Preface by Owen Mulholland
After forty years of study on the subject, I can with some confidence say Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France is the finest such work ever produced in the English language, and perhaps in any. Most of my preferred references are in French, one runs to over 800 pages, yet the McGann’s opus revealed information new to me in almost every paragraph. His research has been not only impeccable, but insightful. After all, it is a huge subject, one that can overwhelm the reader with details on top of details on top of details.
The great asset here is the choice of significant details. Where else could I have discovered the 1927 Tour was the first since 1903 to start without a former winner in its ranks? Anger of some sort formed a portion of Lance Armstrong’s amazing drive to win, but he never matched Henri Pélissier’s ability to offend. Once Pélissier stopped to respond to a « call of nature » and the whole peloton attacked just to get even. McGann lavishes an entire paragraph on a stage sprint in the 1925 Tour because it was such a Who’s Who of the time. What better way to remember the Armstrongs and Ullrichs and Bassos of 80 years ago?
Patterns within patterns—personalities, capabilities, technologies, route changes, loyalties, jealousies and feuds, financial interests, even political influences—all are masterfully weaved here into a giant fugue that points past itself to even larger portents. For much of human history most people have struggled to satisfy the minimum necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. In the centuries B.C. the Greeks managed to satisfy those necessities sufficiently well they were able to turn their attention to what it means to be truly human. Among other things this meant activity with no ulterior purpose, i.e. play.
A 2,000 year hiatus had to be endured before humanity could find itself on this level again. In the late nineteenth century many forms of play were invented, but for us bike fans none were as interesting as those on two wheels. The Tour de France is an ultimate expression of the will to play. The Tour’s current popularity is no accident. This book reveals the endless experimentation the Tour endured before arriving at the modern synthesis of flat, mountain, and time trial stages necessary to provide the kind of contest we’ve come to expect, and of course it’s a process that will never end.
Nor should it be forgotten what a debt we owe to France and its culture for this amazing invention. Nowhere else did the necessary synthesis emerge. The U.S. may beat the world to the moon, but when it comes to how to make life on earth worth living one could do worse than emulate the French. The recent Tours of Georgia and California imply as much.
This is a book you will want to read and read. This is a book you will take to bed at night, and after you’ve turned out the light your dreams will be filled with the images conjured here. We can hardly thank Mr. McGann enough for his combination of clear prose revealing careful research about our favorite subject