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Le Tour - A century of the Tour de France by Jeremy Whittle

Reviewed by John Stevenson

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The first thing that strikes you when you flip through the early pages of this collection of Tour de France photographs selected by procycling editor Jeremy Whittle is how constantly filthy the riders were in the early Tours. Modern-day Tour riders undoubtedly suffer in the elements, but at least they're not riding on unsealed roads that turn to dustbowls in good weather and mudbaths in bad. Everything conspired to make things as hard as possible for those early Tour heroes: the organisers, setting insane stage distances and stringently-enforced rules against technical support; the fans, obstructing and even assaulting less favoured riders; the roads, poorly-surfaced and hideously steep, and the elements, baking one day, sodden the next.

This collection of images is mostly sourced from l'Equipe's archive at Offside Sports Photography, with contributions from ISO Sport, John Pierce and Cor Vos. It gives roughly equal weight to each of the Tour's ten decades, but it's the images from first half-century that are the most strange: an alien world of almost-forgotten hard-men grinding nearly alone up remote Alpine and Pyrenean passes. Those same roads today are packed with fans when the Tour passes, but even as late as the '40s there were occasions when riders had only their team cars and perhaps a few madly devoted race followers for company on the climbs.

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As the pages turn after the Second World War, you can feel the Tour evolve - sometimes painfully, as when riders walked instead of rode on the 1966 Bordeaux-Nayonne stage to protest against random dope tests - into today's modern media event. Jerseys get more colourful and logo-covered, bikes change from the steel-framed design that was a standard for several decades to today's aluminium and carbon fiber lightweights and the names become familiar, as riders like Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault step into the limelight.

Fittingly, the book's final section, 1990-2002, ends with modern Tour hero Lance Armstrong standing on the podium with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. At the end of perhaps the Tour's most turbulent 12 years, the Armstrong story - brash newcomer winning a stage while wearing the rainbow jersey in 1993; cancer; astonishing recovery and five Tour wins - was the redemption the Tour needed after the drug scandals on the mid-late 90s.

This Centenary Tour year has seen a staggering abundance of excellent cycling books, and this one undoubtedly deserves a place on your bookshelf. But it's not without its flaws. I'd like to have seen proper photo credits, for example. Especially in the early Tours, the job of covering the race was almost as hard as the job of riding it, and the lensmen who captured these images deserve at least to be named. And really, did we need the picture of Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in white jump-suits at Aple d'Huez in 1986? Off the bike, the 80s was the Decade Taste Forgot, and those of us who lived through it would prefer not to be reminded of it!

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