Endurance cyclists are a deceptive looking bunch. In their quest for the perfect power to weight ratios, their upper bodies go undeveloped and are sometimes positively scrawny. Even their legs don't have the tree-trunk-like solidity of their cousins sprinting in the velodrome. Yet they are amongst the fittest sportsmen in the world, competing over distances and timespans way beyond any other major sport and the Tour de France is their ultimate challenge. Chris Sidwells' book is a very enjoyable and interesting homage to both those extraordinary cyclists and the Tour itself.
It's an accessible and easy read, following a chronological narrative through the more than a century of the Tour. Inevitably, some incidents and years get more coverage than others but that's only right. In fact, writing a history of the Tour presents something of a challenge, not in terms of what to include but what to leave out given the near 100 tours, thousands of stages and thousands of competitors. Sidwells makes mention of every single tour but with rare exceptions doesn't make them the focus of the story - that focus is firmly on the riders themselves and particularly the great ones, the champions.
In doing so, he moves slightly away from a true history for better and worse. The 'worse' is that it means that there are omissions. The Tour itself begins as very much a key player in its own right but as it becomes established, there's less space devoted to the organisation, the teams, the media coverage, the technology, the Tour's place in France's national consciousness and so on. It would certainly be possible to write a more thorough and perhaps better 'history' of the race but it wouldn't necessarily be an improved book. The 'better' is that it means apart from where absolutely necessary - e.g. the intervention of war, the doping scandal - the focus is on the cycling and cyclists, which keeps the momentum rolling and is, after all, what the Tour is about.
It also provides for a very workable structure as eras tended to be dominated by individual riders and these form the basis of most chapters. We get some good background biography of all the great champions as well as description of their careers and the key moments in them. Those moments are the essence of the challenge; the times when the great prove their worth. Sidwells makes good choices in focussing on relatively few stages but ones that mattered.
The one other criticism I'd make is that the author becomes an increasingly prominent participant in his own story. He is a journalist, has written about cycling for years and knows and has interviewed many of the racers in the second half of the book. It's a purely personal view but I found the references to his own articles or interviews intrusive; others may feel they add colour or authenticity. They do have a side-effect though of concentrating the action even more on the front of the peloton. The early chapters include interesting asides to look at some of the people that had no chance of winning but added character.
Overall, it's well worth a read for anyone interested in cycling. Those who already have a good knowledge of the subject will find it covers familiar ground (literally) but it does so well enough to make it worth while. Those who don't should find it a very good introduction.