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December 18, 2003

Review: The Official Tour de France Centennial 1903-2003

This was one of my birthday presents this year, and a great gift for any Tour fan.

The book traces the Tour from its beginnings in 1903 through the 2003 edition. Commentary is from two French sporting newspapers: L'Auto, the Tour's original sponsor, and L'Equipe, its successor. Many of the early stories are bylined, and written by Tour founder Henri Desgrange, but most of the more recent staries are uncredited. It might ahve been nice to compare the biases of the writers, since the profiles go well beyond a dry summary of each year's events.

There are 2-10 pages dedicated to each year's race, with large photos, and a listing of each stage winner, each day's yellow jersey, the overall top 20, and the overall jersey winners. Key events and inspiring stories often get sidebar stories, as with Tyler Freakin' Hamilton, profiled after his "brilliant solo stage win at Bayonne" in 2003:

The stage winner yesterday and sixth in the GC, Tyler Hamilton is a strange kid. A small boy from another world who concentrates the quintessence of his strength in one small corner of his mind. Tyler is a Jedi knight, a warrior straight out of Star Wars. He bearrs a disarming tranquility within him. He never swears, whether against those who don't believe in him or against the heavens which inflict such trials on him. He always says 'Thank you.' He thinks ceaselessly of others, and feels indebted to them each morning.

A funny man, out of time, out of fashion. When he moves, his gestures are slow, very slow. His eyelids are always half closed and his barely delineated lips scarcely move. He speaks like a ventriloquist, although his smile, rare, always opens with real purpose. He is just and good, beccause the Tour de France admits no lies -- it reveals you as you are. Since his fall on the first Sunday of the month, analysed from every angle in the world's media, and destiny dictated that he ride the centenary Tour with a fractured collarbone, Tyler Hamilton has been divulging his truth despite himself, although he is as secretive as a tomb.

At the end of the book, there's a recap of the podium and jersey winners, and of all-time record holders (Merckx with 34 stage wins and 111 days in yellow, Erik Zabel with 6 green jerseys, etc.)

It's fun to track the development of riders through their career, and the book is careful to tip future winners in photos or by pointing out where they first made a stir in the Tour. Well covered, for instance, are Lance Armstrong's sad and triumphant roles in the 1993 Tour, where teammate Fabio Casartelli died on the course, and Armstrong won a stage in tribute. There's also a foreshadowing shot of Armstrong climbing into the broom wagon in 1996, a few months before his cancer was diagnosed. All the Five-Timers are covered in depth.

The scandals of the Tour aren't whitewashed: There's coverage of Tom Simpson's death on Ventoux and the Festina affair of 1998. The strange corners of Tour history are here, too: I think my favorite is Joop Zoetemelk finally winning the Tour at 33 in 1980 after finishing 2nd five times (he would again in 1982). This is a perfect coffee-table book for bicycle racing fans.

Posted by Frank Steele on December 18, 2003 in Books | Permalink

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