Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide

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I spent the 1980s working toward a career in music. I planned to make my living as a drummer and the thought of playing one stale beer-smelling club after another sounded to me like job security. Just as the band I was playing in began venturing out to clubs beyond our immediate area code, the percussionist Gary Burton published a book called “A Musician’s Guide to the Road.”

Burton’s book was a Godsend musicians all over the world. It was filled with brilliant strategies for flying with musical instruments (arrive very early) and finding clubs in cities you don’t know (put one guy in a cab and follow him).

As important as Burton’s book was to me at the time, I can say without reservation Graham Watson has created a book that is vastly superior. I predict English-language Michelin Green Guide sales will plummet in the wake of the release of this new VeloPress volume.

Watson has been covering the Tour de France for more than 30 years. It’s not a record, but it does give him serious street cred when giving advice about following the world’s most popular annual sporting event. After all, whose advice do you want on the Tour de France—the race promoter? A team director? One of the racers? Or a guy who sees every single day from the seat of a motorcycle for the soul purpose of getting great photographs to document the exploits of men we have on occasion confused with gods.

The book is broken into six chapters, one each devoted to planning your trip, following the race, a primer on France, the geography, the great climbs and getting your own photographs. It includes a great many maps and they display exactly the information cyclists will find most useful.

I tell you this: Watson has just broadcast a great many bicycle tour operators’ most guarded secrets. Fishing guides have killed for less.

Honestly, given that Michelin published a guide to the wine regions of France, I can’t fathom why the venerable caretaker of travel never undertook a guide to le Tour. But on reading Watson’s guide, his expert insight into hotel availability (like trying to get tickets to a Springsteen concert), the great riders who hail from the various towns and his ability to translate the French sensibility for the foreign tourist means that Michelin’s effort could never match this.

Of course, no book by Watson would be complete without his stunning images. You’ve seen many of these before, but his crowd and leisure shots are lip-smackingly evocative. He reveals how he gets some of his shots, the competition to get unique shots and the challenge of trying to do stellar work in less than stellar conditions. No one will read this book and contemplate the life of race photographer. At least no one with a proper sense of comfort.

The writing is surprisingly fresh and immediate. He’s even funny at times; in all, the writing is better than I expected. However, what most impresses me about the book isn’t the quality of the prose, it’s that he really captures the reality of following the race. A book of random details could easily miss the bigger picture, the enormity of the event. His in-between-the-lines insights are what make this book a gem.

I’ve used a great many books in following the Tour on the occasions I’ve been there. And while I enjoy doing the research, there’s no doubt that Watson’s book could have made my research less time-consuming … and even more enjoyable.

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