Thursday, 19 November 2009

Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de France by Matt Rendell

Sports writing would not seem to be the obvious place to look for drinking in literature (cricketing biographies aside) but the Tour de France is not a regular sporting event. The world’s most famous bicycle race began in 1903 and in over a century it has seen its fair share of drink, drugs, crashes and other disasters.


Rendell’s book is a glorious compendium of the tour, filled with anecdote and populated by giants of the cycling world. Naturally, sporting prowess is sometimes the door to excess, or at the very least a healthy appetite. Rider Marcel Bidon confessed years later that he would drink a half-bottle of champagne before each stage, and 1960s cycling legend Jacques Anquetil indulged in all number of dietary deviations, especially while on tour:

“To prepare for a race, nothing beats a good pheasant, champagne and a woman.”

That said, Anquetil probably overdid it on the Pyrenees étage of the 1964 tour when during a rest day he accepted an invitation to a ‘méchoui’ in Andorra:

...a traditional meal of lamb roasted whole on a spit. The solid food was accompanied by a drinking competition with his directeur sportif...

The next day, Anquetil started nervously...

Champagne wasn’t to everyone’s taste and most of the cyclists seemed happy to stick to beer. During the 1935 tour in an incident that would never happen these days (and more’s the pity in my mind) a sight for sore eyes appeared halfway through the race:

...on stage seventeen, from Pau to Bordeaux, in overpowering heat, the riders found beer bottles lined up at the side of the road, and declared a truce to sate their thirst. It was a well designed ruse by Julien Moineau, who rode straight past the beer and reached Bordeaux fifteen minutes ahead of the peloton.

Chapeau!

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