I’ve been thinking a lot about maps lately. My work on MassifCentral’s cycling info-graphic prints involves a lot of poring over the cartography of various cycling endeavours, so it should be no surprise that the book I’ve most recently performed a Jenga-esque extraction from the precariously large tower by my bedside is Ellis Bacon’s excellent Mapping Le Tour (Collins RRP £16.99).
Hovering neatly between a beautiful (but never read) coffee table tome and an indispensable (but dog-eared) reference book, Mapping Le Tour is something approaching all things to all men. The layout is simple and effective: chronologically ordered Tours have a map on the right hand page with a précis of the action and the main statistics on the left.
The map styles are updated every couple of decades to define the changing eras and the book is bolstered with some overall statistics at the front and a more in-depth exploration of some of the more famous places that Le Tour comes back to time and again at the end.
It’s the routes that are the meat in the sandwich though and their development through the decades, like that of the maps onto which they are overlaid, is the joy to be extracted from this solid piece of work.
From the initial six-stage forays of 1903 and 1904, which necessarily ignore huge swathes of the country, to the more 13 stage coast and border hugging route that arrived in 1906 and became the adopted template until well into the 1930’s. It is said that the familiarity of the classic Paris, Lille, Nancy, Grenoble, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Nantes, Brest, Caen, Paris route, the image of which would adorn the front pages of L’Auto for much of the summer is the reason that French children learnt to see their country as pentagram shaped whole rather than a series of départments.
The next seismic shift in route-planning doesn’t come until the 1950’s when the centre of France finally gets a look in again and the Massif Central range – and the Puy de Dôme in particular – begins to feature more regularly. This becomes the cue for an abandonment of idea of the Tour being a true ‘boucle’ and more varied across the country are tried. Following that the Sixties fall into a neat habit of going along either the Atlantic coast or Continental borders before twisting away in order to make a beeline for Paris in the last few days.
The Seventies see the arrival of longer transfers between some stages and this leads to much more time being spent in certain areas such as the Alps and Pyrenees. By the end of the decade the routes around these mountainous regions cross and recross themselves as the organisers strive to make the route increasingly spectacular.
The maps detailing the Tours of the Eighties and Nineties show a sudden increase in the amount of overseas starts of Le Tour. Berlin and Luxembourg are quickly followed by the 1992 ‘Tour of Europe’ Tour which visited six different countries in honour of the Maastricht Treaty. An excursion to Britain would follow in 1994 before Dublin held the Grand Depart in the ill-fated 1998 race.
The new Millennium brought with it a slew of anniversaries and an increasing ‘theming’ of the route has taken hold since. More photogenic backdrops have also started to come to the fore. Since replotting the main cities visited one hundred earlier for the 2003 Tour, we have seen routes which honour the start of World War One and the 100th anniversary of the inclusion of the high mountains in the race. We have also had double ascents of Alpe d’Huez and stages focussing on the Passage de Gois and Mont St Michel. In it’s most recent editions, which this new edition includes, the Tour has also also finally visited Corsica and after it’s most Southerly start there with it’s most Northerly in Leeds the following year.
Although Mapping Le Tour might look a little lightweight on first inspection, once you have spent a bit of time in it’s company, it does begin to give a lot back. Short of following the race in a camper van for three weeks every summer it’s a good way of placing each new edition race into a geographical and historical context that further enrich the watching of the latest one. For students of the history of the race it’s simply an unmissable reference work.
Mapping Le Tour is available now