Book review: Some say “it is better to travel than to arrive” but planning a trip can be more fun than anything else. Mapping le Tour by Alice Bacon covers the journey from the first Tour to the 2014 Tour, when the French race took to the roads of Yorkshire. Foreign starts are not unusual for a true international tour, as we saw its great popularity in Denmark this year. In the second full week of the 2022 Tour, Leslie Reisner takes a trip down Memory Lane and travels the Tour de France routes of the past.
For cycling enthusiasts, one of the great joys of this sport/pastime is that if you love the Tour de France, you can a) buy a bike that looks like the one the pros use and b) go out and ride along the same roads Grande Boucle what they do. And, of course, not only the roads of the next edition, but practically all the roads since 1903. The 2013 Anjou Vélo Vintage event included part of the final stage of the 1903 Tour between Angers and Saumur, thankfully only 90+ km instead of the crazy full 471 km from Nantes to Paris in the original. But then I thought how nice it would be to have a book with maps of each year’s tours so that you can put together your own trip into history.
It turns out that the publication was actually published in 2013 “Mapping Le Tour: The Unofficial History of All 100 Tour de France Races” Alice Bacon. This beautifully designed book is an excellent source of information for Tour enthusiasts and offers a logical sequence of each edition of the race, usually on two pages. On the left page, which begins with a photo from the period, you can find text describing that year’s race, as well as some key statistics for ease of use, such as the number of starters and finishers, the distance covered and the average speed for the winner, the longest stage and the highest point as well as podium winners. The right hand side offers a full page map of the route with a yellow line marking the stages and showing major cities.
I learned that while the Alsace Ball was considered the Tour’s first major climb (appearing in 1905), the inaugural race in 1903 included a series of climbs (with a high point of 1,161m) but they were not regarded as particularly difficult, although you’d think that riders on super heavy bikes with fixed gears and terrible brakes would find any climb difficult. It may have been pretty flat, but that first race had crazy long stages, with the shortest being 268km and most of the rest being over 400km each. Not surprisingly, only 21 of the 60 starters returned to Paris.
Although the text is concise and interesting, I enjoyed just looking at the maps even more. The Tour started out as a huge wheel that went clockwise around the hexagon that is France, but tried to avoid the Alps and the Pyrenees, but went through major cities. In 1905, the previously mentioned Alsace Ball appeared, and the winner was announced by a points system, not by time. The winner, Louis Trouselier, apparently gambled away his entire winnings in one evening in Paris playing craps. He never won the Tour again, but seems to have set a precedent for nicknames for French cyclists called Trou-Trou (see “Poo-Poo”, “Dudu”, etc.), although Henri Desgrange christened it “Flower Grower” thanks to his family business.
In 1906, the race was first held outside France in German-controlled Alsace, and in 1907 it included the Paris-Roubaix section (a stage won by Trou-Trou). It covered 4,488 km spread over 14 stages, compared to 2,428 km in the first race (a total of six stages). For the next few years the race seemed to follow more or less the same route, but things really changed in 1910 when the Tour split in the Pyrenees, including Port d’Aspet, Col du Peyresurd, Col d ‘Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque for the first time. The following year saw the arrival of the Alps, providing the thrill of climbing the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Lauteret and the massive Col du Galibier: seven mountain stages in a (gulp) 5,344km race. The climbs that would become legendary in the history of the Tour were now part of the regular route, and in 1913 the race finally went counter-clockwise across France, although it would be many years before the usual annual switch (clockwise alternates with counter-clockwise, or the Alps before the Pyrenees and vice versa) will be founded.
Interestingly, for a significant part of its history, the Tour avoided the central part of France, rolling around the periphery of the country and avoiding the Massif Central. This was to change in 1951, when not only did Mont-Vantou appear on the route for the first time, but the race started in Mecca instead of Paris, and since then the race has not started in Paris, with the exception of 2003. Clémont-Ferrand was on the Tour route, deep in the heart of the Massif Central and not only the home of Michelin, but also the center of French bicycle manufacturing. Alpe d’Huez and Puy de Dome were added in 1952, the same year Fausto Coppi won five stages en route to winning the race overall by almost 30 minutes.
The maps are very interesting, but unfortunately the scale is too large to be useful for scene-specific reconstruction planning on your own, but they would be a useful general guide. The photographs are well-chosen and the final sections of the book give a preview of the 2013 Tour (100th edition) as well as a number of sections on “The most memorable places of the tour”. This includes not only famous climbs, but also famous cycling regions such as Normandy and Brittany.
Every region of France was covered by the Tour, and more than a few foreign countries were visited. Excursions to the Italian Alps were quite common (and repeated in 2016), with the Tour not only heading to its immediate neighbors including Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Andorra, Spain, Luxembourg, but also across the UK Channel on several occasions and even Ireland. The author includes the memorable Grand Départ in London, but also, for non-British readers, brandishes the Union Jack too often. The inclusion of the Tom Simpson incident in the 1967 section is right and proper, and it’s nice to mention Barry Hoban, whose eight Tour stage wins were the most by a British rider before Mark Cavendish, but eight wins is half as many as our slightly obscure Tru Tru won. The worst example of Poor English is the remark in the 2011 section that “Bradley Wiggins’ yellow jersey was still a year away…” but that’s easy enough to overlook, along with the fact that Wiggins hadn’t even finished the 2011 race when he crashed out on stage 7 with a broken collarbone. There is a 2014 revised edition of the book, paperback only, which was produced with a preview of the 2014 course that started in Yorkshire, so the publishers probably didn’t have a global audience in mind.
“Mapping Le Tour” highly recommended even for those with an extensive Tour library. The geography of the race is what makes the Tour de France a great sporting event, and this book will make it possible to pedal back in time with a little effort. Maybe I will take off the steel Peugeot PXN-10 with the simplex shifters, put on my black and white checkered team jersey and head east from Nantes via Touraine on the long drive to Paris… well, probably not in one day.
“Mapping Le Tour” Alice Bacon with striker Mark Cavendish
335 pp., hardcover, rich illustrations
HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow, Scotland, 2013
Suggested Retail Value: ₤25.00 (appears to be available in the US for around $30 online)
“Mapping Le Tour” available from AMAZON.COM.