of the three grand tours that comprise a cycling season, i'd be willing to bet the oily rag i use to clean my chain that the one having greatest impact on both newly converted, yet to be converted and dyed-in-the-wool cyclists is the middle one. le tour de france. it is continually billed as the greatest annual sporting spectacle, something of a clue as to its true place in the firmament. for though many of us may prefer the giro for its character and true racing pedigree, it is the tour that captures the most column inches, the greatest amount of airtime, and the civilian imagination.
in truth, it has probably become greater than the sum of its parts, but placing it in any sort of perspective, that probably doesn't really matter all that much. because after all, it's the tour de france.
those of us who imagine ourselves to be more aloof and a part of a self-styled cognoscenti will occasionally heap disdain upon its overblown popularity. we will pretend not to be swayed by its imperiousness, confessing a greater affinity with the one-day spring classics. were this not the case, we'd have no indisputable reason for affecting connoisseur status in the first place. but despite all protestations to the contrary, we'll all be glued to eurosport's coverage for those three weeks in july. because after all, it's the tour de france.
this year, however, sees the 100th edition of the race starting in corsica on saturday 29th june and finishing in paris as usual a matter of twenty-one days later. genuinely, it matters little as to the internal fractions between riders who may or may not be vyeing for top step on the podium at the expense of their competitors or possibly their team-mates; the spectacle will be as grand as ever. not for nothing is the start referred to as le grand depart. this year, more than ever it seems, there is good reason to reflect on the past century of a peloton racing their way around the countryside of french france. this has, as you may have expected, resulted in a larger number than usual of books to entertain the stationary peletonese.
carlton publishing's release of this monumental box set is not only timely, but perhaps unexpectedly rather good value for money even at £50 a pop. i freely admit that, when carlton intimated they were sending a copy of the official treasures, i had mentally pictured a paperback of more familiar dimensions. the padded jiffy bag on the welcome mat rather disavowed that expectation rather quickly.
inside a substantial box, the large book with its padded covers was enclosed in black tissue paper with a yellow seal to keep as much of the surprise until the very last minute. the book, opening with yellow gingham style endpapers, features a foreword by bernard hinault. but that is only the opening salvo of 96 pages of delights. if you are well-versed in tour lore, there will perhaps be little here that will add to your lexicon, as the chapters relate the past ten decades of tour history, from garin's victory in 1903, ending with sir brad's raffle tickets in 2013.
appended to those, in the book's hinterlands, are chapters featuring the history of the individual jerseys, tour customs and traditions, the great climbs and even the publicity caravan. for those still oblivious to the intricacies and subtleties of the race, or perhaps not even sure how the whole thing works, it verges on the level of compulsory purchase. for the rest of us, the quality photography would be an endless treat. but the official treasures has one more trick up its sleeve, and its a trick that is easily worth the price of admission alone.
those treasures turn out not to be the illustrations or the fine words that populate its pages, but a folder at the end of each section containing accurate reproductions of tour de france maps, postcards, caricatures and other hitherto unkown delights from 100 years of history. rifling through what amounts to a cornucopia of treasures, i came across an official salvador dali illustrated postcard from 1959, a 1956 cartoon depicting that year's race as something of a lottery (won by roger walkowiak), an invoice for provisions from the 1947 edition, and even a copy of the poster advertising london 2007.
whether you choose to leave these in the pockets designed to hold them, or put them on the clubhouse (or coffee shop) walls, is entirely up to you. but, just when i thought it was safe to put the book back in its box, the black tissue paper fell out, revealing a secret folder underneath containing some beautiful black and whites from years gone by; ideal for framing.
the writing is functional and informative, by which i mean no disservice to the three authors. the very nature of the project hardly lends itself to major literary discourse; but allied to the superbly selected illustrations it is an undertaking that will be very hard to ignore.
there are already several publications concerning the tour's hundredth birthday, eagerly competing for your hard-earned cash. but since none of us will be still around when it reaches number 200, it could be an astute investment, in every sense of the word, to fill your bookshelves with each and every publication that you deem worthy. this would have to be one of them.
a beautiful salve for a tour de france addiction.
friday 31st may 2013