Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders, by Graeme Fife
I feel somewhat conflicted about this book after having read it. Much depends on the person behind the book, as there are at least a couple of ways this book can be interpreted. Is the author to be taken as a cultured European who loves road cycling and who appreciates grit and skill, and who would be a pleasant conversation partner over a few glasses of wine to talk about the pros and cons of tactical racing as part of a professional team or being a lone wolf who continually attacked the peloton and racked up combativity points? Or is the author to be taken as a snob who harbors a bias against Americans and who is a Luddite who prefers an era when cyclists and conditions were far poorer than they are at present? Either is possible, and the end result is that as a reader one has to determine whether they think the reader is a classy if somewhat old-fashioned bon vivant who loves road cycling or a haughty and snobby person who lets his class and cultural biases overwhelm anything remotely approaching objectivity. How one appreciates this book will depend greatly on which choice is made about the character and demeanor of the author, to a far greater extent than is usually the case.
The organization of this book is somewhat odd, in that there are really two competing systems of organization warring against each other. The first two hundred pages of this book are divided thematically according to a scheme that is based on some of the most notable hills (cols in French) and mountains that are regularly featured on the route of the Tour de France. In this section we read about the battle between fear and moral strength and read an extended encomium by the author to the greatness of Eddy Merckx, the fighting spirit of Hinault, the tours of the 1920s and 1930s, the short-lived greatness of Coppi and the “modern era” of cycling, drugs in the sport of cycling, and the struggles of British riders. The last hundred pages consist of chapters about the 1998 through 2003 (Centenary) Tour de France races, showing the effect of rising official hostility to the increasingly prevalent and pervasive doping regimens of Tour de France riders and the first five victories of Lance Armstrong which were later revoked due to his own doping. In these chapters the author comes off rather poorly, as he badmouths Lance Armstrong (which is admittedly easy to do in hindsight) for his cluelessness in upholding the culture of European cycling and for being somewhat cold blooded and tactical in his approach. The author comes off as being as much of a jerk as Lance Armstrong does, which is not particularly flattering to either of them, although it is clear that the author is not merely a hater, but at least somewhat of a nostalgic critic of the race, seeking to honor those who give everything for cycling not only in the Tour but during the entire racing season, which is not done as often these days as it was in the past, apparently.
So, what kind of person would be interested in this book? Well, the market for this book as a read on its artistic merits is somewhat mixed because the author has a somewhat disorganized approach to cycling history that blends a travelogue and a history without being sufficiently robust in either, and with a chronological set of chapters tacked on at the end that are highly obsolete although interesting as histories of a few of the most notable races of recent years. For the most part, this is a book that is designed to appeal to those who are fans of the Tour de France and of road cycling in particular . If you are not a fan of that challenging and difficult sport, it is likely that there will be little in this particular book that will be of great appeal. For those who are a fan of the Tour de France on at least a casual basis, this book will either make one like the people who run the sport a lot more or a lot less, but will leave few indifferent, though likely a few readers will be left conflicted.
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