Whenever I need a nourishing dose of cycling lore I need only pull down Philippe Brunel's "An Intimate Portrait of The Tour de France" from my bookshelf and give it a look. I can open it to any page and begin reading about any of the cycling luminaries it profiles and feel an immediate jolt of affection and respect for the sport and its most significant totem--The Tour de France.
The book is not a history of The Tour, but rather a collection of biographies of "the masters and the slaves of the road," as Brunel calls his subjects, each reflecting in some manner or another on The Great Race. Some are only a page long and none longer than ten, and all liberally enhanced with photographs. Only about half of the book's subjects are about actual winners of The Tour. Since it was written in 1995, it concludes with Miguel Indurain and doesn't breath a mention of Lance Armstrong.
Brunel is one of a long line of French masters of the keyboard who write about cycling as if they were writing about the opera. He elevates to grand status the exploits of the racers, vividly portraying their triumphs and tragedies. He draws comparisons to figures from the highest of literature and art and film. He writes that Rik Van Looy had "the beauty of a Rubens," that the legs of Gianna Motta were so muscular that it "appeared they were sculpted by Michelangelo himself," that Italo Zilioli was "the Hamlet of cycling, tormented by his inner conflicts," that Jacques Anquetil's wife Janine was as close to him as was Signoret to Montand and compares Indurain and Pedro Delgado to Picasso and Goya.
He regards The Tour de France as a holy shrine. For him it is not a job, but a privilege, to cover it for the daily French sports newspaper "L'Equipe." He thanks it for allowing him "to serve" the Tour. The Italian racer Claudio Chiappucci, featured in one of the book's twenty chapters, echoes those sentiments. He says, "For me bicycle racing is a passion. When I stop, I will be proud to have served and gloried the sport."
The book fully captures the French regard for the sport. The chapter on Bernard Hinault does not fault him for betraying his promise to Greg LeMond to help him win The Tour in 1986 and trying instead to win it himself and become its first six-time winner. "That's what we all were waiting to see," Brunel writes. A caption to a two-page photo of the two of them looking eye to eye calls them student and teacher and their relations as "passionate, often to the benefit of the Tour."
Brunel's vivid prose is matched by the book's exemplary array of black and white photographs catching the riders in unguarded, natural moments that reveal their souls and torments and epitomize the "Intimate" of the book's title. Few of the photos are of the racers on their bikes, but rather capture them sprawled in bed or pouring a drink down their throat or on their knees praying or being massaged or soaking in a bath, sometimes two together. Fausto Coppi and Anquetil are shown resting in bed with their wives alongside. Hinault is shown bare-chested being greeted by his parents. It is one of many photos of racers shed of their jerseys revealing their sharp tan lines.
In another bed photo the Dutch Tour winner Jan Janssen is joined by his young daughter. It is one of four photos showing racers with a cigarette, including the most famous one of all--a pair of racers in the 1920s with tires wrapped around their shoulders and cigarettes in their mouths during a lull in a race, a photo that is a popular poster.
It should come as no surprise that a writer of such stature and such an understanding of the sport would invoke tears on occasion to emphasize the depth of cycling's hold on its followers. "Tears" is the first word of his chapter on Gino Bartali. He writes that they "flowed down the cheeks of his fans, who kissed the ground he walked on." In the very first chapter on the the first Italian Tour winner Ottavio Bottecchia he says the entire country wept over his mysterious death on a training ride when he was still in his prime. All of Belgium was in tears over the retirement of Eddie Merckx and "took to the veil for this incomparable champion."
Brunel is at his best describing the best, surmising that "Merckx had evolved from another planet." He says he is part Coppi and part Anquetil "plus something indefinable, like a soul supplement...He was, in short, the incarnation of bravery itself." Alien or not, Merckx is not immune to tears. Brunel recounts his well known tears upon being told he had tested positive for drugs in the 1969 Giro as he sat in bed and then crying again in the arms of his wife when she joins him. Brunel also mentions more tears from Merckx over the death of his idol Stan Ockers while he was racing on the track.
Belgium and Italy may be the most fanatical of bicycle racing countries, but they aren't the only ones that cry over their cycling heroes. Brunel writes that the arrival of Anquetil in the 1950s ended an era of disappointment and tears for the French--"Prior to Anquetil, France had cried in the face of Rene Vietto's sacrifice and then there was Roger Rivere's crashing spectacle at the bottom of the Perjuret. In him, France was able to wean herself away from crying over past tragedies."
How refreshing it is to read cycling literature that is written for connoisseurs of the sport not having to explain Vietto's sacrifice or Rivere's crash. This American edition though does feel obligated to add sloppy paranthetical explanations to a couple of common cycling terms--the "Grand Boucle" and "palmares." The editors give a literal translation of the "Grand Boucle," a term of endearment for The Tour, as the "Great Circle," and also the "Big Circle" on another occasion. The editors also felt the need to explain "palmares," referring to it as "list of victories" after its first use and then "list of wins" the second time it appears. Nor can the editors decide whether to capitalize or lower case palmares, doing both. Greg LeMond is subjected to similar treatment with his name once spelled with a lower case "m," though capitlizing it all other times.
Most demoralizing of the shoddy editing was the misspelling of one of The Tour's most celebrated climbs, the Galibier. Not once, but twice, it is spelled "Galiber." This despite it being referred to as "famous." Such a commanding book deserved better editing. Unfortunately, the bungling of cycling lore, and even the basics of the sport, is all to common in American publications. The sister race of The Tour, the Giro d'Italia, was once referred to as "Giro Tour" and another time spelled all in caps--GIRO. Colombia, which has supplied more racers to The Tour than all other South American countries put together, was misspelled "Columbia," and most astounding of all, "catastrophe," a favorite French word, was spelled "catastrophy."
The photo captions must have been added by the American editors, as it is unimaginable that the French edition could have made the mistakes of this edition. A caption to a photograph of Rik Van Steenbergen says he only made one appearance in the Tour de France. Two pages later Brunel writes Van Steenbergen won four stages of the race but "only finished the great race twice." Another faulty caption states that Merckx was punched "on the descent of the Puy-de-Dome" in the 1975 Tour, when it was actually as he was climbing within a kilometer of the finish of this legendary extinct volcano. The Tour only climbs the Puy-de-Dome. It never descends it.
Though the book certainly glorifies the sport and the courage and bravery of those who lend themselves to it, doping is not ignored by any means. In fact one of the chapters is
devoted to Michel Pollentier, the Dutch rider who was apprehended with a
rubber tube leading to a capsule of urine under his arm pit trying to
pass off urine that wasn't his after he won the L'Alpe d'Huez stage of
the 1978 Tour. It was a common practice at the time. Brunel refers to
it as having his "hand caught in the cookie jar."
Brunel accepts that doping is part and parcel of racing without moralizing about it. He refers to a German magazine that did a story on Dietrich Thurau after he retired. He was relieved to say, "My closets now will be empty of syringes and prohibited substances. The majority of racers have resorted to drug products, and those who refuse to admit it, are liars."
Brunel also quotes Anquetil as saying that everyone takes drugs, and congratulates him for having the courage to say it. In 1967 three years after his fifth and final Tour win he told the French Minister of Youth and Sports on a television show how one is drawn into drug taking. "You begin by taking a sugar cube," he said, "then coffee, then some chocolate and from then on its like a frenzy. You are drugged."
The drug mentions don't diminish the book in the least. Rather they contribute to its veracity. I know of no book that better portrays the majesty and the essence of this great sport. Though it is only 157 pages it is a "War and Peace" of a book and evidently not all that common. There are fifteen used copies available at Amazon starting at $36 on up to several hundred dollars and two new copies going for $385.