The Tour de France: A Cultural History by Christopher S. Thompson
reviewed by Dr. Aaron Prevots
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
With summer here how can former Lance fans fill the void until cycling’s Grand Tours? Christopher S. Thompson’s The Tour de France: A Cultural History ties a century of heroic challenges in the world’s most famous bicycle race to themes in the saga of France itself.
Thompson examines the public image of both the riders and the race, with special emphasis on the socio-political challenges that informed the Tour’s evolution as it twisted and turned through the twentieth century. His focus is relatively unusual for a Tour history, in that it combines the indispensable array of factual basics, mythical exploits and disturbing scandals with a scholarly perspective on modernity, national identity, work ethics, class struggle and gender stereotypes. Thompson considers how the French project themselves as a nation – their hopes and fears, their dreams, determination and stubborn pride – into this monumental annual event, and in turn how the Tour takes different shapes from year to year – physically, psychologically, emotionally – based on national trends and the spirit of each new age.
Thompson’s well researched portrait of France’s highs and lows relative to the three-week epic that is the Tour uncovers particularly well the dramas that have served as its cultural backdrop. In the years leading up to World War I, for example, which saw the working classes expanding, new notions of leisure appearing and the French still living to a great extent in isolated rural villages, cycling highlighted “competition, physical exercise, and the adoption of modern technology” as invigorating paths toward national revival (23). As the race took hold in the public consciousness and traced its way along new routes, the choice of sites and the media’s coverage of them made the Tour not only a “preeminent symbol of France,” but also an actual agent of change to the collective self-image (52). In more recent times, socialist newspapers still proud of traditions of solidarity have decried the rise even in cycling of a capitalistic hunger for profits and a desire to win and gain personal glory at any cost (249). Through the Tour, Thompson explains, we inevitably see a longstanding historical narrative evolve and adapt.
Other significant aspects of this Cultural History include chapters on “Gender and Heroism” and “Work, Sport, and Drugs in Postwar France.” Much as warlike scenes in American and English sports can surprise the uninitiated, the Tour’s love of impossible suffering very much stands out. We learn how being driven to the point of exhaustion and beyond in the Tour reflected a need to celebrate survival against all odds and to be reassured, on a symbolic level, of true French dignity and strength. Similarly, Thompson discusses why only men were permitted to become “convict laborers of the road” (191), until the creation of a Tour féminin in 1984 (98). According to Thompson, the Tour’s “heroic ethos” served the specific purpose of “asserting the timeless nature of conventional gender roles” as “a conservative counterpoint to fears that increasingly emancipated and empowered women” were “undermining social stability as they gained new rights and opportunities” (97-98). We see how cycling reinforced a French dichotomy of men being encouraged to suffer in public while women had to do so in private.
The Tour de France: A Cultural History is selective in its scope and not meant for the enthusiast seeking an exhaustive chronology of race triumphs. Nonetheless, it has received much praise here in the United States for its convincing originality, engaging style and rich detail. For those keen on expanding their sports history bookshelves with the latest must-haves, it is now available in a second, 2008 edition, updated with a preface on recent scandals. The classic photo above, which adorns both covers, is of 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic, in a kind of pictorial embrace by a French couple that reveals much about how the Tour’s riders are at once popular icons and to the French “one of their own,” to be fêted warmly like old friends as they boldly, gracefully ride on. Here’s hoping a few Southwestern readers will pick up this book and, like Thompson discovering cycling during a stay in Belgium in his youth, have the chance to explore with wide-eyed interest what makes international pastimes central to country and self.