Book review: Tour de France: Official 100th Race Anniversary Edition

Tour de France: Official 100th Race Anniversary Edition
Francoise & Serge Laget, Phillipe Cazaban, Gilles Montgermont


Over the last couple of months the office has been beseiged by biographies, guidebooks and glossy hardbacks with a Tour de France theme. Unsurprising really as it's the race's 100th anniversary this June. While the content of many of the aforementioned would really only be of interest to diehard roadies, this 'official' heavyweight should be accessible and enjoyable to all.

Each edition of the race gets between two and four dedicated pages, including a summary of the main action and associated dramas, a small map of the stages, a list of the top ten finishers and an indication of the total mileage raced and the average speed. Plus, of course, the images — more on those shortly. There's interspersed chapters looking at other historical aspects like the famous jerseys themselves — the polka dot (King of the Mountains) and green (Points) jerseys which began to be contested in 1933 and 1953 respectively — while right at the back there's a load of statistics sure to be of use in pub quizzes.

Sadly the lists of top ten finishers from the late 1990s through the 2000s is marred by asterisks, depicting the 'no winner' status of the Armstrong years and the many other losses of placings due to doping. It's sad when viewed like this and made a little more ridiculous when you consider that in certain years the top ten was made up almost entirely of confessed or convicted drug cheats (whose places in the record books have been kept).

There's reprints of beautiful art deco posters and postcards scattered though the chapters, but as mentioned, it's the images that jump out and truly make this book special. Stunning black and white and sepia-tinted portraits depict riders and their bikes, some brakeless, some with one gear. While it's interesting to see the riders toiling in the towns and high mountains, it's also a record of how the tech side of the sport has moved on too. Well into the 1950s riders would carry their spare inner tubes slung across their bodies like bandoliers, aluminium bottles rattling away on their bars.

Up until the Second World War (and beyond), it's fair to say the main roads weren't too clever and riders were regularly pitched into sections of cobbles, but the mountain roads were truly atrocius. Images from the 1920s to 1930s show them as little more than dirt tracks, littered with small rocks — more akin to mountain biking and cyclocross terrain — where finding traction, let alone momentum and speed, would be an achievement with the best of today's technology. It's no surprise that every post-race mugshot shows the riders plastered in dust and grime.

While there's no doubting that modern day riders are among the very fittest, if not the fittest, athletes on the planets (doping scandals aside), they were pretty fit 100 years ago. The difference was they were also hard, real hard men, and clearly skilled all-round bike handlers — today's pro teams simply wouldn't dare to race in such conditions.

Perhaps the biggest thing that catches the eye, however, is the crowds. From the very first editions, the race was supported roadside by hundred of thousands of people — it's always been a huge spectacle, a race for the people to get involved in. A timely reminder for those of us heading to the Alps or Pyrenees this year, that we'd better be pitching our tents a few days before the caravan arrives...

Review: John Kitchiner