The Story of the Tour de France, Vols. 1 and 2
I’ve got Vince Guaraldi playing, the boy is wearing a onesie that says “Not an Elf” and every blog in America has posted a Christmas gift guide … ‘cept this one. Time to get with the program.
The vast majority of all books on cycling are simply information delivery systems. Whether they are training manuals, repair manuals, accounts of racing or biographies of racers, the vast majority of all cycling titles out there deliver little more than facts. Finding a truly gripping story can be kinda hard.
I’ve known Bill and Carol McGann for more than a dozen years. It might seem odd to see two authors listed on a volume, but to meet Bill and Carol is to see their intertwined talents and inseparable efforts. Bill is an ever-rational Don Quixote, easily inspired into new quests, and Carol is his Sancho Panza, the master of logistics and details. And while I have summed up their roles tidily here, the truth is that except for physically, it’s hard to tell where Bill’s efforts stop and Carol’s efforts begin; their professional efforts are that seamless.
In the late 1990s Bill told me he wanted to put together a comprehensive history of the Tour de France for English-speaking folk. I couldn’t deny his passion, but the guy owned a bike company—Torelli Imports—not a publishing house. It seemed just a little hare-brained a scheme, but I was more than happy to play along. I loaned him every book I had on the Tour in case it was any use.
Three years ago the first volume was released, encompassing the years 1903 to 1964. What unfolded in its pages was an unexpected treat. I was suddenly embarrassed that I’d ever wondered what sort of work they’d produce.
The McGanns are keen students of history. They can discuss Renaissance art and architecture, the satire of Al Capp, or any edition of the Tour de France, all with equal ease. Carol lets Bill take lead, but it’s apparent during his occasional silences that she’s as well-versed as he.
When I confessed in a phone call that I had some trouble identifying with the pre-WWII riders and wondered how it was he found racing in such different circumstances so compelling, he was aghast. “Those guys were going bloody hard!” If I can testify to nothing else, I can say Bill knows a thing or two about going “bloody hard.” And he loves it.
What surprised me in reading both of his volumes was his use of novelistic techniques to tell the stories of these great riders. He can kill off a rider’s relevance—indeed, his whole career—as fast as Flaubert killed off the first Madame Bovary. He uses foreshadowing to build drama and hint at coming tragedy in a way that reminded me of Stephen King.
Asked who his literary heroes are, he cites Homer and Tolstoy. Perfect. Stick the two in a blender and you get a sweeping epic that crushes lives, spans generations, rattles politicians, shapes culture. Sounds a lot like the Tour de France itself.
This account isn’t an account of each stage won and passage of the yellow jersey from one rider to the next. No, it’s a big-picture view; the McGanns mine each year for themes of treachery, transcendent efforts, unchecked ego and Sisyphean heartache. In his telling Icarus falls as often as Oedipus gets the girl. (Ew.)
Here’s a classic example of the storytelling in the books. This is from the 1996 Tour:
It took Riis 11 years as a pro to attain this level. It was a performance the 32-year-old would not repeat. Since that Tour victory, Riis has been dogged by accusations of EPO use, accusations that Riis steadfastly denied until 2007. Riis’ confession was an important part of the dramatic events that rocked the 2007 Tour. We’ll save the details of that episode for later. His young charge, Ullrich, became the first German since Kurt Stoepel in 1932 to make the Tour’s podium.
Whew, I feel like Billy Pilgrim—unstuck in time.
Were you to read every word published on every Tour in l’Auto and l’Equipe and someone were to ask you to sum up the events, what your takeaway was, this would be it. With these two volumes you get perspective, a la Leonardo Da Vinci. Off in the distance each of the lines representing the careers of these riders converge and the McGanns are more than happy to tell you what badasses they were.
The books are available through Amazon or from the Bike Race Info website here.