By Robbie Broughton
There are heaps of cycling books out there that cover the heroic age of cycling. From biographies of the greats like Bartali and Coppi to accounts of some of the early grand tours, there’s plenty of choice for those that want to delve into cycling’s great heritage. Fascinating as they might be, I’ve not come across one that brings the early days of the Tour de France to life as much as Gareth Cartman’s We Rode All day.
A historical novel set over the 1919 Tour de France, it’s told through the viewpoint of various riders as well as Henri Desgrange, the architect of the Tour de France himself. Amid the backdrop of war-torn, poverty-stricken France, the peloton toil their way around a brutal parcours of 5,500 km in 15 stages.
Many of the riders from the pre-war era had suffered the same fate as the millions of casualties in the horrific trenches of WWI. And most of those that survived and entered this race lacked fitness having not even ridden a bike for four years.
These were heavy bikes with no derailleurs. Although they existed, Desgrange had banned them from the Tour, declaiming them as being only fit for cyclo-tourists. The only way to change gear on Desgrange’s Tour was to flip your wheel round. Punctures and mechanical faults had to be fixed by the riders with no outside assistance and relaying with other riders, to take turns in the wind, was deemed illegal as well. Unsurprisingly only a handful of riders made it to the finish.
Cartman skillfully takes on the distinctive voices of some of the key players. Honoré Barthélémy, the novice is in awe of his older rivals. Never having ridden in the mountains it comes as a shock to him as well as everyone else that he’s a natural climber. He has a naïve charm and hangs onto every word that the veteran Christophe offers, hungrily taking meager words of advice in the way a dog accepts scraps from the table.
Jean Alavoine, an old-timer, is at times the joker, at others the grouchy old man. He takes a pragmatic view of the race, hoovering up as many bonuses as he can in the diminished peloton, swelling his bank account in the process, taking a nap in a ditch when it all gets too much.
The lonely and obsessive Eugene Christophe, desperately seeking his first Tour victory, is spooked, riven with doubt and superstitions. Having had to weld a new fork for his bike on the flanks of the Tourmalet in the 1913 edition, he is again struck by the ‘witch’, and more bad luck ensues.
At the heart of it all though is the grand architect, the pompous, arrogant and dictatorial Henri Desgranges. Loathed by the riders for inflicting such punishment on them, he remains immune to their antagonism, so immersed in his own self-importance and pride for having created the race in the first place.
While these riders freely partook in drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and sticking whole baguettes in their back pockets, not everything about the old days has changed that much. Christophe talks about how he hates, “stages like the last one, a pancake flat, boring, transitional, climb-less, arse-numbing fucking waste of time that does nobody any good…You ride 400km and at the end, Jean Alavoine wins.” Sounds like that stage could have done with Carlton Kirby to liven it up.
And just like today, as the tour progresses, there develop multiple races within the race: Cristophe and Lambot for the overall; Barthélémy,and Lucotti for the mountains; Alavoine going all out for bonus points and hopes of future velodrome contracts.
Cycling and cheating have often gone hand in hand, and we see the early leader of the race, Henri Pellisier resorting to drugs to keep up the pace, while there are various references to the first Tour where competitors hitched rides in trains as well as cars. You can also see the beginnings of racing etiquette – while attacking the leader when he had a mechanical or puncture was frowned upon, it certainly didn’t stop them. Plus ca change! In this edition, the peloton team up on more than one occasion. It’s an uneasy balance of shaky alliances as they trade off bonus points for a place at the end of the stage.
There’s much here about the philosophy of cycling – whether to get out of the seat while climbing, as the young Barthélémy, does, dancing on his pedals like an early Contador – opinion on this is split. “…there was a time when when standing on your pedals was The. Wrong. Thing. To. Do.” Cyclists have always loved imposing their rules!
We also see the brutal mindset and competitive racing instinct of the ultimate bike racer. The Belgian Firmin Lambot reflects,“If you want to ride a bike you have to know how to read a man…This morning I read Christophe’s face. I read his gestures, the nervous taps on the handlebars, the unusual preparation before the off…The focus on his little rituals…And that’s how I knew I had to attack.” You wonder if Barthélémy, would ever have that killer instinct to be an outright winner as he feels the immense guilt of putting the knife into Christophe along with the Belgian contingent who are trying to wrest the yellow jersey off the ‘old Gaul.’ “…what bad, bad men we are. I feel bad, but I hit the front and take the wind for the guys and think – this is what I have to do. This is what I have to be. A bad man.”
Meanwhile the dream of being one with the machine resonated with these early riders as it still does to this day.
This Tour saw the introduction of the yellow leader’s jersey – yellow to reflect the yellow paper of L’Auto, Desgrange’s newspaper that was behind the race in the first place. Iconic now, its first wearer pulled it on grudgingly. “You are fucking joking me,” is Christophe’s response. “Yellow. Yellow, the colour of cowardice, of betrayal, of a cuckold. The colour of madness. There’s a perfectly good reason people don’t wear yellow, why they don’t make their children wear yellow. That’s because it’s YELLOW.’
Anyone who has suffered on a long climb, shivered with teeth chattering on a descent, bonked, punctured or struggled to hold the wheel of the rider in front will feel a kinship with this band of riders who underwent extraordinary pain and hardship. Likewise, they’ll understand the same feeling of exhilaration as the bike hums along the road, eating up the kilometres and that beautiful symbiotic relationship between man and machine. We may have come a long way with our carbon fibre, garish lycra and slick gears, but cycling remains, at its heart, much the same as it did 100 years ago.
We Rode All Day brings all that to mind. Along with Tim Krabbé’s The Racer it should become essential reading for anyone that rides a bike.