French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France

This is the first of a series of blogs about books about bikes – I may or may not have become rather obsessed with the Tour de France in the last few weeks and have been burying my nose in various bike books (I’m loving the alliteration here), and quoting facts and statistics at anyone who will listen and often those who won’t. I don’t really understand why not, as it’s all incredibly interesting! So now I’m going to bore / intrigue and delight you all with some reviews and recommendations.

The first one I read was French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France by Tim Moore.

french revolutions

And sadly this one I wouldn’t hugely recommend (better is to come, I promise). It’s the story of one middle aged man with two small children, interested in cycling but not really a cyclist himself, who decides what he really wants to do is ride the route of the Tour de France. And he is so completely, utterly clueless. I couldn’t quite decide whether his cluelessness was amusing or irritating (cycling the Tour de France is a big thing, you should at least know what you’re doing!) but ultimately it was horribly reminiscent of my first year of cycling, when every issue was met either with a call to my mum, or extensive, worried googling and then begging James to just sort it out. Utter embarrassment every time I walked into a bike shop – I completely recognised his description of bike shops staffed by those who get satisfaction out of impressing their superiority on everyone else!

There were a few things that annoyed me about this book (let’s get the bad out of the way first). The extensive adjectives and anecdotal similes left me wary from the very beginning. Either this was a writer trying too hard to be a funny writer, or he really spoke / thought like that, in which case I wasn’t sure I’d get on with him particularly well! Too many words, too many long sentences.Aside from this, his lack of knowledge about cycling seemed to lend itself more to a slightly condescending, patronising tone which carried through to his descriptions of France – every town was boring, grey, run down, populated with rude people.

I half loved, half hated the chapter on climbing Mont Ventoux. He captured the difficulty, its fearsome reputation, he mentioned Tom Simpson, together with some really interesting facts on drug use in the early days of the peloton (cocaine dropped onto cyclist’s tongues and the incredibly candid quote from rider Jacques Anquetil that “you’d have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants“). But in my opinion, having cycled up it myself, he just didn’t do the majesty of the mountain justice, even stating that once you start climbing you stop noticing the scenery: “when the last sickly little Christmas trees gave up the ghost just around the corner, all that lay above me was a bold and soulless slagheap of concrete-coloured rubble, the road zigzagging crudely up to a drab, antenna-topped weather station….” SOULLESS?! Mont Ventoux?!! I was almost angry on the mountain’s behalf. Okay, yes, I was very angry on the mountain’s behalf. Yes I probably care more about this mountain having been there myself, but his description was just so different, so negative, so lacking compared to the others I’ve been reading (and which I’ll mention in later blog posts) that I just couldn’t get on with it.

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Now the good – because there was good, and I would still recommend this book to those of you that love cycling. The book is filled with anecdotes of past tours and the characters that cycled in them, from the 1966 strike against drug tests, to how to go the toilet en route! Each chapter, each part of the route an excuse to tell another story.

And then there are some sentences that made me smile with recognition: The sporting-goods industry prospers from the eternal truth that people who are not very good at sometjing would rather blame a lack of expensive equipment than their own physical failings. Certainly rectifying the former is a lot quicker. Every time I looked at [Chris Boardman’s book] I felt an itching desire to slam his scary book shut and go into town to buy things made out or carbon fibre.

The main problem of this book is that it makes me want to do it too. If this man can cycle the route, this man with little to no cycle experience, so completely clueless, travelling at speeds similar to those I manage through the traffic of Central London, walking his bike up hills and no clue about nutrition…. surely, surely this is not an impossible task? Hmmm maybe I should do this next summer, tracing the route of the 2014 tour de france? It began in Yorkshire, why not?! And then the crushing realisation that Tim Moore took six weeks to do the route and there is very little likelihood of me being able to take six weeks off and being able to afford to do so! Plus I’d get very lonely and very fed up of having to carry all my stuff. But the dream still lives on, especially every time the Tour de France helicopter swoops up away from the peloton and the camera scans out over the gorgeous French countryside.

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