Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Mapping Le Tour" by Ellis Bacon

My pulse quickens when I discover a book, new or old, on The Tour de France that has eluded my attention.  If I were one of those cyclists with a heart-rate monitor, it would have registered several notches higher than usual when I learned about "Mapping Le Tour" from 2014 by the accomplished  British cycling writer Ellis Bacon.  A book focusing on Tour routes would speak directly to my heart having ridden the last twelve and knowing how each has a character of its own and is as intrinsic to its appeal as The Race itself.

There have been countless books recounting The Races, but I had yet to come upon one devoted to the intricacies of the terrain each covered and the towns they passed through and how the course was arranged. An incisive analysis of how the route has evolved over the years and what distinguished one from another and what each showcased of France along with a consideration of the thinking of those who designed each route would be a book I'd devour in one go having given much consideration to these issues as I've ridden the 2,000 miles of each year's route.

As I gave this over-sized book a quick page-through before diving into its prose, I was thrilled that a highly detailed map of each Tour filled a page.  As one who is mesmerized by maps, they instantly made this book an invaluable resource.  I was mildly disappointed though to notice that this was more of a picture book than a written book.  Bacon only devotes a half page of copy (a mere four or five paragraphs) to each Race.  The photographs are certainly magnificent with several spread out over two pages, but the minimum of discourse precluded the depth and focus I was anticipating.  Though he acknowledges The Tour is defined by the places it visits, his brief year-by-year recap is more preoccupied with miscellania such as the first Japanese rider to compete in The Tour (1926) than with examining the race course.  

It did not vary much in its first decades, clinging to the periphery of the country rather than venturing into the interior up onto the Massif Central and elsewhere as it did later.  It expanded from six stages its first two years to eleven in its third edition and thirteen in its fourth. The first dramatic change came in its eighth editon in 1910 when it tackled the Pyrenees and then the next year when it took on the Alps.  The next significant variation came in 1913 when for the first time the racers did their bidding in a counter-clockwise manner around the country.  Eventually it alternated from year to year letting the Alps go first one year then the Pyrenees the next, but for several decades there was no pattern in the direction the organizers set.

When I realized Bacon was going to let the maps pretty much speak for themselves rather than dissecting them, I began paying them closer attention.  The first thing I look at when each year's route is announced in October is the transfers from a stage finish to the next day's stage start.  For the first fifty years of The Tour transfers were not an issue.  There was a minor twenty mile transfer in 1906 after the Stage One finish in Lille to Douai, but there wasn't another until 1955.

That too was just a one-of for a short hop towards the end of The Race for a time-trial and didn't signal an immediate trend.  It was three years before the next transfer with two a year for three years until it jumped to five stages with a transfer in 1962.  The transfers were relatively short until 1960 with the first use of a train.  After the five-transfer Tour, the number backed off to just two or three the next four years until 1967 when there were none--the last time that happened.  

That race was also memorable for the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux and the end of The Race's conclusion at the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris.  The velodrome had hosted every finish of The Race until then.  It was such an institution that Bacon suggests that people were left "teary-eyed" at the demolition of the velodrome.  It was replaced by a gigantic soccer and rugby stadium signaling their popularity over cycling.

Bacon mentions tears just one other time--perhaps the most celebrated tears in the history of The Tour, those of a young Rene Vietto in 1934 after giving up his wheel to his team leader Antonin Magne in the mountains when he himself was a threat to win The Race.  The iconic photo is so often included in Tour books, that Bacon passes on it here, just as he passed on the legendary photo of Poulidor and Anquetil leaning into each other on the Puy de Dome in 1964, choosing instead a photo of Poulidor speeding on ahead of Anquetil.

One of the darkest days in Tour history for those attempting to follow the route by bicycle, even darker than that first train transfer in 1960, came in 1971 with the first air transfer, one of six transfers that year, the most to date. That was a particularly contorted route starting out counter-clockwise from Mulhouse up to the Channel and then hopping down to Paris and resuming in a clockwise manner.  

It jumped to seven transfers in 1974 with two via ferry to England and back for one measley stage along a highway that hardly anyone came to watch.  Then began a slow increase to half the stages not resuming where they left off to seventy-five per cent of the stages requiring a hop, increasing the mileage of the distance of The Race from its start city to its finish by hundreds of miles, all in the name of increasing revenue from the host cities.

Even more crass commercialism was the advent of split stages--days with two and even three stages. That feature was introduced in 1934 with an 81-kilometer morning road stage from La Rochelle to La Roche-sur-Yon followed by an afternoon time trial of 90 kilometers to Nantes.  The greedy organizers inflicted six split stages on the peloton the next year, three individual time trials and three team time trials.  In 1936 there were five split stages including the first with three on one day.  A 65-km team time trial sandwiched between road stages of 81 and 67 kilometers.  The next year there were eight split stages with three days of three races.

The organizers mercifully desisted from split stages when The Race resumed after a seven-year hiatus from 1940 to 1946 due to the war.  But in 1954 split stages were re-introduced, though in moderation with just one or two a year until 1964 with three.  In 1978 the peloton refused to ride the morning stage that was set to start at 7:30 a.m. after a long transfer the day before that kept them up until midnight.  There were no split stages the following year, but then one or two from 1980 until 1982.  The next and final split stage occurred in 1985.  The peloton has been mercifully freed of them now for over thirty years.

Accompanying each map were the dates of each Race.  To honor the 50th edition of The Race in 1963 it ended on Bastille Day, July 14, a tradition that lasted three more years.  Seven times The Race has started on July 4, including the year of Greg LeMond's first win in 1986.  The Race has always finished or started in July, though only 44 times has it taken place entirely in the month.  It has finished in August seven times and commenced in June over fifty times.

Rarely does it confine itself entirely to France.  It ventured out of the country for the first time to Germany in 1906.  The 1992 race was its most international, visiting seven countries to honor the formation of the European Union.  The route frequently commemorates significant historical events, such as World War battles.

A close look at the maps showed L'Alpe d'Huez spelled with a capital "L" as the French prefer, in contrast to the spelling Bacon chose to go with in his copy, referring to it as merely Alpe d'Huez, declining the honorific "L" (The) even though he included "Le" in the title of his book.  He said writing this book was a "labor of love."  This book can't help but increase anyone's love of The Race.

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