Book Review: Etape

Etape by Richard Moore
The Tour de France brings three weeks of racing but also extensive media attention. But what if there were many untold stories? It’s not really a question, the focus on the day’s stage winner and the jersey wearers means a lot of blurred edges. Add in some hindsight, a variety of source material and you have the ingredients for Etape, the tale of 20 stages from the Tour de France.

A goal in a football match can be pored over; the build-up can be analysed; its context can be understood by watching the rest of the match with your own eyes. In a road race, despite the probing gaze of television cameras and photographers’ lenses, much remains seen and unknown, even to many of the participants. The mystery is a big part of the appeal. It also means that the reports are not always accurate, and that the full truth sometimes does not emerge until later. Years or even decades later. Or not at all.

That’s a quote from the book to explain plenty. Take the Tour de France and a mountain stage that’s being watched by the world. We’ll see the stage winner and the groupe maillot jaune but the cameras rarely dwell much further back. It’s possible to crack the top-10 of the Tour while barely being noticed. So what of all the other stories in the Tour de France? In 20 chapters Richard Moore revisits 20 Tour de France stages from the past to tell the story of what happened on that day. In fact he’s telling a story from the stage, perhaps a new version of events but still one version of events.

The choice of stages is subjective. There some obvious ones like Greg LeMond’s 1989 time trial win on the Champs Elysées to win the Tour by just eight seconds and some seem related to author Richard Moore’s other ventures, for example featuring characters from his books LeMond, Bernard Hinault or Andy Hampsten feature in Etape but also Slaying The Badger. Other stages have near-forgotten characters, like the tale of José Viejo, the man with the biggest ever margin of victory during a stage. If some are familiar it’s the way Moore finds new angles that make all of them a fresh read.

Each chapter isn’t a race report, this is not the tale of how the race was won. Yes events are explained and there are times when it’s as if Moore is transcribing a youtube moment but this is brief and for description. We get hindsight and a fresh account of events, a mix of sources primary and secondary explored, sifted, edited. For example if the 1984 Tour de France is remembered for the Fignon-Hinault rivalry, Moore gets the view from Luis Herrera, the Colombian climber who saw events up close. Yet it’s not just Herrera’s view but the tale of Colombia’s attachment to cycling, his success meant the Bogotá Stock Exchange was temporarily closed so everyone could follow the Tour. The last chapter about Greg LeMond’s 1989 stage win on the Champs Elysées to win the Tour is an oft-told tale but here it includes quotes from Laurent Fignon’s biography, recent thoughts by Greg LeMond as well as small details like LeMond making a late switch to ride the Tour de Trump in the US and getting passed in the time trial stage by Davis Phinney (father of Taylor) who is using tri bars. It’s not explored but what if LeMond hadn’t done this race or the starting order was different, would he have forsaken the tri bars for the 1989 Tour? You might have read plenty about 1989 but this chapter still finds new information.

Hindsight and the passage of time help. Bobby Julich is recounting the 1998 stage of the Tour de France to Les Deux Alpes won by Marco Pantani. Julich and others can be frank about their EPO use, something you’re not going to get in a post-stage press conference. Distance from the events also allows a wider context, the tale of Marc Sergeant and Frans Maassen refusing to work in a breakaway isn’t just an outrageous incident but one battle during the war between team managers Peter Post and Jan Raas.

Some stories are really about events beyond the race. An interview with Claudio Chiappucci to discuss his 1992 stage win in Sestriere tells you as much about the Italian today as it did then with an apartment decorated with Chiappucci icons, even embroidered cushions in his image – but you also get the confounding statement that Chiappucci was riding to a plan, he’d recced the stage and on the day paced himself with a heart rate monitor, it wasn’t quite the wild move many took it for. There’s a short chapter on Urs Zimmerman the Swiss rider and if his tale concerns the rest day it’s underpinned by his struggles about depression and anorexia. It’s all well-written but this chapter struck me as particularly well-crafted.

The book opens up fractal possibilities in writing. The book covers 20 stages between 1971 and 2012 but arguably each stage from each year has many stories to tell. Of course some are more interesting than others but 20 seems limited even if it’s plenty for a 340 page book. Take the penultimate chapter about David Millar’s stage win in Annonay/Davézieux in 2012, we have the story of Millar’s redemption but I bet Jean-Christophe Péraud who finished second has plenty to tell, whether his atypical career or just events on the day. Or what of the others in the break? Did something else happen on a day, a sponsorship deal or maybe a mechanic has an anecdote to share. Etape tells 20 stories but there must be hundreds more.

Another Tour de France book? Yes but readable, enjoyable and the kind of book to dip in and out of during a summer holiday or during one of those dull sprinters stages. This is a timely reminder that the Tour de France is packed with too many stories to tell rather than a hastily compiled list of “best ever stages”. Hindsight and a variety of sources are deployed to re-tell some stories that you might know, or rather you think you knew. If you like your cycling history this is for you but even if you don’t this is just good story-telling rather than merely recounting previous events. But what of all the other stories?

Note: this copy was sent free for review. It is published by Harper Sport and available in print and an ebook.

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: Etape”

  1. Dull sprinters stages? When will this old-school prejudice end? Stage 14 of last year’s TdF was a sprinters’ stage but anything but dull. Love to read the back story of that one.

    • Stage 13 actually, but couldn’t agree more. Best stage of the tour and far more interesting than Froome leaving everybody eating dust in his wake.

      • One thing I have learnt over the many years of watching the Tour is to completely ignore the pre race predictions of “boring” or “quiet” stages. They tend to throw up something which can be far more entertaining than some of the drags up mountains billed as unmissable. As you said above.

    • That’d be a good stage to review.

      As for dull, yes the one where a break of four riders goes within the first kilometre of the stage and is caught with 12km to go. I’ll enjoy the sprint but if you sit down to watch the whole stage, pack a book.

  2. Every year the punditry of cyclesport, velonews, procycling, et al spews forth from paper and pixels. They forecast favourites and outcomes for each day and for the overall like they have crystal balls the size of minor planets, and every year I forget (or don’t bother) to go back and see how accurate, or wildly inaccurate their predictions were. If someone were to tally this up it too would be a good back story, no?

  3. It’s for these types of stories I’ve been enjoying Cameron Wurfs blog. Would really like to know of more in the ‘bunch’ doing similar. There is so much more going on to shape a stage that is interesting to read about!

  4. Erik, I think the predictions are a way of generating more interest in a race.. We come to these sites and pages precisely because we want to read about them, to increase the anticipation and excitement and gorge on facts and the thoughts of our peers and various experts.. Predictions allow experts to highlight the combatants we’re all going to see and enriches our experience. Whether these prove fruitful is irrelevant for me. I assume the ideal scenario for an expert is when their last mentioned wildcard romps home over the obvious favourites, good for the ego!

  5. I’m going to buy this for kindle. You could put an Amazon link at the end of your post? No one would begrudge one sentence and a hyperlink.. Or even links on your book reviews page? Richard & Judy for the cycling community..

        • Agreed. In addition fully appreciate the note that says “This book was sent free for review” etc. – very valuable to understand why the book is reviewed.

          As for a link – I typed “amazon” & “etape” into google and the top hit gave me the link to the book. Technology is amazing, and took me 2 seconds. Hopefully inrng spends his time giving us insight into cycling not googling links…..

          • Can I please add a +1 for the note about the copy being sent freely for review. I trust the Inner Ring to give a reasonable opinion of a books merits or flaws, but I appreciate the courtesy of being honest about any potential biases. In fact, it tends to make me trust the review a little more.

    • I could put the Kindle link… but it’s different if you live in US, UK, Italy, France, Japan etc. Readers of this blog come from all over the world so if I put one link I end up sending a lot of people to the wrong store.

  6. It’s not laziness nor convenience I’m looking for. My suggestion was that INRNG takes a cut. Links generate revenue. If you’re making people go and buy it why not.. lots of podcasters etc operate unobtrusive links.

    • Then that takes INRNG into a whole different type of blogging territory i.e. no longer operating free of vested interests / financial incentives. If INRNG provided a link to Amazon and took a cut….how could he guarantee an unbiased review?

  7. Got this last week and can second the review. A very enjoyable read, some great insights. You will quickly wish there were another 20 stages to read through

  8. INRNG, all those other stories…why dont you turn your hand to writing some of them for a book, and trying to earn some money from your love of this sport? Serious suggestion.

  9. Your book reviews provides a great filter for discovering new titles. They are a tremendous help in narrowing things down. I will often revisit one of the reviews before buying a book. I consider it a really valuable service of your blog.

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