Monday, January 7, 2013

The Many Factual Errors of "A Race for Madmen"

For the second time in ten years The Tour de France celebrates a centenary anniversary this year.  Ten years ago was the one hundredth birthday of The Tour, born in 1903.   This year is the one hundredth edition of The Race, as it wasn't contested for ten years during the two world wars.

In honor of that first anniversary there was a glut of books documenting The Tour's first one hundred years.  Whether there will be a similar glut this year remains to be seen.  English journalist Chris Sidwells is first out of the gate for this centenary with "A Race for Madmen, The Extraordinary History of the Tour de France."  It hit the bookshelves last July in time for a Tour expected to be dominated by the Brit Bradley Wiggins.  He guessed right on that, but the book is so loaded with mistakes, it appears to have been written by a madman in a rush to get the book out.  Though it is an entertaining read, it is not a book to go to if one desires the facts.

The front flap sets off an immediate alarm that this book can not be trusted, saying that  "170 years after its inception, the Tour is still troubled by insufficient crowd control and accusations of cheating."  Besides being sixty years off on how far back The Tour goes, "crowd control" is the least of The Tour's worries. Cheating is a nice euphemism for doping and it indeed has been an issue throughout The Tour's history.  Whole books have been written about it.

The front flap also sounds a warning that this book is extremely English centric claiming The Race was founded to demonstrate an English invention.  The Race was founded by French journalist Henri Desgrange to sell his newspaper "L'Auto," and it is a stretch to make the claim that an Englishman invented the bicycle.  A German invented the first two-wheeled device in 1817, the draisine, and a Frenchman was the first to put pedals on the device in 1860s.  Englishman James Starley further adapted the bike and amped up their production, but he certainly did not invent it.

The front flap is a gateway to a flood of misinformation. Sidwells is way off when he states that the city of Pau is "seated almost at the foot of the Col de Tourmalet."   Anyone who has followed The Tour in person and been in the Pyrenees, as Sidwells did as a reporter for the English monthly "Cycle Sport,"  well knows that Pau is a good fifty miles from the Tourmalet, nowhere near its foot. Pau is in the flat lands, not even nestled up against the mountains. 

When writing of the 1904 Tour, Sidwells states that after the first stage to Lyons from Paris, the "next day" the riders climbed the Col de Republique. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the history of The Tour knows that its first two editions were both six stages long, with nearly every stage more than 200 miles keeping the riders in the saddle for up to 17 hours a day or more.  There were several days of rest between nearly every stage.  They did not set out the "next day" after completing a stage except for stage four of the first Tour, so the riders could be racing on the great national holiday July 14.   There was at least two days between every stage of the 1904 Tour, and nearly a week between the first and second stages.  

Sidwells may not be to blame for giving two distances for the longest stage of the first Tour, but rather poor editing.  He states on one page that the longest stage of the 1903 Tour was 293 miles, but then four pages later gives the distance of another stage that year as 323 miles, most doubt a typo as it was 232 miles.  It was no typo though when he states that Merckx won his first Tour in l969 by over twenty minutes. The actual time was 17 minutes and 54 seconds.  I well know that as it was mentioned in the two biographies of Merckx I recently read.  I also know from those books that he crashed badly on the Velodrome in Blois in September of that year, not August as Sidwells writes.

The glaring mistakes go on and on.  He writes that Miguel Indurain was the final Tour/Giro double winner in 1994, forgetting that Marco Pantani accomplished the feat four years later.  He's wrong again when he states Indurain was the first to win the Tour four times in a row.  Anquetil was the first from l961-1964. Merckx later accomplished the feat from 1969-1972.  Indurain was the first to win it five times in a row.  He also makes a near criminal mistake when he says Contador's first Tour win was Johann Bruyneel's sixth Tour success as a director.  How could he forget that Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tours under Bruyneel's directorship.  Such a mistake is beyond mere sloppiness.  It is sheer madness.  Even casual fans of the sport know that.

Perhaps his most outrageous factual error is of a fairly recent event in Tour history that is so well-documented that it is inconceivable that he could bungle it. He writes that Armstrong's fall in the 2003 Tour, while in the lead climbing a mountain, was caused by Armstrong clipping a baseball hat held by a young spectator.  Everyone else reported that it was a musette bag that caught Armstrong's handlebar and dragged him down.

If riders can be suspended two years for doping, Sidwells ought to be banned from writing for at least that amount for perpetrating such falsities.  It is beyond fathoming that someone who has covered the sport and written other books on it could  be so wrong on so many basics.  It makes one wonder if he actually wrote the book or simply had his name attached to it.

He should also be stripped of his credentials for an indeterminate period and made to perform a couple thousand hours of community service reading real Tour histories to the blind for lending credence to the Rene Vietto toe cutting myth in the 1947 Tour.  He claims that French rider and team leader Vietto had an aching toe cut off during that Tour and ordered his domestique Apo Lazarides to cut off a toe of his own in solidarity.  He goes on to say that Vietto's toe can be found in a bar in Marseilles.

When I first read this story years ago in Les Woodland's "The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France," I was shocked I had never read about it before and tried to confirm the story.  It is not written about in any of the official Tour histories.  Of the dozens of books I have read on The Tour only one other book,  "Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More," by Johnny Green, mentions it. Green is the former road manager of the Clash and got caught up in the Armstrong hoopla and followed the Tour in 2003 and 2004 and wrote a book about it.  It is a rock and roller's interpretation of The Tour.  The Vietto toe story is right up his alley.

Like Sidwells, I went in search of the toe in Marseilles and couldn't find it nor could I find anyone who knew anything about it.  My French friend Yvon, who has followed The Tour for over fifty years and is a full devotee, knew nothing about the Vietto toe story.  He contacted French friends and posed the question to French cycling web sites and could not verify that it ever happened.

Some of the inaccuracies Sidwells makes are simple misinterpretations or not being fully precise about something,  such as placing a plaque to Eugene Christophe in the village center of Ste Marie de Campon.  The plaque is near the center but it would have been far more fitting to say it was on the building of the blacksmith where he famously welded a fork in the 1913 Tour.  Likewise he is slightly off when he calls Festina a "Spanish outfit."  Festina is a former Swiss watch-making company now based in Spain, but the majority of its riders were French.  It was essentially a French team. He also makes irrelevant comments.  When he writes that there have been six directors of The Tour, he adds that they have all been men.

He claims that Michael Rasmussen was a good bike handler. That was belied when he crashed three times in the final time trial of the 2005 Tour costing him a spot on the podium, falling from third to fourth overall. It was one of the most ridiculous time trial rides in history and worthy of mention in the book, much more so than asserting that Rasmussen had good bike handling skills.

At least Sidwells showed full respect to L'Alpe d'Huez, referring to it with the capital "L" every time he mentioned it except once with a lower case "l" and once without either "L."  But he somewhat disrespects Greg LeMond by not capitalizing his "M."

When writing about Tommy Simpson, Sidwells divulges that Simpson was married to his mother's sister, making him his uncle, giving him insider information.  He quotes her as saying that Simpson admitted to taking pills, but that he never used injections. Despite having a family blood-line connected to the sport, Sidwells did not start writing about cycling until six years before writing this book.  That might be considered a disclaimer for not being fully versed in the sport, despite being a regular writer for "Cycle Sport."

Its a shame none of his colleagues at "Cycle Sport" gave the book a read before it was unleashed on the public.  Sidwells does write with color and vigor.  He contributes a few cases of tears that I have not read about elsewhere (Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc during the 1968 Festina Affair, yellow-jersey winner Andre Leducq during the 1930 Tour) and some of the more obscure ones that are rarely mentioned (Coppi's domestique Andrea Carrea during the 1952 Tour, Anquetil after winning Bordeaux-Paris in 1965). This could have been a worthy contribution to the world of cycling literature.  Instead, it is a book to be wary of.

1 comment:

Andrew F said...

George, thanks for the warning. I'm actually reading this book at the moment, and was going to ask you if you had already read it. It had occurred to me a few times that he was making some pretty out there claims in the book with no reference to where the information came from. Not a single footnote that I can see.