VeloPress has released a new book celebrating the 100th Tour de France called, obviously enough, Tour de France 100. The text is written by Richard Moore, the author of such volumes as In Search of Robert Millar and Slaying the Badger. And while Moore gets top billing, the book’s subtitle is “A photographic history of the world’s greatest race.” The true stars of this book are the many photographers whose names appear in 6 pt. type at the back of the book. Moore’s role as author is to give context and overview rather than try to replay each of the 100 editions of the race. It’s a study of the sport’s stars, the ultimate box set of the race’s iconic events.
The book is built largely from the Getty archives, with many previous photo agencies co-presented with the Getty name, such as Gamma-Keystone and Popperfoto. The photo world sometimes grouses about the dominance of Getty, but in buying up so many archives they made a book like this not just possible, but richer for it. Sometimes the permissions process is too onerous to include the images that would best fit the account; it’s a shame. Worth noting is the work of photographer Roger Viollet, who is the star of the show for the first half of the book. While you’ll recognize an image here or there, the bulk of the images prior to the 1990s are likely to be new to you.
Were this a slide show, Moore’s text would make for the perfect narration, reminding us of the storylines that dominated each year’s race. He not only covers the racing action, he brings in the present, reminding us that Raymond Poulidor is still a fixture of the Tour, and in that is not only a part of the rich history of the race, but he’s a part of the race’s public face even now.
Moore doesn’t shy from the topic of doping, either. Had he dodged the subject, this book would have suffered for it. He addresses the scandals throughout the years head-on, and while Lance Armstrong may have been expunged from the record books, this volume points out perfectly a point I’ve made previously about making peace with our past: Mellow Johnny is still in the photos.
Moore’s love for the race comes through in that he neither shies from the race’s more sordid events, nor does he condemn them. It’s a deft balance he strikes and in doing so he has created an account of the race befitting its title.
Coffee table books on cycling are so plentiful that coming up with a new excuse for one is hard, but if ever there was a reason for a photographic retrospective of the Tour, the passage of its 100th edition is it. This 11″ x 12 1/2″ edition is the largest format book on cycling in my collection, and at 250 pages, it’s not a slim volume either. With a suggested retail of just $34.95, this book is a no-brainer for any cyclist’s collection.
The story of the ’86 Tour de France has been told a thousand times. The conventional version runs like this: In ’85 Bernard Hinault was in the yellow jersey but hurting in a big way. His young teammate Greg LeMond was strong, and capable of winning the jersey for La Vie Claire. As the Badger was nearing retirement (and equaling the TdF wins of Anquetil and Merckx), Hinault asked LeMond to help him win, with the promise that he would turn around and help LeMond to the maillot jaune in ’86. A year later, le Blaireau seemed to have forgotten his promise, attacking LeMond mercilessly and forcing the young American to compete not only with the other contenders, but also with his team captain, all the way to Paris.
In this version of the story, Hinault is the big, bad wolf, and LeMond is Little Red Riding Hood. Hinault, the deceiver, and LeMond the nearly devoured.
Richard Moore’s excellent new book Slaying the Badger reexamines the mythology of this great race, attempting to shed new light on the motivations of these two great riders and what really happened on the roads of France in the summer of ’86. What helps set Moore’s book apart is the array of characters he brings to the story. La Vie Claire directeurs sportif Paul Köchli and Maurice Le Guilloux give first hand accounts, not only of the in-race dynamic, but also of the unique pressures on their two star riders. Super domestiques Andy Hampsten and Steve Bauer add anecdotal information as well, and it all combines to make a thrilling read of a story whose ending you already know.
Of course, the difficult part of telling such a tale is maintaining enough narrative tension to keep the reader interested, so Moore resists the common trope that Hinault is simply a silver-backed gorilla among men, unable to capitulate to any competitor, even a friendly one. He further makes room for Hinault’s ambivalence toward his American protegé by bringing in French media reports from the time, reports that show the immense pressure on Hinault to take a record sixth Tour, and the antipathy the French public felt toward the Yankee usurper.
Not to be counted out either is La Vie Claire owner Bernard Tapie, a man of legendary charisma and ambiguous moral fiber. Tapie wants to take credit for everything and nothing. He is pulling all the strings and flying off in a private jet, influencing decisions and making grand pronouncements, quite often with no basis in reality.
Perhaps the most interesting character though, is Köchli, the Swiss manager of the team. Köchli has this reputation as a mad professor of cycling, viewed by many as a genius, and the book is littered with disquisitions by this enigmatic man outlining his psychological profiles of the athletes at his command, and his very strange take on race tactics.
What comes through in the end is that, for all the ’86 Tour reads like a modern, black-and-white morality play, what really transpired was more of a perfect storm of grayness. Hinault never even countenances the idea that he wasn’t supporting LeMond. Köchli never names the team leader. LeMond likes and respects Hinault, but remains steadfastly convinced the Frenchman is out to get him. The French La Vie Claire riders ride for the Badger, their master. The North Americans ride for LeMond. The peloton and its protagonists shift alliances back and forth. It is the opacity of the situation, which, going on and on, day after day, stage after stage, creates this magnificent drama.
It makes for a pretty great summer read, no matter whose side of the story you’re buying. Hinault remains, 25 years later, his irascible self, and Moore’s interviews with le Blaireau evince only subtle differences in his version of events. In one-on-ones with the American, LeMond has enough distance to laugh about what must have been the most difficult time of his difficult career, and the others, Tapie and Köchli, are preserved like insects in amber, curiosities from a different time in pro cycling.
Whether you know the story or not, Slaying the Badger is a worthy addition to any cycling library.
Top image: John Pierce, Photosport International