelbarrow story – a story, remember, that Woodland himself has helped to popularise, several times – proves the charge:

Maybe it’s more likely that someone laughed that ‘[Taylor] probably needed a wheelbarrow to cart [his prize money] away’ and that a joking remark spread as fact. But the fact that it’s told suggests that it illustrates Desgrange’s view of life.

So there you have it. The Tour de France was created by a racist.

The Father of the Tour, Henri Desgrange
The Father of the Tour, Henri Desgrange
Harlingue / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

I go into this cock and bull story in great depth elsewhere but, for now, here, let me be clear: Henri Desgrange was not a racist and the sort of acrobatic leaps of logic and out-of-context quoting Woodland engages in here shouldn’t encourage you to think he was.

Let’s go back to the notion that Desgrange “wanted not just a cycling champion but a champion so mighty, so inspiring, that he would lead French youth out of their bow-legged, half-educated gloom.” Here’s Woodland yet again repeating that unsourced claim about Desgrange’s singular belief:

When it’s said, as it so often is, that Desgrange’s ideal Tour de France would be one in which only one man had the strength to finish, that was exactly the case. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft says: ‘These first Tour men were far from physical wrecks but they have the unmistakable proletarian appearance of their time, gnarled and knotty.’ The man who survived better than the rest would be a superman, more than three decades before an American comic book gave him his face.

Superman didn’t need to wait for Siegel and Shuster, he was alive and well even in Desgrange’s day. Nietzsche’s Übermensch had been around since the 1880s. Alfred Jarry’s Surmâle was born the year before the Tour. George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman was written in 1903. None of these are considered in Dirty Feet – and really they should, each offering very different takes on the notion of supermen and collectively showing that in Desgrange’s day the need for a superman was not universally accepted – but their absence got me thinking more about Woodland’s reference to the Man of Steel. Rather than the restrictive notion of Superman, would we not be wiser instead to think of the Tour as a race for superheroes?

The modern superhero certainly offers an interesting analogy for the Tour. Look at Captain America or Black Panther and you get Tour heroes down through the ages, ordinary people transformed by super serums or heart-shaped herbs, the EPO and Ketones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Look at Spider-Man, a kid transformed by an insect’s bite and how can you not see Chris Froome transformed by parasitic worms? Look at Iron Man and think of the humble bicycle transformed by technology, handlebars becoming cockpits. More importantly, I can’t look at all the Tour titles on my bookshelf (including one with my own name on its spine – I am fully aware of the glass house in which I reside) and not think of the MCU, the same story packaged and repackaged time and again, never varying, always delivering the comfort of familiarity.

And so to the familiar. Dirty Feet has many of the Tour’s greatest hits: from the Dreyfus affaire (a story, it’s worth recalling, that tells us the Tour was the product of anti-Semitism – it really does tick all the boxes, doesn’t it?) to Alphonse Steinès crossing the Tourmalet on foot; from Albert Londres being gulled by the Pélissiers into believing they rode on dynamite (Londres is always being gulled by the Pélissiers whenever Woodland tells that story, he wasn’t a cycling journalist so what would he know of the Tour?) to the well-told (if not always told well) story of Eugène Christophe; and on and on through any number of familiar stories about familiar heroes.

They may be the Tour’s greatest hits but sometimes the album tracks are more entertaining. Woodland, though, doesn’t dwell long on stories such as how the Amaurys came to control the Tour (but he does dwell on it long enough on it to incorrectly tell us that Jacques Goddet’s brother, Maurice, was his uncle), he’s too busy telling us about the things we already know and know well.

He’s also too busy chiding others. Take Tom Simpson and how the Comic “can’t bring itself to acknowledge what he achieved. He is remembered not for his victories but for the day of his death and the way it revealed him, along with the sport in which he made his living, as a drug-taker. It named not Simpson as its man of the century in 2001 but the track rider Chris Boardman, breaker of the world hour record but never once a finisher in the Tour de France nor a world champion on the road.” That jeremiad comes in the middle of Woodland’s own account of the day of Simpson’s death and the way it revealed him, along with the sport in which he made his living, as a drug-taker. Does Woodland discuss Simpson’s successes outside of the Tour? Of course he doesn’t.

Woodland has been writing about cycling since 1965 when he wrote his first reports for the Comic. The man is a font of knowledge and a fine raconteur. His work has been cited by authors as diverse as Daniel Coyle (Lance Armstrong’s War) and David Coventry (The Invisible Mile). Dirty Feet, though, feels like a cheap attempt to be controversial with its attempt to declare Desgrange a racist. I had hoped for better.

Les Woodland’s ‘Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France’ (2021, 197 pages) is published by McGann Publishing
Les Woodland’s ‘Dirty Feet – How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France’ (2021, 197 pages) is published by McGann Publishing