The Tour de France kicks off in a few short days…what better time than to present a review of Graeme Fife’s stellar Tour de France: The History…The Legend…The Riders…14th ed. (London: Mainstream Publishing, 2012)!
Originally published in 1999, this edition of Tour de France was revised to include the Tours through 2012, where Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the coveted yellow jersey. This book is a thrilling and weighty look at the lore, the triumphs, the challenges and the defeats of the greatest cycling event we know. Compiled from exhaustive research, interviews with riders and anecdotes from historical accounts, Tour de France is dense and satisfying like a fine meal. The book is of two major parts: the first section divided into chapters named after the famous Alpine and Pyrenean summits that feature so prominently in the Tour. The second part is a series of chapters, starting in 1998 and finishing with 2012, that give the highlights and lowlights, the victories and the scandals that accompanied those years. Interspersed throughout the first part of the book are Fife’s own cyclotouriste efforts up the celebrated cols where so many legends were made (and broken).
The word “epic” has been used overmuch in the world of cycling, but that word suits this book just fine. Fife’s writing has an almost lyrical quality to it; his descriptions of events as they happened is breathtaking. Here’s an example, where he is describing the scene of a mountain stage:
The riders plough on through a cacophony of klaxons yodelling like a jamboree of deranged Tyroleans, exhaust pipes snorting plumes of carbon monoxide, the whole circus parade of team cars, service cars, official race cars, motorbikes with and without cameramen perched on the pillion seat, broom wagon snaking up the mountain — as fast as the leader at the front, as slow as the stragglers at the tail — through a jungle of spectators crammed so deep by the road’s edge they leave no more than a single file path down their middle and then bulge shut over the riders as they pass, like a python consuming its lunch.
The entire book is like that — and sometimes those vivid descriptions require re-reading a time or two for them to sink in. This is not “light reading” in any sense of the word, and at 518 pages, this isn’t a quick weekend read either. The book is meant to be savored, and in fact that is the only way to survive this dense tale: read, absorb…read, absorb…repeat until finished.
Fife references many photographs of the Tour as he writes, and while he thoughtfully includes a small handful for the readers, I was left wanting more. There are so many references to scenes from the past that a companion photo album would not be out of the question. Perhaps a future edition may address that one shortcoming?
If you are a fan of the Tour, a cycling historian or anyone who loves learning about professional cycling, this is a fantastic book to read. It can be an uphill slog at times to get through this massive volume…but the view from the top is worth it!
Thanks to our friends at the Independent Publishers Group for furnishing a complimentary review copy to us.