Book Review: Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat,Sweep



Released today and available at all good bookshops and online outlets, this is the story of the very first edition of the Tour de France in 1903. The author, Peter Cossins is familiar to me as I already own some of his previous works and he has not disappointed in his latest historical narrative of the early days of cycling as a sport.

Set in the backdrop of the La Belle Époque period in Paris we begin with the tale of Count Jules-Albert de Dion who swaggers around furthering his political career alongside establishing a new sporting newspaper to rival that of Le Vélo. His ally in this latter venture was Henri Desgranges, the brains behind the Parc des Princes velodrome.

Initially called L’Auto-Vélo, but quickly changed to L’Auto, the new publication needed to boost sales in the face of stiff competition from its rivals. Desgranges and his cycling correspondent Géo Lefèvre dreamed up the Tour de France, a 6 stage circuit of the nation to take place over about 3 weeks. They knew it would be big but its overwhelming success took all by surprise.

My press copy of this book omits illustrations which frustrated me until I realised there is a list of them at the back of the book suggesting that you will find them should you part with the recommended £16.99 for the hardback edition. I suspect you will be confronted with a wondrous array of moustaches as I was when googling ‘1903 Tour de France images’.

As you may have guessed the title lyrically refers to some of the professions of the participants of that first edition, the most notable being the sweep, Maurice Garin, who was reputedly ‘swapped’ by his Italian parents to some kind of people-traffickers for a round of cheese and became a chimney sweep in France at the age of 14. Now I like cheese a lot but that is a bit extreme even for me!

The book details the fortunes of L’Auto, their organisation of the race and the thrills, spills and outright dirty tactics of the cycling itself. The first TdF related fatality, it turns out, was not a tragedy on the road itself, it was the murder of a woman entrusted with the profits from a café serving the throngs awaiting a stage start.

The race provided brutal conditions. Stages averaging well in excess of 400km, much of which took place through the night on dirt roads with their dust clouds, debris, potholes and wandering livestock. All done on fixed gear bikes with little to nothing by way of brakes. No pacemakers were allowed either which marked a significant change in the rules of road cycling.

I hate to say it but it will come as no surprise that evidence of cheating began on stage 1 with race officials reporting that Jean Fischer had been towed by a car by gripping a cork on a wire between his teeth! He later denied this and was reinstated. Unfortunately for Vincenzo Nibali, he couldn’t refute this helicopter footage of him receiving equivalent assistance at La Vuelta 112 years later:

In fact, there are many such parallels drawn between that first edition and more recent Tours de France, most startling is the influence of the 1903 hero Garin compared to the stranglehold of *says name through gritted teeth* Lance Armstrong over his contemporaries and race organisers. Essentially a mix of cheating and bullying in both cases.

The action swaps between the descriptive passages on the action of the stages themselves and the background organisation and the fervour whipped up around France by the now hugely influential daily editions of the sporting press, especially L’Auto. The character descriptions of the major players bring additional colour to this work.