despite my public misgivings about the tour de france, i'll be glued to eurosport along with the rest of you, watching the circus blitz its way through the french countryside, passing through small villages, stopping at obscure little towns we've never heard of (i don't get out much) and climbing mountain passes we'd rather they did and we didn't. i've only ever attended the tour on one occasion in 1998 when it started in dublin, and although there's a slight difference between the irish countryside and the back roads of france, the really impressive part of the whole adventure was the incredible organisation and the utterly ludicrous amount of cabling snaking from truck to truck to satellite dish. and the fact that they mopped all this up at the end of the prologue and moved it about a quarter mile down the road for stage one. not my idea of fun.
the amount of organising that went into getting myself and a fellow cyclist from islay to dublin was almost enough to put me off ever doing it again. and in fact, i've never actually done it again. but the thought's always there - david harmon has encouraged me on occasion to pop over for a few stages and maybe even get in the way of eurosport for five minutes. and i almost joined morecambe and mcwise last year, though in retrospect i doubt i could have kept up with the party tarts. it's a case of being superbly organised, in order that viewing time of a peloton of bicyclists is maximised and that there's somewhere comfortable to put my head of an evening. having failed miserably to obtain an hotel room this weekend in edinburgh for the nocturne (the edinburgh marathon is on as well), the thought of trying to get myself round france is a scary one.
however, someone who knows a lot more than you or i has been generous enough to do it all for us, coupled with the graciousness to write it all down in a book. graham watson is one of the more noted photographers follwing the international professional peloton from the back of a motorbike: his photographs have been seen in many a glossy publication, and on several websites, and he's the only photographer i've ever heard being pointed out by the commentary team while a race is in progress. stardom indeed. but while graham doubtless has his travel arrangements well taken care of these days, the same goes not for the newbie (or oldie) intending to watch the race from closer quarters.
copiously illustrated with mr watson's photography, this book covers all the bases: finding campsites, finding hostels, the varying levels of hotel, the fact that all french hire cars are registered in the one area of the country and are thus easily identified by thieves - basically lots of stuff that i would not have had the gumption to have thought about in the first place. each region of the country is covered in surprising detail, along with the mountain regions, to include any local customs, holidays, food, wine (mr watson's predilection we are informed). currency is well covered and wherever a web address would be of benefit, you can be assured one is supplied. there is a serious amount of acquired information included in this softback book, and while it would probably be possible to research much of the travel and accommodation on the web these days, there really is no substitute for someone who has been there, done that and bought the t-shirt since 1977.
of course, categorising this book under the cycling tab might just be ever so tenuous were this merely a travel guide. after all, graham watson doesn't actually ride a bicycle throughout his three weeks en francais, but he does have something that we don't have, and that's abiding memories of many of the greats from first hand experience:
hinault looks charming enough, sure he does. but the man is as arrogant, as contemptuous, as aloof as he was thirty years ago.
the chapters on actually getting to and watching the tour, are regularly interspersed with insightful pieces on many of the greats including the above mentioned bernard hinault, big mig, sean kelly, pedro delgado (sadly, despite mr watson's otherwise professed admiration, there is no piece on robert millar). rather subtly, the chapter on the riders are set in a sans serif font (bureau grotesque) as opposed to the main chapters' serifed warnock pro. (sorry, too much information).
it's obviously rather late in the day to hope to get yourself in the position of standing by the barriers waving a rather large green hand at the 2009 tour de france, but if the notion of heading frenchwards in 2010 seems like an attractive idea, immediately purchase a copy of this book, because the only real alternative is to book with one of the noted tour operators (also mentioned by mr watson)
and at the risk of being castigated by the cognoscenti, not just because it is not germain to any review of this book, surely i cannot be the only one who finds mr watson's photographs a bit cliched and lacking sparkle. photography, and particularly cycling photography has come a long way in the past few years; we have come to expect and demand a different perspective on the kings of pain these days, while mr watson seems content to provide the same old, same old. perhaps a vacuous criticism, since he is still a far better photographer than i'll ever be, but something that has bothered me for a good while, and this seems the ideal place to give it air time. just my ten cents worth.
photography criticism notwithstanding, this is a gem of a book and reveals a side to graham watson that most of us probably didn't know existed - he's a very impressive and accomplished writer. and even if you haven't the faintest inclination to eat baguettes and brie while the caravan throws yellow caps at you from strange shaped vehicles, it would be the ideal companion to messrs harmon and kelly or even sherwen and liggett as you watch the flat screen this july.
posted on tuesday 26 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................