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The Tour de France as It Was Never Seen Before

By Mariana Galvao

The Unknown Tour de France (2009, Cycle Publishing / Van der Plas Publications, 152p.) by Les Woodland is an astonishing book, fully illustrated in 23 chapters rich in historical data, curiosities and legends that surround the circuit. Woodland conducts the reader from cheats and anti-doping stories, to explanations and rumours around the beginning of the legendary yellow jerseys worn by the Tour’s leaders.

“Let’s organize a race that lasts several days, longer than anything else.  Like six-days on the track but on the road. The big towns will welcome the riders”. This speech, given by Géo Lefèvre dates from 1902 and coined the Tour idea. It happened during a meeting in Paris with Desgrange who then became the Tour founder. Years later Lefèvre admitted that he had been taken by surprise during the meeting that was supposed to be about new ideas to boost newspaper circulation and the Tour was the first thing that he could came up with.

And for that respective century the Tour would do more for the French nation than any other event the country has ever witnessed. It wasn’t until L’Auto  (Tour’s newspaper sponsor, ancestor of the current daily L’Équipe) printed the route of the Tour de France that most Frenchmen could recognize the shape of their own country. With big rewards – offering 3,000 francs for the winner while a workman at the time earned just 2.5 francs for a 10-hour day the circumstances made it quickly popular, attracting adventurers and curious people trying their luck.

The Unknown Tour de France by Les Woodland is an astonishing book, fully illustrated in 23 chapters rich in historical data, curiosities and legends that surround the circuit.


The circuits were dreadful, with holes and stones on the roads and many “unrideable” mountains. The continued improvement of the difficulty level by the organizers has created some hearsays about the circuit, as the one that goes that some competitors called the organizers murderers and compared the Tour to a calvary. In 1919 the Tour had the highest dropout: 84% of riders abandoned the circuit. The discontentment went high also in 1924, when the Pélissier brothers, favourites to win at that time, abandoned the circuit and spread the word about the cyclists’ dissatisfaction.

But then the Glory Years came in the 1950s and 1960s. After the war, Europe was looking for its own personality and there was a good rivalry between nations like Italy, France, Spain and Belgium. It was the peak of bicycle racing, a phenomenon with cycling carrying the respective nation’s dreams. Cyclists became stars with a human dimension.  Many of them were bakers, butchers, metal workers or farmers. With recent famous Tour’s winners like Lance Armstrong, Woodland also makes room in the book for former heroes, presenting an intense investigative work on previous riders, sport reporters and others that were then almost completely forgotten as time goes by.

For those who think it still isn’t enough, the author offers an annex with 100 curiosities about the tournament as a plus. Did you know that there are currently more than 1200 TV journalists and more than 100 trucks to carry satellite dishes, mobile studios and other gear on the Tour?