- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

THE TOUR DE FRANCE: A CULTURAL HISTORY

By Christopher S. Thompson

University of California Press, $29.95, 398 pages

REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI

With this year’s Tour de France bicycle race concluding today, there likely is no better time to consider the merits of the most recent book by Christopher Thompson, an associate professor of history at Ball State University.

Those looking for a “traditional sportswriting” treatment of the Tour might be disappointed by this book; however, those looking for insight not just into the race but into professional sports in general will find their interest somewhat rewarded. Be warned, however: Mr. Thompson is a professional academic, and his book is inexorably weighed down by many of the trappings of “academic” language and thought.

Mr. Thompson early on sets the tone for his parallel discussion of French national identity and the “world’s most famous bicycle race,” positing that the “French have found the Tour a productive site for competing narratives about Frenchness.” By “competing narratives,” naturally, the author is referring to discussions about race, class and gender.

Much space throughout the book is given to observations like “women have been limited to carefully prescribed roles in the male universe of the Tour,” an insight that is more than faintly tinged with the self-righteousness of the professor class.

That said, despite Mr. Thompson’s penchant for tired graduate-seminar bromides, there is more than enough useful material here to justify reading the book — especially if the reader is someone who knows little about the Tour’s origins. The author begins the narrative in the 1870s, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, which saw the Republic beset by myriad indignities and existential questions about the future of France — specifically, its national virility and capacity for manly things as it faced very real evidence of national decline.

Where there is crisis, there is opportunity, however. As Mr. Thompson writes, there likely was no better time than a period of national self-doubt to popularize cycling. Bicycles themselves were being refined then, and were being used in France and Greater Europe for everything from civilian transport to military maneuvers.

Decades before the Tour de France was begun in 1903, there were road races throughout France, their popularity augmented by a mass media hungry for subject matter.

The heroes of French cycling were promoted as working boys made good — 19th-century versions of extreme sports athletes. Bicycling grew in popularity as France rediscovered her sense of national pride, and by the time the Tour emerged, it very much was a source of national cohesion, laden with a “symbolic power” that had both salutary and negative consequences.

The Tour, a “didactic narrative rooted in the nation’s geography,” essentially was an atavistic force according to Mr. Thompson, appealing to musty old French regionalist prejudices in a brazen effort to forge a consensus history.

This consensus history naturally is rooted in affirming traditionalist values, including a “comforting vision of archetypal gender identities,” in which men are linked with the “cult of suffering and survival … attrition … and heroic masculinity” even as female cyclists are subject to “marginalization.”

Turning his attention to “work” and “class,” Mr. Thompson notices that most of the Tour participants (“automata without faces,” “empty cadavers,” “convict laborers”) came from the working class — an insight that should not strike the author as particularly novel, yet somehow does.

Mr. Thompson seems to affect his tone of surprise in order to recycle musty old critiques of the Tour. He charges that the Tour riders in the early days of the event were subject to an “authoritarian paternalism,” though his definition of such cuts a wide swath.

Penalties for substandard performance on the Tour are given a great deal of indignant ink here, as the author vainly attempts to draw parallels between how Tour riders were handled and the Taylorist management techniques that were popular in the business world early last century.

As the narrative lopes toward the present day, the details somehow become less vivid, as if Mr. Thompson were more concerned with recycling left-wing theory than making salient points about the evolution of the race itself. The narrative that had copious space for a discussion of Taylorism focuses far too little on the interesting Tour career of Lance Armstrong and other foreign riders whose accomplishments have been tainted with charges of drug abuse.

The career of Lance Armstrong merited great attention in this book, and the authorial refusal to provide it suggests a lack of candor or even cowardice on his part. The emergence of Mr. Armstrong as the most successful rider in the history of the Tour suggests that the Tour, like so many other things in France, is not exactly French anymore but in name.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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