Book Review: Mapping the Tour

Mapping the Tour by Ellis Bacon

+ Givewaway competition to win a copy of the book

The idea is simple, recount each year’s Tour de France along with a collection of statistics such as the distance, number of starters and finishers, the winner and more and then add the map of the race to accompany the words. But the ability to see how the route changes is special, making this more than a list of winners and stories from times past but an aerial view on how the the race as evolved.

As well as the review, there’s also a chance to win a copy of the book if you can guess the weight of Tour de France podium lion.

There can’t be many other sports where the map matters so much. Each October the route of the Tour de France is announced in front of a packed auditorium and even streamed around the world on the internet. The map matters as it gives clues to the kind of race we can expect but when the presentation happens as the leaves are falling and it’s also a way to project yourself into the summer, to imagine being on the roads of France.

Given this it’s almost a surprise there aren’t any books on the cartography of the Tour de France, listing the race routes stage by stage in a list or table but on a map. So here comes Mapping the Tour.

You can go through the book page by page but skipping through works too. Flip fast to see how the route changes. First a loop around France but over time the route zigzags, riding into central France and ignoring other regions of France. The stage distance shortens, what was once an epic ride became a hyphen between two willing municipal bidders.

The background to the maps change, for example the central Marche region has long since vanished but it’s helpful to see the route of the race plotted on a map from the period, reflecting how things were then. France itself has changed, fundamentally so with border changes after end of war in 1918 when the Alsace-Lorraine area was regained from Germany. The Tour had some defiant moments climbing the Ballon d’Alsace to challenge the border of Imperial Germany or even borrowing some roads into German terrain, a first foreign visit. Or see the 1919 route with its visit to Strasbourg, a city reclaimed by the Treaty of Versailles. It’s with this that you can see the Tour as more than a race and it’s not condemned to the past, see how the Tour visited West Berlin for a prologue alongside the infamous wall in 1987 or how today’s grand départs follow the money instead of politics.

There are a few mistakes in the book. This blog enjoys the luxury of alert reader and a handy edit button but print is different. You can live with spelling mistakes – Aix les Baines – and the Col des Echarmeaux probably wasn’t the first col of the Tour, instead it was the Col de Pin Bouchain. But the story of Eugène Christophe stands out. In 1913 he was descending the Tourmalet when his forks broke. He had to make it down the climb on foot to repair them in a forge in St. Marie de Campan where he did the work but a boy operated the bellows. The rules said no outside help was allowed. It’s here versions differ with Ellis Bacon writing “the Frenchman was disqualified, and Belgian rider Philippe Thys went on to win the race.”

Thys won the race but Christophe was not disqualified. Instead he got a time penalty. Some say this time penalty cost him the race but that’s wrong too. He was docked three minutes, a near-meaningless loss given he’d been leading the race by 18 minutes. Instead it was the accident itself that cost Christophe. Forced to walk down, he lost around two hours. Worse, he was sponsored by Peugeot and worried the fork failure would reflect badly on his sponsor so he cut through woodland to avoid being spotted, costing even more time.

Each Tour gets two pages, one page with a summary of the race with anecdotes if they matter flanked with stats on the year’s event, like who won, the distance, the highest col, the number of finishers and so on, plus some photos. It’s a handy reference, if you want to check what happened in 1934 or 1986 then just open the page.

In addition the 2013 Tour gets analysed in full, handy if you buy the book quickly. This is followed by a collection of other notable places of the Tour which include the classics like Mont Ventoux and the Tourmalet but extras like the Lac de Vassivière or the Puy-de-Dôme, both in central France and you learn of their importance to the race.

A page on each race and the accompanying map make it sound simple but the combination works well. It’s the ability to see how route changes with time as it reflects the sport as well as politics and other factors. This makes it an accessible book for those dipping into the history of the book but reference material for those wanting detail for example the index lists every start and finish town ever.

What’s better is observing how the race route changes over time, you can see how the race changes almost like a flipbook cartoon. Yes there’s the Christophe mistake but I cited the reality because I find the myths of the Tour fascinating. Don’t worry, the two pages on 1913 have valuable information.

If you like your cartography, France or the Tour’s history this is a great account of the races. Yes Christophe wasn’t disqualified but myth is part of the race.

A list of other book reviews is available here.

Giveaway Competition
The publishers sent two copies for review so I’ve got one in perfect condition to give away. To win just guess the weight of the lion given to the Tour de France yellow jersey. The golden toy has been one of cycling’s ultimate prizes, awarded to the yellow jersey holder in the Tour… but also a few other races sponsored by LCL, today’s name for the French bank.

Like all animals, weight can vary but one male has been weighed and this is the reference for the competition.

The Rules

  • Please give your guess by comment only so I don’t have to collate emails and tweets
  • Post under any pseudonym you like, I will only need the name and address should you win
  • If there’s a tie then it’ll be random selection
  • The winning pick will be made on Friday at midday
  • It’ll be posted to anywhere in the world
Marcel Kittel’s haircut gets outclassed

235 thoughts on “Book Review: Mapping the Tour”

  1. 279 grams.
    Interesting book, although the TdF courses are basically well documented on the web. I would like to see the same book on the Giro and the Vuelta. There are old stages where I don’t know where the race went through.

  2. As a confirmed cartophile I have to have a stab at this. Sadly my knowledge of stuffed toy animals is somewhat out of date… Still, I’ll say:

    462 grams

  3. Great to see such interest and we’ll see if the wisdom of crowds theory applies.

    But no views on the book, the maps, French history and more? Would be good to hear from others who have read the book too.

  4. 550g. I was also amused to see in the wiggo doc last year (itv?) that he had 20 or 30 lions in his house – I never thought that they were allowed to keep them, and that they got one for each day in yellow! LA should be made to give all of his back (presuming they were around back then?)

    Looks like a great coffee table book, to dip in and out of as opposed to read at once.

  5. 5th paragraph, last sentence–change to became sted because: “The stage distance shortens, what was once an epic ride because a hyphen between two willing municipal bidders.”

  6. 595 g for a male lion (397-ish for a lioness)
    Another concise review of a book that I would enjoy having on the shelf, one way or another. And thanks for keeping quiet about the forward by Cav. Curious to read his thoughts about the ever-changing map of the Tour.

  7. I’ve just spent too much time working out how many genuine ‘le lion en peluches’ have been handed out since Crédit Lyonnais started sponsoring the maillot jaune in 1987 – coincidentally the year I first remember watching. Besides learning, or re-learning, some fascinating details of how the tour’s stage composition has changed even since then, my dodgy arithmetic gives 572 stages including prologues ttt’s and that preface, so 1g per potential rider given a lion, forces me to guess 740 grams.

    I really need to get out more..

    • Average guess is 700.57 g (if outliers of 1.5 tones and 7g are removed, 6796.5 g if included!)

      I’ll add a guess at 618.5g (new average is 700.2g).

      Looks like a good read, I’d vaguely started thinking about attempting a slower bike tour based on the 1913 route, but aside from the arrival and departure towns, I didn’t have much to work from. It would be interesting to see how much those old routes are still intact or ride-able.

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