Le Tour in London

As the Tour de France comes to Britain for the first time ever, what can three books tell us about the meaning of the world’s most demanding athletic contest?

First published in Prospect Magazine, July 2007.

The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling from Tour De France to Cinder Hill by Graeme Fife (Mainstream, £16.99)

Push Yourself a Little Bit More: Backstage at the Tour De France by Johnny Green (Orion, £17.99)

Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France by Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)

Kicking off on 7th July, this year’s Tour De France will be the first in the event’s 104-year history to start in Britain. Another first is that there will be no reigning champion. Just a week after the American rider Floyd Landis won last year’s yellow jersey, it was announced that he had failed a routine test for use of synthetic testosterone, a prohibited substance used to aid physical recovery (Landis continues to protest his innocence, and has spent close to $1m defending himself).

In the wake of the Landis case, the reputation of professional cycling has sunk to a new low. A series of German riders have made confessions, including 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. The first Tour winner to admit to doping, this May, Riis told a press conference: “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.” In what looks like a plea bargain, the leading Italian rider, Ivan Basso, has admitted “attempted doping.” The German Jan Ullrich, Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, retired rather than face questions. How does a competition scarred by cheating, lying and hypocrisy retain its huge following in France, in Britain and beyond?

Since the Tour began in 1903, riders have used drugs of one kind or another to dull the pain and to stay alert. However, everything changed with the emergence of red blood cell-boosting hormones and blood transfusion techniques. The main factor limiting a cyclist’s performance is not how much air the lungs can breathe in, nor how much oxygen the muscles in the legs can use; it is how fast the oxygen from the lungs can be transferred to the legs. The body uses red blood cells to do this, and so boosting red blood cell count directly tackles the bottleneck in the system. The effect on performance is pronounced; clean and doped-up riders simply do not compete on level terms. But blood doping is a risky business. Because the extra red cells thicken the blood, there is a danger that the heart will simply stop pumping. In the past few years, a number of young, fit racers have died suddenly in their sleep.

The anti-doping net never closed around Lance Armstrong, the Texan who won a record seven consecutive Tours. Yet suspicions abound. A test for the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin was not introduced until 2004, but the French sports paper L’Équipe (part of the same media group that runs the Tour) claims to have retested Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour and found traces of the drug. Yet the heroic narrative of Armstrong’s success—he won after recovering from life-threatening testicular cancer—has a human appeal far beyond cycling. It also opened the lucrative American market to the Tour and its sponsors.

The Tour’s centenary celebrations in 2003 were accompanied by a clutch of books about the race. This year, the arrival of the Tour in Britain brings several more titles. Unlike in Britain, a French journalist can make a name writing about cycling, and it was France’s stylish and literary sports journalism that first drew Graeme Fife to the Tour (having a French girlfriend also helped). Having previously written a history of the Tour, Fife has now published a memoir, The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling from Tour de France to Cinder Hill. Fife finds the romance of the Tour bewitching, hearing echoes of the Greek epic poems he taught at a public school in Norfolk before turning to writing full-time in his early thirties. Just as the Tour’s organisers take pleasure in sending the riders over rough mountain passes, up into the clouds, the ice and the wind, so he relishes following the same punishing mountain climbs himself, at a fraction of the speed, but with much of the same suffering.

Those who argue it is the brutal demands of today’s Tour that force riders to turn to drugs forget that the Tour was at its most physically demanding in its early days. Its founder, Henri Desgrange, saw a link between physical effort and moral virtue. He wanted to see “a violent effort, prolonged, repeated, sometimes going as far as pain, demanding tenacity and even a certain stoicism.” For Desgrange, a perfect Tour would be so tough that only a single rider would survive to the finishing line. The 482km stage along the Atlantic seaboard from Les Sables to Bayonne began at 2am and the winning time was a shade over 18 hours. In his day, Desgrange turned a blind eye to the various pharmaceutical aids that riders used to prevent them from having to give up. But I suspect he would have seen the new, performance-boosting drugs as illegal outside assistance—like getting a push from a team car.

Desgrange’s successor, Jacques Goddet, was more tolerant of technological innovations. In 1937, Goddet allowed riders to use variable gears (Desgrange had always maintained gears were for the feeble and elderly). Yet Goddet cut an equally eccentric figure. When overseeing the race in the south of France, he wore khaki shorts and shirt, knee-length socks and a pith helmet, an unintentionally comic echo of French colonialism. Much of this entertaining history is recounted in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France (2003), published in updated form this year. Though Wheatcroft’s year-by-year chronicle can be relentless, he excels in drawing links between the Tour and various conceptions of Frenchness. Wheatcroft reminds us that, like most nation states in Europe, the modern French state was assembled from a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities whose people regarded Parisians as foreigners. La Grande Boucle (as the Tour is known) girdles France, reassuring her citizens and reminding her neighbours of her inviolable borders.

If Wheatcroft efficiently relates the Tour’s history, Johnny Green’s Push Yourself a Little Bit More (Backstage at the Tour De France) brings to life its soul. Green, the Clash’s former road manager, argues that professional cycling is the new rock and roll: the drugs are certainly in evidence, as are the showbiz and the trophy wives—and the scandals too. Green’s inner roadie is awed by the logistics required to stage the three-week race, executed with the Gallic efficiency normally reserved for more utilitarian projects such as high-speed trains and nuclear power stations. Ken Livingstone certainly sees the Tour as the biggest dress rehearsal London will have for the 2012 Olympics.

Unlike the Olympics, the Tour comes to the people. The stadium is an entire landscape. For three weeks each July we see why France is the most visited country in the world: châteaux, vineyards, poplar-lined avenues, high mountain passes and fields full of sunflowers, each turning its head as the peloton passes by, hot rubber hissing on hotter tarmac. The route of this year’s first stage, from London to Canterbury, offers history and legend to match, and the Tour’s organisers are sure to draw our attention to hop fields, cherry orchards and Kentish oast houses as the race passes through “the garden of England.” It is with a spirit of cultural celebration that millions line the roadsides, picnicking in fields as they wait.

With the doping problem running out of control, it seems strange that popular interest in the Tour is undiminished. Such is the determination of riders to win at all costs and so pervasive is their code of silence on doping that things will probably get worse before they get better. The recent trickle of confessions may yet turn into a flood. If the Tour is to clean up its act, it must combine a time-limited amnesty with a new requirement that any witness who fails to report doping can be charged with conspiracy. But even in these dark days, I cannot turn my back on the Tour. The spectacle, the history and the endeavour of the riders are irresistible.