67 riders started the 1919 Tour de France devised by the ‘sadist’ Henri Desgrange, who saw the ideal as a race in which only one rider finishes. The riders, a mixture of professionals and amateurs, many fresh from the bitter fighting of World War1 faced the most grueling of ordeals. On fixed wheeled bikes – bikes with a number of gears were regarded as suitable only for the over 45s – they faced cobbles, unmade roads, formidable climbs and even more formidable distances often in atrocious conditions. Many carried more weight than seemed ideal for the challenge and owing to the war in particular, few had enjoyed the benefits of any intensive training. That as many as 10 riders completed the course, even though it fell short of Degranges’ ideal, was a testament to extraordinary resilience and determination.
From the very beginning of this magical book, Ian Chester arrests the attention of anyone who has cycled any distance and probably many who have never turned a wheel in anger. In the early part of the book, he succeeds in interweaving the brief history of the tour, his grandfather’s experiences during the war of which so many of the riders had direct experience, and his love of France and its fascinating variety of cultures and landscapes. Switching back and forth between a camper van that almost met its Waterloo, and his own bike, he covered every mile of this immense challenge. Against this colourful and sometimes dour backcloth, we are introduced to the riders and their evocative nicknames: The Bassett Hound, The Unwanted, The Locomotive, and The Smoker, who not only finished but outlived the whole of the fast-diminishing peloton.
The eye-catching fairy-tale title points to the bad luck that dogged so many of the riders and not least in this race – all riders were solely responsible for their own repairs and were forbidden any collaboration with other riders – here denying the deserving ‘winner’ - so very close to the end. It also introduces the introduction, mid-race, of the yellow jersey, worn by the leading rider in the overall classification ever since.
In so many ways The Tour de France has changed out of all recognition, in the century that has passed since this epic race. We have had the wonderful achievements of such as Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Eddie Merckx, Miguel Indurain and latterly the dominance of British and Irish riders. We have moved from the solitary rider to teams backed by huge commercial investment. The Tour has been plagued with the problem of drugs. In this most exacting of events with its massive prizes at stake, it is, as Jacques Anquetil said, surprising not that people took performance enhancing drugs, but that so many did not. If a very dark cloud descended on the sport when it was disclosed that Lance Armstrong had won his victories with the aid of medical assistance, the race had never been free of contention. Drugs may have been of little significance a century earlier but even then; cheating was not unknown. Hopping on trains and hitching a lift from passing motorised vehicles were among these devious practices.
By involving the reader in the tension of finding for themselves the most successful riders is just one way in which Chester holds us enthralled throughout. So many ghost-written sports autobiographies come across as false. Here Chester succeeds in transporting us to an earlier time keeping it vibrantly alive. A book that no active or armchair cyclist should miss.