Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Scholarly Study of the Bicycle in France

The biggest challenge for an academic writing a book on the influence of cycling upon French culture is deciding how much weight to accord The Tour de France.  Hugh Dauncey in his "French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History" does not shy away from giving it the utmost of importance, acknowledging that it could be the very key to understanding the French.

A good portion of this most readable book dwells upon The Race and how as a shared experience it reflects French culture.  He profiles many of its key figures, mostly prominent French racers from different eras who captured the public imagination and provided metaphors for the consciousness of the time.  The duels between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor galvanized the country for years and were a reflection on the country's modernization.   

But when it comes to individuals in cycling who had the greatest effect molding French culture, towering above all else is Tour founder Henri Desgrange, a man with the same initials as Dauncey's.  So prominent was Desgrange his initials, HD, graced the Yellow Jersey for years.  Dauncey justifiably anoints Desgrange as the most significant figure in the history of French cycling.  No one else contributed more to making cycling an intrinsic thread in the fabric of French society.  He cites two others, both prominent in the early 1900s as well when The Tour was launched, as seminal figures in popularizing and promoting the bicycle.  One was  Pierre Giffard, a rival newspaper man and bicycle race promoter, who early on recognized that cycling was as much a social benefit as it was a sport.

No one emphasized that concept more than Paul de Vivie, also known as Velocio, a tireless advocate of cycling as a social and moral force that could contribute to the betterment of society.  He is known as the father of cycle touring.  He invented the derailleur and published a magazine.  

The much-beloved novelist and sports writer Antoine Blondin is another key figure he credits for giving The Tour a cultural legitimization and instilling a bicycling consciousness in the French.  He was a life-long passionate follower of The Tour covering it for "L'Equipe" from 1954 to 1982 with a florid literary style mythologizing the feats of the racers and the mountains.  He was only slightly exaggerating when he wrote that DeGaulle  was president of France for eleven months of the year, but come July that title applied to Jacques Goddet, Desgrange's successor as director of The Tour in 1936.  Another writer, Serge Laget, termed The Tour "Christmas in July."

Dauncey is more an authority on France, as a senior lecturer in French at Newcastle University in the UK and a PhD on the French space program, than on cycling, but this isn't his first book on the subject.  He previously edited "The Tour de France 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings and Values," a collection of essays by twelve scholars from France, Great Britain and the United States.  This book is part of a series on contemporary French and Francophone  cultures meant for academics, as indicated by its price--$99.95, a quite hefty price for a 250-page book without photos. I was able to acquire a copy from the Michigan State University Library on interlibrary loan.

One doesn't need an advanced degree, though, to plow through it.  It is most breezily written and could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in matters pertaining to the bike.  It would help though if one could read French, as only rarely does he offer a translation of the book's many French quotes.  Even Velocio's Seven Commandments are in their original French without translation.  It is impressively well-researched with a fourteen-page bibliography.  It is curiously, though, footnote-free. 

He also draws upon cinema to reflect upon the significance of the bicycle to the French.  He devotes several pages to Jacques Tati's 1947 "Jour de FĂȘte" about a small-town bicycling postman as a commentary on the "Americanization" of France as it seeks to modernize.  He also mentions Tati's "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" as another example of this, even though he got the title of the movie wrong, neglecting to include "Holiday."  This wasn't his only cinema faux pas.  He makes a positively egregious mistake when he cites Renoir as the director of "Le Jour se leve" from 1939 when it was Marcel Carne.  He invokes this movie as the proletarian hero of the film is inseparable from his racing bike, the symbol of his freedom, and in the movie's climax, a crowd of his workmates all clutch their bikes as they plead with him to surrender to the police.

Dauncey makes a few such blunders too when it comes to racing, betraying a less than full understanding and knowledge of the sport.  As Christopher Thompson, author of "The Tour de France: A Cultural History,"  pointed out in his thorough and positive review, his assertion that the 1984 Tour was effected by EPO, was way off base, as it didn't make its appearance in the sport until the early '90s after the Greg LeMond era.  There were a handful of lesser errors that only a close follower of the sport would catch.  He wrote that Jacques Anquetil was the first to complete the double of the Dauphine-Libere and Bordeaux-Paris.  That is true, but it would be more accurate to say he was the only one to accomplish this monumental feat.  It was so amazing that "L'Equipe" called it the greatest sporting accomplishment of the 20th century.  He's also  a bit off when he writes of the influx of riders from outside Europe into The Tour mentioning Paraguay, Colombia (misspelling it Columbia) and "even Australia."  There was most certainly a sudden surge of Colombians, one year with even two teams from the country, but Paraguay is far-fetched and Australians had been competing in The Tour for years, though their numbers did increase, as did those from America.  There were actually more Colombians in The Race for a number of years than either of those nationalities.

He gives a list at one point of various first events over the years at The Tour, such as the first time it started outside of France and the first time Mont Ventoux was included and also the first time there was a finish at altitude, but he does not mention the first time L'Alpe d'Huez was included, which was the year of the first finish at altitude in 1952 when there were three such stages.  He is wrong when he writes that during the 1904 Tour there was just one day of rest between each of the stages after the six days of rest between stage one and two. There were three days between stages two and three and three and four and then two days between stages four and five and five and six in this early six-stage editor of The Race. The Brits might dispute him when he writes that the UK has never had a national Tour. Some would say that the Milk Race was.

These don't detract much though from the overall comprehensive sweep of his book. He traces the rise of the Decathlon sporting goods chain from its birth in Lille in 1976 to its present day breadth of over 300 outlets in France and more than 100 more world wide.  When Peugeot stopped manufacturing bikes in 1986, Decathlon began producing its own line of bikes in 1996.  He also documents the take over of Paris in 2007 by thousands of rental bikes and writes of an early rental system in La Rochelle in the '70s.

He does acknowledge that France lags behind other European countries in bicycle usage, invoking the cycling term "lanterne rouge" for bringing up the rear to describe France.  Only three per cent of trips in France are made by bike, compared to ten per cent in Belgium and Germany and twenty-seven per cent in Holland.  France is near the forefront with 5.7 bikes per one hundred inhabitants, but near the bottom with those bikes only being ridden fifty miles a year and only ten to fifteen per cent of the population cycling on a weekly basis.  In Holland and Denmark fifty per cent of their populations bicycle weekly and their yearly total is 600 miles.

But he sees signs of improvement and that the bicycle can reclaim its status as a "revolutionary" pursuit.  Rather than being a symbol for backwardness, as implied by "Jour de FĂȘte," it can represent progress as the enlightened give up or reduce their auto usage in favor of this noblest of vehicles.

No comments: