Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Bike Books of Samuel Abt

American Tour de France fans can in no way fully fathom its magnitude until they've had the chance to actually go to France and be a part of the throngs in the mountains as the riders fly by or be at a town hosting a stage finish or a stage start amidst the mobs fully consuming the town.

Nor can an American fully fathom how deeply the French honor the history of The Tour and those who have ridden it without reading some of their highly literate sports writers who are almost as revered as the riders. My French isn't adequate to appreciate the poetic eloquence of Antoine Blondin or Pierre Chany or Philippe Brunel or Jean-Paul Ollivier or others of their brethren, but fortunately some of their writing has been translated into English. It is stunning.

When I read the mighty prose of these giants of the keyboard, I feel greatly deprived that America has yet to produce a bicycle writer of such stature. We are lucky to have any newspaperman writing about the sport at all. About the only one of any longevity is Samuel Abt of the "New York Times," who has been writing about The Tour since 1977. He was such an oddity, an American in The Tour press corps year after year, that the French gave him a medal for his service.

I've wanted to give him a medal too, for being my prime source of Tour news for years until the Internet came along and for writing books about The Tour for us Americans when no one else was. He's given us eleven of them, the first in 1985 and the last twenty years later.

Abt admits in the introduction to "Off to the Races," one of his two books that are a collection of his stories from over the years, that when he moved to Paris in 1971, he had no interest in bike racing whatsoever. He didn't bother to give the Tour a look until he was assigned to cover it in 1977, even declining to join his girl friend to watch the finish of The Race on the Champs Elysees in 1974, preferring to go pick mushrooms. He admits that was a huge mistake that he regrets to this day, as it was Eddie Merckx's last Tour win and was historically significant too as the last time it finished on other than the Champs Elysees.

When he finally did see a race three years later, he acknowledges he was immediately won over. For that we are fortunate, but it is a grave indictment of his cultural sense to have ignored this monumental event that defines the French for his first six years in the country, especially since he hardly had to make any effort to see it, with it finishing right there in Paris where he was living.

Any book that tries to understand the French is suspect if it does not comment on The Tour. Any foreign journalist living in France is not doing his job if he ignores it. Hemingway spent quite a bit of time in France and writes eloquently on The Tour. Just as one can not understand Americans without attending a baseball game, one can not fully understand the French without witnessing the Tour de France. Peter Mayle authenticates himself by giving it mention in his best-selling books on Provence.

Abt claims to have been a sports fan when he was transplanted to France. If that was truly the case, he should have seized upon his first opportunity to experience this unparalleled sporting event that is viewed by more people than any other annual sporting event in the world, exceeded only by the Olympics and the World Cup, which come along every four years. Being able to fully experience The Tour could easily be the lure for some legitimate sports fan to move to France. It would certainly be mine. That said, he does deserve credit for becoming a devotee of The Tour once he did get a taste of it. But like most Americans who did not grow up with it, his understanding of the sport is almost feeble compared to his European counterparts.

That he has to write in somewhat simplistic terms for his American audience is understandable, but still he makes blunders that any European teen weened on racing from his earliest years would never make. He states that the Tour route is usually counter clockwise. That is not true. It generally alternates the direction it takes around the country with the Alps preceding the Pyrenees one year and the Pyrenees having the honor the next. He says racers are sent off in two minute intervals in time trials when it is one minute except for the last few. A caption to a photo in his book on Miguel Indurain showing him on the podium being kissed by two podium girls reads, "Indurain congratulated by two admirers."

Two of his books, "Breakaway" and "Tour de France, Three Weeks to Glory," claim Octave Lapize shouted out "Assassin" at Henri Desgrange in the 1910 Tour at the base of the Aubisque climb in the Pyrenees. That is a legendary moment in Tour lore, the first time the racers were sent into the mountains, and they weren't so happy about it. Henri Desgrange was the director and founder of The Tour. He was back in Paris overseeing The Tour, nowhere near the Pyrenees. And this storied event did not take place at the base of the climb but near its summit. It was indeed directed at some Tour officials, but not the head man, except figuratively.

That same Tour de France book recounting LeMond's third and final Tour victory in 1990 states that there is a monument to Desgrange on the Col de Telegraphe. It is in fact at the summit of the Galibier, Desgrange's favorite climb, and the most spectacular of those in the Alps. Desgrange was a tyrannical egomaniac of de Gaullian proportions before there was a de Gaulle. He commanded The Tour for over thirty years with an iron fist antagonizing many. A monument to him would have to be at the most dramatic place possible and that is the Galibier.

This climb figured prominently in the latest Tour with climbs up both sides of it on back to back stages to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its inclusion in The Tour, just as the year before the Tourmalet was honored for the 100th anniversary of the Pyrenees being introduced to The Tour. This is basic, first grade material. If Abt were working for a French newspaper and made such a mistake he would have been relegated to covering grade school soccer.

At least he never misspells "peloton" and always capitalizes the "M" in "LeMond" and is consistent in his spelling of Alpe d'Huez, though it is not of the honorific French style with either an upper case or lower case "L" and apostrophe preceding it, though when he reprints a stage route concluding at L'Alpe d'Huez it is spelled with that "L" as does the caption explaining it. Nor does Abt fully understand how exalted the climbs are. They are deities themselves with personality and much history. He does not include them in the index to "Off to the Races" as any French index would.

He's not fully consistent when referring to the great French daily sports paper "L'Equipe." He is respectful enough to mention it with regularity, but on occasion he forgets to include the "L" that is a part of its title. And it is a minor irritant that he has to identify it as a "French sports newspaper" just about every time he mentions it, rather than assuming at a certain point that his readers know.

He writes that Lance would chide him for referring to the Tour de France as "the Tour de France bicycle race" thinking that it had enough of a reputation that everyone knows that it is a bicycle race. But unfortunately that is not the case. I'm occasionally asked by people who know I bicycle a lot if I have ever ridden The Tour de France, thinking that anybody can go do it. It is afterall a "tour" isn't it.

Since I began riding the course eight years ago and haven't missed a year since, I can now tell them, "Yes I have ridden The Tour de France," and not disappoint them. But it is disheartening that so many do not not realize that asking that question is like asking a recreational golfer if he has ever played in The Masters or a recreational tennis player if he has ever played at Wimbledon. Abt says that he now respects the American Tour consciousness enough that he no longer refers to the Tour de France as "a bicycle race," but he still adds that qualifier to other races that every European knows are a bike race but few Americans would.

Likewise I accept his parenthetical explanations of peloton ("the professional pack in which Lance works") and domestique ("worker bee" and "ordinary worker") and so forth . But it does make me hunger for the writing of Blondin and Chany and other French journalists, knowing I wouldn't have to be distracted by such elementary explanations. At least I'm not a Frenchman who knows baseball having to read a book by a French journalist covering baseball who explains foul balls and the double play and the infield fly rule and its three strikes and you're out.

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