it may seem a tad incongruous to discuss the tour de france when we're really only half-way through this year's giro d'italia, but such are the vagaries of contemporary publishing, that it is a short, but necessary diversion from the present.
like many, the tour was first brought to my attention via channel four's daily update with gary imlach and the commentary talents of messrs. liggett and sherwen. though placing the world's greatest bike race in a daily context and subtracting the ad breaks left precious few minutes to describe more than one hundred kilometres ridden through the french countryside, it was something of a broadcasting breakthrough.
you will doubtless have read many admissions of fans from yesteryear that they had often to wait more than a week or so to read the exploits of a foreign peloton in a foreign land. by the time of channel four's nightly introduction to the event, most of us would have been in the habit of contentedly awaiting each week's issue of the comic to find out who had been doing what, where and at what altitude. this daily update, brief though it may have been, was a more than welcome change. with the advent of eurosport and subsequently itv4, those days seem far more distant than chronology is likely to admit.
in the mid 1970s, i had not long left the safety of a secondary education to assume the mantle of art student, with all the precocity that such entailed. what i did not have any knowledge or interest in, was bike racing. i do recall at least one occasion having seen some chaps indvidually pedalling for all they were worth along the prestwick by-pass, but it never dawned on me they might have been involved in a niche faction of cycle sport. i'm pretty sure i had heard of eddy merckx, but i'd be fibbing if i said i knew what it was had brought him to my attention.
in the light of the above, i think i can honestly say that had someone had the perspicacity to present me with an original copy of the great bike race in 1977, things may well have been a bit different. however, ifs and buts...
the foreword by will fotheringham to this republished edition from the excellent velodrome publishing brings to light the fact that mr fotheringham came from a less velocipedinally deprived childhood than did i.
"...my mother [...] brought home a copy for me and my late father, a former cyclist who kept a close eye on his old sport. I don't know whether poor old dad even got to read it."
to be quite blunt about the current situation even in the year 2016, this is unquestionably the finest book ever written on the subject of cycling, bar none. the combination of the late geoffrey nicholson's (he died in 1999) observations, coupled with an impeccable writing style, make the great bike race almost a complete education in and of itself. reading such superbly composed prose only highlights what i am brave enough to describe as a lowering of standards ever since (though from this indictment, i think william fotheringham may be excused.)
as the latter himself states "...his writing could have made any tour spring to life."
initially published in 1977, nicholson's narrative concerns the previous year's tour de france, an event that commenced in 'saint-jean-de-monts' on 24 june with a prologue time-trial and ended on the champs elysees on sunday 18 july. each stage is dealt with at varying lengths dependent on that which transpired across the day's kilometres. however, though today the cognoscenti of which we are a part, are far better informed as to the intricacies of each twist and turn, those with even a passing interest are also more aware of at least the outlines of the race. and perhaps even one or two of the protagonists assuming bradley wiggins takes part.
however, in 1976/77, even a cycle race as big as the tour de france was largely an unknown quantity on this side of the channel and nicholson takes the time to patiently, wittily and clearly explain some of the niceties, history and ancillaries that make the race what it is, along with portraying the leading characters.
"Today the peloton agrees on how best to check the repeated successes of Maertens. It is to release one rider, like a hare from a trap, at a reasonable distance from the line. [...] The man picked out for favour is Hubert Mathis, a twenty-five-year-old second-year professional from northern France. [...] The more prosaic fact of the matter is that Mathis is 61-3 down on general classification..."
it would be hard to overstate just how good this book truly is. though present day books and periodicals provide the same blow-by-blow account of those three weeks in july, their prose is considerably less descriptive, leaning more towards the statistical and calculated than the atmospheric. nicholson also ultilises the full breadth of the english language to his and our advantage. if ever you had doubts over the slow demise of the british educational system, the great bike race may be offered up as a prime example of how good it once was.
"Shortly before noon the people of Saint Jean are drawn to the north end of the promenade where the teams are gathering in the curve of the Arc-en-Ciel, a raised apartment block with flying balconies like a great white chest of drawers."
"(the riders) transfer the food to the pouch pockets of their racing jerseys or, as often as not, to their mouths. Before any race, cyclists eat like rescued castaways."
of course, the tour de france was an altogether different kettle of casquettes in the mid-seventies; still a circus, but substantially less so than in its current incarnation. rose-tinted spectacles undoubtedly colour my comprehension and appreciation of international cycle racing some forty years ago in the days of 32 spokes and chromed steel frames; it would be more than interesting to read how nicholson would describe this year's race.
however, some of that interest must remain academic and not just for the obvious reason. nicholson has captured a moment in time, one that will remain so pretty much forever. but in the manner of a novel by dickens, hardy or austen, the great bike race is a volume that can be solely appreciated for its own values, values that are distinct from the race it describes and entirely separate from the final yellow jersey worn by lucien van impe on the champs elysees in 1976.
it has taken forty years for this book to find me. don't, under any circumstances, let this happen to you.
sunday 22 may 2016..........................................................................................................................................................................................................