Maillot jaune

The Tour de France has been going for over 100 years and has changed dramatically in that time. It was commercialised early in terms of advertising and newspaper coverage, but remained surprisingly unsophisticated into the 1970’s in the way in which it was covered for television if we are to believe The yellow jersey by Ralph Hurne. These days it keeps many of us here in AEST time up past bedtime in the depths of winter, and the water cooler conversation in the morning might go “Made it up the first High category climb, but I couldn’t make the finish.”

This is a mish mash of a novel which slides between embarrassing 1970’s sexual fantasy, and truly inspired descriptions of cycle racing told from the perspective of an aging professional. Terry Davenport has taken up training a young Tour de France prospect and agrees to ride one more Tour to assist his protégé. A series of events including a mass crash and a doping scandal leave Terry in with a chance to do well in the Tour after his long mediocre career. The descriptions of the cycling are inspired writing and make for gripping reading. Hurne gives us a real appreciation of the pain of cycling, the effort of training, and the tedium, banality and occasional excitement of a day in the saddle. Unfortunately the book does not end with a ride along the Champs Elysee but rather takes a wrong turn somewhere in the backblocks of France.

 The parts of the novel devoted to cycling are wonderfully descriptive but the backdrop midlife romantic crisis storyline could supply the raw material for a number of gender studies theses, particularly the use of the impersonal pronoun “It”, as in “It was a bit prim and frumpy, but had a chest and a half on it ..” The past is a foreign country; in this case France where they race bicycles around the countryside to the bemusement of the English, who back then regarded the TdF as another instance of the crazy wogs beginning at Calais.

The Tour itself remains recognisable in many ways but significantly different in others. Hurne’s Tour was contested between national teams and this has not happened since 1968 and will never happen again. The heyday of national teams was the 1950’s since when the commercial teams have taken over.  In the book the media presence is seen as significant, but in retrospect the media was quite a secondary player in the show, and some of the key events of the Tour are unwitnessed and unfilmed. It would be rare these days that a rider would carry a bike pump, let alone use it as a weapon against obstructive riders in the peloton.

There is an Australian rider in the international team, and it’s also good to hear that the New Zealand accent has been a source of amusement for many years now, even in the northern hemisphere. And wouldn’t we (and Phil Liggett) love to see a time trial up Mont Ventoux in the modern era.  The riders might object however.

Soaked, and with my heart going like an old one lunged longstroke motor, I decide it’s about a mile to go and time for the supreme effort. My head hangs as I shake the sweat from it, and I catch a glimpse of my leg muscles, hard and prominent under a near black skin. They look strong enough but feel as if they’re made from foam rubber. I couldn’t find a higher gear and my legs are too weary to cope with a lower one. All I can do is try to turn my existing gear a bit faster. I gather by the commotion that van Faignaert has finished. Hundreds of brown faces come forward and search mine. I screw up my eyes and rivet them on the finish sign stretched across the road ahead, but the faces and the sign swim together in a dizzy mist. Experience tells me I’m near to passing out from heat exhaustion and fatigue but that I must keep going at a reasonable gallop and finish without that happening. This sort of thing occurs more often than people realize, and only self-knowledge in keeping yourself that fraction under boiling point stops you from lying down in the road and expiring with a croak and a gray face.   

I will go back and reread half of this book next June. I just need to skip through the other bits.


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