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Sprinting Through No Man’s Land, by Adin Dobkin

Tour de France 1912, somewhere between Nice and Grenoble. The image has been colourised and an anachronistic yellow jersey added. Branger / Violet / Getty / Little A

Title: Sprinting Through No Man’s Land – Endurance, Tragedy, And Rebirth in the 1919 Tour de France
Author: Adin Dobkin
Publisher: Little A
Year: 2021
Pages: 295
Order: Amazon Publishing
What it is: A story of the 1919 Tour de France
Strengths: It’s a story from cycling’s Heroic Age
Weaknesses: It wears its research heavily

Sprinting Through No Man’s Land, by Adin Dobkin
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land, by Adin Dobkin

Much of writing, of course, is avoiding the page, and research can become the surest form of pencil-sharpening. But it’s odd: it’s not the reader you need to convince, but yourself. When I was sure I was comfortable with some aspect – street furniture for instance – I was happy to write nothing about it. The danger of too much period detail is that your characters drown in it. But I needed to be sure I knew enough, in order to leave most of it out.
~ Jamie O’Neill

In the early hours of the last Sunday of June, 1919 – so early it was still the night before, three o’clock – 67 riders rode out from the Parc des Princes in Paris bound for Le Havre. It was the first stage of the thirteenth Tour de France, the first Tour in five years. The last one, in 1914, had taken place on the eve of war. Far to the east, in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated as the riders in that race were also riding toward Le Havre. By the time that Tour ended war was imminent and within days of returning to Paris many of the géants de la route swapped their cycling jerseys for military uniforms. By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed on the eve of the 1919 Tour many of those riders who had survived the war were still in uniform.

Of the 67 riders who set out from the Parc des Princes in 1919 only 41 were still in the race 388 kilometres later in Le Havre. After a day’s rest the riders moved on, again starting in the late hours of the previous night, this time bound for Cherbourg. By the time they had covered the 364 kms separating the two towns just 27 riders remained in the race. Stage by stage that number fell: 25 riders were left in the race by the time it reached Brest; 20 in Les Sables d’Olonne; 17 in Bayonne, the gateway to the Pyrénées.

The wheat had been winnowed from the chaff, those riders least prepared for the resumption of the Tour falling aside early. Only two riders fell away during the Tour’s crossing of the Pyrénées, 15 left in the race when it reached Perpignan at the other end of the mountains. Another three were lost on the two transition stages taking the riders to their next mountain rendezvous, the Alps, where only one rider was lost to the race. The remaining 11 riders all made it back to the Parc des Princes three stages later but even at the end the Tour claimed another, one rider being disqualified for a rule infraction during the final stage, leaving just 10 riders filling the general classification at the race’s end.

That is quite a cold way to describe any Tour. It is a particularly cold way to describe this one. But in many ways it is all that people want. Stages that stretched to nearly 500 kms! Days that started at three in the morning, sometimes ten the night before! Riders taking 15 hours on a good day, 21 hours on the worst, to complete a stage, and they were the stage winners, the stragglers were still coming home hours later each day! Woollen jerseys, steel bikes, and you could only change gear by stopping and flipping your rear wheel around, different sized cogs on either side of your hub!

It’s all meant to sound quite horrific. And it was quite horrible. But it wasn’t quite as horrible as the 1914 Giro d’Italia. And it wasn’t quite as horrible as the 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille. It was, however, the Tour and we all know by now that the Tour is sui generis.

Stretching the story of a single bike race – even a four week race like the 1919 Tour – into a book-length tale is a test of a writer’s skill and a reader’s patience. Consider the difference between Nige Tassell’s tedious book about the 1989 Tour and Richard Moore’s elegant book about the 1986 race. It is especially difficult if you step out of the modern era, where sources are plentiful, and tackle something from cycling’s Heroic Age, where sources are sparse.

Peter Cossins’ book about the 1903 Tour, for instance, is fascinating for the detail it offers about the first Tour but it is a truly boring read. Even turning the Tour into a work of fiction doesn’t always help. David Coventry’s novel inspired by the 1928 Tour starts off wonderfully but by halfway it has outstayed its welcome. Dave Thomas and Gareth Cartman’s self-published novels about the 1911 and 1919 Tours are enjoyable enough but both need polishing and editing. Similarly, Ian Chester has a self-published account of the 1919 Tour, he riding the route of the race in 2019 and mixing history with a travelogue. As with Thomas and Cartman, it’s enjoyable enough but polishing and editing would help.

Tom Isitt’s book about the 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille also turned to travel writing to tell its story, mixing that with an account of the race and the history of the lands it went through, the Zone Rouge, those post-war lands poisoned by four years of industrial warfare. Isitt even mixed in bits of fiction to give voices to the voiceless and try and turn the riders into real people and not the mono-dimensional caricatures beloved by those in thrall to cycling’s hardman ethos.

Or it can be done as Tim Moore did with the 1914 Giro, a humorous travelogue flavoured with historical research and a clear respect for the men whose wheel tracks you are following.

Adin Dobkin’s solution for this book about the 1919 Tour is to turn to narrative non-fiction – history with a novelist’s voice (Dobkin is a journalist with an MFA from Columbia).

The basic premise of Sprinting Through No Man’s Land is that the 1919 Tour represented not just the rebirth of the Tour after its wartime hiatus but a return to normality for France too. I don’t know how fully I buy the latter part of that argument. Normality was suspended in the autumn of 1914. But it gradually returned, bit by bit, as the war wore on. Just from a cycling perspective, by 1916 racing had returned to the Vel d’Hiv and the number of events hosted grew. By 1918 they were practically a weekly thing. Even before peace was official in November 1918 L’Auto was looking forward to the return of the Bol d’Or, the prestigious 24-hour track race often won by roadies.

By the time the Tour came around in 1919 road racing had got back to a relatively full calendar, with Milan-Sanremo (an Italian race but popular with the French since at least 1910 when Eugène Christophe won it), Paris-Roubaix, Bordeaux-Paris, the Tour of Belgium, the Giro d’Italia (not very attractive to French riders but nonetheless relevant), Paris-Tours, and Paris-Bruxelles filling the calendar between the start of April and the beginning of the Tour de France. Paris-Menin was one of the few major races not to return while the addition of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille actually expanded the calendar relative to its pre-war size.

If you look at the picture through modern eyes, our own contemporary experience has shown us that running the Tour in recent years was important but not to the extent that it rendered the rest of the restructured calendar irrelevant. No single race or sporting event served as an all-encompassing metaphor for what we were going through. Now as then, they served a collective function, a gentle reminder of our resilience in the face of adversity.

In a discussion with Paul Fournel, Dobkin has stated that he didn’t fully trust Henri Desgrange’s accounts of the race in the pages of L’Auto, really only relied on the organising journal for the itinerary and some of the basic details of the race. Just the facts.

L’Auto is not the only source of information on the 1919 Tour – La Vie au Grand Air covered the race, but it was reduced to a single edition a month, down from the weekly editions it produced before the war, while L’Écho de Sports went from three issues a week to daily for the month of July – but it is the major source, the key place where riders spoke to readers and the story of the race was told. Ignoring it reduces the Tour to a silent film, neither Desgrange nor the riders given voices, all observed from a distance, seen through the somewhat subdued matter-of-fact voice of the author/narrator.

What is particularly funny about that choice is that whenever Dobkin steps out of the 1919 race and discusses other Tours, his choice of sources is … interesting, to say the least. For instance, he credits the fabulist Pierre Chany as a source for one anecdote: how can you not trust Desgrange yet believe Chany?

The book’s cover image is a colourised version of a picture from the 1912 Tour with an anachronistic yellow jersey painted in.
The book’s cover image is a colourised version of a picture from the 1912 Tour with an anachronistic yellow jersey painted in. The riders here are somewhere between Grenoble and Nice, the race then still travelling clockwise round France, the Alps before the Pyrénées. That changed the following year.
Maurice-Louis Branger / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

Dobkin offers some very creative tales from other Tours. Alphonse Steinès, for instance, climbed the Col d’Aubisque in the winter of 1910, nearly died getting to the summit but then walked back down, got back in his car, and drove himself home. I have to confess to being impressed by that. Not so impressed by Octave Lapize being the first to summit the Aubisque in the actual race and spitting out the single world “Assassins” but that’s me for you. And I do love the story of Maurice Garin and the brassard vert he wore during the 1903 Tour to signify he was the race leader. Or Eugène Christophe in the 1913 Tour sprinting down the Tourmalet behind Philippe Thys, crouched low against the frame of his bike, their cranks turning quick to overcome their wheels’ speed, and a rock breaking his fork.

Pretty much anything said about any of the other Tours is, basically, straight out The Big Book Of Bike Racing Bollox. Or the author’s own imagination. A romanticised view of a past that never was that should make you consider carefully the other elements of the story being told.

Glacier hiking on Mont Blanc.
Like modern Tours, Dobkin fills the story of the 1919 race with scenic delights, such as this image of glacier hiking in the region of Mont Blanc.
Sueddeutsche Zeitung

What do you talk about if you can’t really talk about the race itself? You do as as we do today and focus on the scenery. With photography being held back by newspaper technology and economics, and with newsreels not yet really a thing for the Tour, few then saw the race the way we do today, all that scenery there to distract us from the boring bits. Dobkin reinvents the experience of the 1919 Tour, filling it with his equivalent of château porn and scenic delights. Here we are, for instance, in northeastern France:

“Just before leaving Belfort, they passed the town’s citadel. The fortified building had first been a castle in the 1200s and was strengthened through the 1700s as the Alsace became contested territory. At the foot of the citadel, carved into rose Perugia sandstone, a twenty-two-meter-long lion sat, its front paw crushing an arrow beneath its weight. The arrow faced east, toward the German border. It had been built to represent the resistance of the city for 103 days against the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War. Belfort’s fifteen thousand garrisoned men had fought against forty thousand Prussian soldiers. The town surrendered at the end of the war, but its fight went on longer than any of the French strategists and politicians had imagined. At the end of the war, the Germans occupied the town for two years, until 1873. Instead of claiming the town for its own, it exchanged Belfort with the French for cities further north. After the Germans left, the city’s fortifications expanded again; the wall between their city and the surrounding countryside grew.”

Did you notice Dobkin’s use of “the Alsace” there? The man has serious issues with the definite article, deploying it when it’s not needed, ignoring it when it is. L’Auto, La Sportive, Alsace-Lorraine, they get the in front of them while the Parc des Princes, the Col d’Aubisque, the Promenade des Anglais, they are denied their due. I’d love to sit in on the therapy session where he gets to the root of that one.

Other of Dobkin’s editorial choices are more jarring, the authorial equivalent of the pavé the riders rode over as they traversed the north of France. High on the list, his decision to refer to riders by their first names. “Luigi, Léon, Firmin, Eugène, and Paul arrived one after another, seconds separating them” It’s meant to make you feel like they’re your friends, that you know these people sufficiently well to be on first name terms with them. What it is is a cheap trick that solves the problem of none of them being allowed a voice and several of them – even when there’s only 11 riders left in the race – being totally ignored. It misses the reality that, for fans of the sport then and now, these men were Lucotti, Scieur, Lambot, Christophe, Duboc. (For some reason Dobkin chooses to call Desgrange Desgrange – even 80-plus years after his death the Father of the Tour is such an authoritarian character, I guess, that you just can’t see yourself calling him by his first name).

What about consistently calling the Pyrénées alpine? As technically correct as knowing that tomatoes are fruits but as wrong as adding them to a fruit salad.

Firmin Lambot wears yellow in the Parc des Princes at the end of the 1919 Tour.
Firmin Lambot wears yellow in the Parc des Princes at the end of the 1919 Tour. The race comes with a number of popular stories attached to it, only a couple of which make it into Sprinting Through No Man’s Land. Which is not necessarily a criticism. One that did make the cut was the advent of the yellow jersey. Curiously, though, while Dobkin deals with that in two paragraphs, earlier in the book he spends three paragraphs discussing the military uniforms worn by some spectators at the end of one stage.
Albert Harlingue / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

The most irritating choice, however, is that behind the book’s digressive chapters. Worthy and laudable as they are – who could fault a chapter about the Black US army regiment the 813th Pioneers or a chapter about women in sport or one about Edward VIII’s mistress or another about the former prime minister Joseph Caillux or a final one about an American who served in the Foreign Legion and played jazz? – they don’t appear to add anything to the story. But you do get the feeling that Dobkin really enjoyed researching them.

Sprinting Through No Man’s Land is, ultimately, one of those books to be admired for its choice of subject matter rather than to be applauded for the way its story is told.

Sprinting Through No Man’s Land – Endurance, Tragedy, And Rebirth in the 1919 Tour de France by Adin Dobkin is published by Little A (2021, 295 pages)
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land – Endurance, Tragedy, And Rebirth in the 1919 Tour de France by Adin Dobkin is published by Little A (2021, 295 pages)