More Than Just a Bike Race, France and the Tour

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

More Than Just a Bike Race, France and the Tour


Byline: A.G. Gancarski, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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