Tour Fever – The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France (Book Review)

I’ve got a confession. Until this year, I was a participatory cyclist, a civilian bike commuter, and not a spectator of the sport. Working alongside VeloGuy, that’s changed and I’ve been developing my passion for the peloton. A big hurdle was learning the vocabulary of the velo world. I felt as frustrated as Lou Costello understanding Bud Abbot in “Who’s on first?”, except this time it was more like “What happened to Lance?” “He bonked.” “Who did Lance bonk?” You get the idea.

Earlier this month, VeloGuy presses J. P. Partland’s book Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France into my hands. VeloGuy observes that he’s too “into” the sport that he really can’t read it like a newbie. That’s where I come in. I’ve got fresh eyes. Not so fresh that they get me into trouble with my wife. Much. But fresh enough for reading what I hoped would be a crash course in pro-cycling, but without the lactic acid burn in my quads afterwards.

Who is J. P. Partland? Yeah, he walks the walk. Although his business card says “Gun For Hire”, he’s no mere ghostwriter a publisher’s publicity department used to fill a marketing gap. Partland raced and medaled in the team pursuit at the 2002 U.S. National Cycling Championships. He has also authored Mountain Bike Madness and The World of BMX and contrubutes to Asphalt magazine.

The book reads easily. I read it in an afternoon. Partland covers the history of the Tour de France, how it is scored, the teams (dispelling the commonly held mistaken notion of cycling as an individual sport), the nature of individual and specialist racers, the route of the tour and the traditions behind the jerseys.

After the background and rules are covered, Ppartland’s Race In Motion chapter helped me make the transition from mere student to neo-fan, describing what I would be watching as I observe my first Tour. Then Partland describes the meta-tour–the publicity and technological tours that follow the Tour. By the end, I was eager to see VeloGuy again to thank him for lending me his copy and more eager for the Tour to start so we could watch.

tour de france guide - Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France by J. P. PartlandTour Fever has a great glossary, essential to the newcomer since there are many terms in French and Italian used in cycling. Learn the difference between hockey’s “hat trick” and cycling’s “three hatter”. What does KoM mean? Learn how to correctly pronounce “prime”, the prize won before the finish of a stage.

Minor constructive criticism: As there are MANY foreign words, I’d like to see more instruction in the glossary and elsewhere concerning pronunciation. This should not only including cycling terms but team names, major sponsors and even cyclist names, so that I don’t sound like a doofus, or more than a doofus than absolutely necessary. Is Jan Ullrich pronounced like YAWN OOL-rick, JAN ull-RITCH, or some other variant? How do you pronounce Philippe Thys‘ surname? Don’t get me started on Eddy Merckx. I’d even like to say voiture balai right before it comes to get me. Yes, I realize that an American will never sound French enough to a true Frenchman, but I’d like to not embarrass myself too badly saying Échapée on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, there’s much truth to the joke that goes like this:
What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual.
And what do you call someone who speaks 1 language? American.
Sad, but too true.

In retrospect, I wondered why I really was oblivious to pro cycling and came to the conclusion that my Sports Illustrated subscription ended when I graduated high school in 1980. Tour Fever brought to my attention that I stopped learning about new sports about a year before the first American participated in the Tour. Aside from what was covered in the box scores, there was scant coverage of cycling in the New York Times (I went to college in New York City) and even less that was suited to introducing a newcomer to the sport. My ignorance of cycling was compounded by the fact that the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics so I didn’t even watch the cyclists race around the highly banked velodrome as I had in 1976. By 1984, I had already met my wife-to-be and wasn’t really interested in acquiring a new spectator sport, so I didn’t watch much of that Olympics, either. But now that I’m older, a little more secure that after 21 years, my wife won’t leave me in fear of becoming a cycling widow, it’s safe to ride the wake of VeloGuy’s enthusiasm and risk becoming a new cycling fan. Moreso, armed with Tour Fever, I can introduce my children to a sport decades earlier than I started and we can share the joy of becoming new fans, together.

Publisher take note: I’d like to see an annual edition released each spring, highlighting a few of the compelling backstories, noting the recent retirees, the newly suspended, the up-and-comers we should look for, the effect of cyclists changing teams and the ramifications of teams changing sponsors. And of course, another edition would give Partland the opportunity to correct his most glaring error: omitting from the Of Interest On The Web section of the appendix. 🙂

I’m looking forward to sitting with VeloGuy this summer and being able to ask him intelligent questions about what’s happening so I can better appreciate the annual spectacle of the Tour de France.

This is the Tour de France FAQ, Jacques.

Bottom line… you’re a die-hard cycling nut and you have a yet-to-be-converted friend or relative who can’t quite handle the torrential fire-hydrant of cycling fanatacism you’re spewing at mach 3… Tour Fever is the book to get from clueless to clued-in on the Tour de France. Then, invite the noob to sit with you to watch the Tour on TV or on the Internet and let the newbie ask questions. No breakaways until you’ve ensured that he’s fairly capable of keeping pace with you.