An Intimate Portrait Of The Tour De France, Philippe Brunel, trans Lois Lovett (1996)

A richly illustrated look behind the scenes of the great race from the 1920s to the 1990s. It is a joy to flick through, so long as you ignore the text

Calmann-Levy 0 9649835 0 8 Quarto 157pp £29.99

This is not a catalogue of arms aloft scenes of racers crossing the finish line, or, of gritted determination on the sides of mountains. Rather, it is a collection of black-and-white images of cyclists having their legs shaved, sharing post-stage baths, relaxing with their wives and being delivered on gurneys for medical treatment.

It is arranged as a series of profiles of champions from Ottavio Botteccia to Miguel Indurain, taking in Coppi, Bartali, Anqueuetil, Merckx and many others along the way. Leafing through provides an immensely enjoyable transport to the days of cafe dashes, carrying spares on ones back, feasting on steak between stages, and enjoying a cigarette in the saddle early in a days racing.

Fabulous as these images are, however, they are let down by the text on two counts. The essays that give the book its structure are very obviously translations. But even if one is forgiving of that, they are irritatingly hagiograpical. The captions too all read like Latinate epigrams. One of Raymond Poulidor dressed only in a towel reads: “He wore his malediction like a virtual coat of shining armour”. Of a sleeping Luis Ocana we read that he is: “lost in his dreams. He had the physique of a matador: The Tour was his arena”.

What would have been interesting was to know when and where each photograph was taken, but this information is only rarely given.

For Tour obsessives, there is much to enjoy here, or indeed, in the annual calendars in which many of these images appear. For an understanding beyond the images, there are far better books, however.

PS May 09

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