Book Review: The Tour de France

The Tour de France by Christopher S Thomson

This is a history of the Tour de France with a difference. It is written by a professor who places the race and the development of France into a social, economic and cultural setting. There are several books to tell you who first won the yellow jersey or the identity of the youngest post-war winner of the Tour de France *, the kind you might receive as a gift. This is sort of book you’d buy for yourself.

There are six chapters that each explore a theme. The first covers the birth of the Tour de France and the state of France as a nation and its economy, with cycling on the rise as means of transport, a sport and and industry in its own right all the way to the final chapter that covers the price of heroism in sports, with a take on doping and the commercialism of sport. Along the way there’s plenty more.

There are many insights and explanations. For example Brittany is one of the hotbeds of French cycling but I never knew why, because in places like Italy the sport grew up around industrial towns and rural where workers could ride to the factor or field. Thomson explains it comes down to Catholicism and le pardon, the local tradition of confession in church on a Sunday morning being celebrated by a relieved populace who organised activities that came to include bike racing and the sport thus took root. Similarly, whilst British cyclists have a successful Tour de France for over a century they never enjoyed much success. Thomson explains the dispersal of the French population across the nation encouraged cycling. Britain had large cities as a consequence of early industrialisation and this lent itself to stadium sports like football and rugby. As the French population was far more spread out people could not attend matches in a stadium, instead the sport of cycling was able to come to them.

Thomson covers the Tour’s close links to politics. It’s hard to imagine now given the race is a sporting contest with a strong commercial air but in the past it was highly political, for example the ways the sport was used for nationalist purposes in the early days and how it was again used during the wartime occupation. Other changes are noted, for example the first woman journalist to cover the race appeared in 1950; there remain few to this day.

Same but different

Comparison to Pedalare! Pedalare! are inevitable since this book is similar in approach, an academic who explains the state of a nation via the development of cycling and cycle sport. For me this book is more about the Tour whilst Pedalare covers Italian cycling more than just the Giro; you are left with the idea of Italy seeking stories to form its national identity whilst France is using sport to assert an existing or nostalgic ideal.

The past as a guide for today?
History gives us a wider perspective. Why is women’s cycling so far behind? Well Thomson illustrates how we celebrate suffering in cycling, even the last rider in the Tour is a hero, a trait that has existed since the days when Albert Londres labelled participants as forçats de la route or convicts of the road. As such the sport has long celebrated extreme machismo to the point where many were reluctant to embrace women in the sport, whether as sport or even the mere presence of women in the press room or the entourage of a team.

Study book
This isn’t a page turner that you’d take to the beach, nor an introduction to cycling’s rich past. Instead each page is loaded with facts, quotes and insights that it’s heavy going. It is readable but this is a history book written by a professor and not a collection of “wow facts” narrated back to you. The book is close to 400 pages long, of which over 100 are notes to attribute quotes, sources and more in the correct academic manner.

A thorough and thoughtful look at the history of cycling, the Tour de France and France itself in the last century. Written by a professor, if you’re new the sport and a history of the Tour perhaps I’d first suggest another book to explain why the yellow jersey is yellow and other basics. Instead this book is the next level of the analysis, if not the ultimate English-language guide to the Tour de France.

As well as a reference to the past, the book explains plenty about the Tour de France today. The old idea that we need to understand the past to know the present means this book is very useful as a reference. And as Thomson shows, the Tour has changed so much during a century that we can expect plenty of change to come, as France itself changes.

  • Presented by G&DS: this book was sent for review by Gage & DeSoto of New York. Now you can probably find for sale with a large e-retailer named after a river but you chose between faceless warehouse and G&DS, cycling fans who live and work for the sport. So especially if you are in the US, try If if that’s not enough, they’ll include a world champion bookmark too.

* Felice Gimondi in 1965 in case you need to know.

There’s an audio interview with Professor Thomson over at The Bike Show.

A list of previous book reviews can be found here.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tour de France”

  1. Sounds interesting – I’ll try to get a copy. Good to see something different from the histories which essentially recount the same stories.

    I’m keen to see how he stands up the theory about spacious rural France and crowded industrial Britain – at the turn of the 19th century cycling in Britain was a very popular activity. And how does it square with the density of population in Belgium. I suspect it was more to do with post-war reconstruction and planning, plus legal attitudes which made competitive cycling in Britain focus so much on time trialing.

    • Good to hear. As a mild warning, maybe I should have added tat Pedalare is probably a lighter read. Both written by academics but Foot’s book on Italian cycling has a bit more narrative.

  2. Thanks. Ever since reading the story, I’d wondered what “forçats” meant. I suppose it’s about the chaingangs, forced to work.

  3. I got this years ago. It is excellent one of my favorite books on cycling. Serious stuff, not a fluff job with feel good stories. (It has good, lucid passages on Armstrong also). Glad you gave a review, it will give it more exposure.

  4. Fully agree Oliver – one of the best books I’ve read on the Tour. I hope Thomson gets to update it at some point – it already feels a little out of date. And I read it on the beach.

  5. Thanks for this; I always appreciate your review style–more focused on explaining the character of the product than giving a thumbs up or down.

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