The Unknown Tour De France, Les Woodland (2000)

The great race’s backpages make an enjoyable read, even for Tour-book veterans

Cycle Publishing/Van Der Plas Publications (third edition 2009) 9781892495631 152pp $39.95

Read enough books about the world’s greatest cycle race, and the stories start to become all too familiar. Eugène Christophe fixing his bike at the forge, the Pélissier brother’s denunciation of the Tour in a cafe in Coutances and Tom Simpson’s demise on Ventoux are all well told tales. All feature in this book but Woodland finds easily enough that is novel to make this trawl through the Tour’s back pages a worthwhile entertainment.

There is no unifying theme – save for a love for the event, but the author goes well beyond cuttings and secondary sources to enliven his narrative. The most fascinating of these involve his chasing down people and places to the present day. He visits the Réveil Martin, the cafe from which the first Tour departed, pays homage to the slope where Wim Van Est was hoisted up on a string of tubular tyres in 1951 and seeks out the all but forgotten grave of Maurice Garin.

To all of these Tour footnotes, Woodland brings years of devotion to the event – and these shine through his manuscript. There are interviews with bit-part characters from the organisation, reminiscences of aged participants and insights from team directors. It has the feel of a labour of love, compiled over decades and without real concern for the time involved – and it is this depth that makes it a rewarding read.

Perhaps its most tantalising prospect is as a set of sites and monuments identified that might be incorporated into your own visits to France. Woodland provides enough pointers and directions to make his book the basis for a veritable I-Spy Tour de France. It would take many trips to complete, but there are few corners of the Republic in which a relic of a memorial cannot be found – and Woodland has made the job of seeking them out a lot easier.

This new edition is generously illustrated and handsomely produced, and is possible a bit big for inclusion in a saddle bag. The pleasure to be had from so many photographs, however, is compensation enough for having to transcribe the salient details before making your own tour.

PS Jan 11

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *