Tour Fever by J.P. Partland.
I’ve been known to attend professional baseball games from time to time. As a wee youngster, living within sight of the New York City skyline, my parents took me to Shea Stadium so I could watch Tom Seaver pitch and Dave Kingman belt towering home runs. Fast forward several decades, and a couple of times each summer I’ll attend a local AAA ball club’s immaculate downtown stadium if only to put away a few beers, admire the precision mowing patterns in the outfield grass, and watch the sun set. One of the games I attended this past summer was like no other I’d ever experienced, however, due to the Israeli couple who joined us at my wife’s invitation. These people hadn’t a clue about baseball. They knew of its existence, they knew a ball was involved, but that’s about the extent of their knowledge. So how does one go about explaining a sport to an absolute neophyte? At first thought the rules seem straightforward, but then all the oddities and quirks come up. This seemingly simple exercise becomes a protracted discussion of why your first two foul balls count as strikes, but you can’t strike out by fouling additional balls into the stands so you can hit an additional 25 foul balls out of the park and still keep swinging, or how sometimes a baserunner can be called out by stepping on the base vs. needing to be tagged. Oh, and the rudimenatary concept of “bat” and “base” needed explanations, too. And absolutely out of my mind, I dared bring up ground rule doubles, spitballs, Abner Doubleday, why the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, etc. The things one takes for granted when the sport is around you for a lifetime.
So this brings me to J.P. Partland’s Tour Fever, which deftly explains the Tour de France to befuddled Americans much better than I can impart baseball elucidation to befuddled Israelis. If your average American was asked to name one bike race the Tour de France would be the likely answer. And if pressed to name a professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong would also be the typical response. But put that same person in front of a television of an in-progress Tour de France stage and they’d almost certainly be absolutely perplexed about the machinations taking place before their eyes. And at this point, if I ran the universe, J.P. Partland would magically appear on the scene and sell a copy of Tour Fever to this spectator whose level of professional cycling knowledge is equal to the “What’s a bat?” line of questioning I fielded from my Israeli acquaintances.
If you’re enough of a fan of professonal cycling (particularly the Tour de France) that my blog makes sense to you then you’ll likely be well-versed in every aspect of Partland’s book which explains the Tour from the ground up. It sets the stage by discussing a familiar sporting icon (Lance Armstrong) and his pivotal crash and recovery on Luz-Ardiden during his 2003 TdF triumph. From there Partland explains the history of the Tour, how exactly one goes about winning the Tour, the purpose of other competitions besides the yellow jersey, what actually makes professional cycling a team sport, the physical and mental qualities of an elite professional cyclist, the Tour route itself, race tactics, the technology of cycling, and handy tips about becoming a Tour de France spectator (through print resources, television, the Internet, or the ever ambitious in-person option). The 224 pages of Tour Fever, chock full of text, a glossary, and indices, are essentially a primer into Professional Cycling 101, and provide the building blocks to dissecting and analyzing a sport alien to our cultural sporting norms. If you grew up in a cycling-mad environment such as Belgium this knowledge would likely be absorbed just as an American soaks up baseball. Absent of such an upbringing, Tour Fever is a handy reference for making sense of an initially perplexing sporting dynamic. And while this book concentrates on the Tour de France, the principles learned here can be applied to other cycling events throughout the season. Many Americans are oblivious to the cycling calendar in months other than July, and hopefully piqued curiosity will lead spectators to embrace other races throughout the long road season.
While the aforementioned nuts and bolts of the Tour de France experience are laid out lucidly, what struck me as particularly engaging are Partland’s snippets of information regarding his introduction to the sport as well as his discussion of how exactly an American so inclined to race progresses from his first road bike to toeing the line as a Tour de France pro. I’ve begun to notice some familiar last names appearing in the Junior and Senior ranks…names like Phinney, Stetina, O’Reilly, Simes, Barczewski, Chauner…all promising cyclists whose parents were at their prime while I was learning about the sport. The remaining 99.99% of us, however, don’t have parents who’ve raced professionally (if at all) to set an example and provide tutelage from the time the training wheels come off, so we find our way to the sport via random, serendipitous paths. Partland’s fascination with Euro cycling as a teenager struck a chord with me since our gravitation to the sport followed strikingly familiar paths. While becoming bored with BMX in the 1970s, I cobbled together a barely functioning rendition of a track bike (thankfully with a coaster brake, a la Little 500 rigs) from bikes recovered from the dump, donned a TI Raleigh cap, and began to roar around my neighborhood in pursuit of speed. One day a guy on a shiny road bike, fully kitted out like a pro, happened to roll through my stomping grounds and I jumped on his wheel on my jalopy. Much to his consternation, he could not drop me as he began to turn the screws. And much to my surprise he stopped and began quizzing me about my heap. His advice…”Dude, get your parents to buy you a racing license and a real bike”.
Additionally, I think it’s particularly rare to read about how one becomes a professional cyclist, much less how one gets to compete in the Tour. Partland goes into the state of competitive cycling in this country, its challenges, and the process of progressing from amateur to pro. Based on how many times I’ve had to field questions at work, from relatives, or from random people who see me in cycling garb why I’m not racing the Tour de France it’s an aspect of our sport which deserves attention and outreach. It’s common knowledge how professional baseball/basketball/football players progress to the pinnacle of their sports, but to the lay person in the US the sport of professional cycling is truly enigmatic to the point where it’s surprising to find out that people actually make a living from competing. No matter what one thinks of Tyler Hamilton, several years ago he gave a funny interview in which he had to explain to his in-laws just how exactly he was going to support his wife. They didn’t believe riding around on a bike was a vocation, but they’d probably never ask Michael Jordan what he did to support his family while playing for the Chicago Bulls.
And once one has completed the prose portion of Tour Fever, there are the lists of professional cyclists who’ve made Tour de France history. Every North American cyclist who’s ever started the Tour (through 2005) plus every person/team gracing the final Tour podium from 1903 through 2005 are chronicled year by year. For those curious about professional cycling’s history, the names gracing the latter portion of Tour Fever are the jumping off point for attaining one’s TdF Ph.D. Begin poring through web sites, books, magazines, films, and videos to discover the many hallowed expoits of these individuals and teams who’ve made TdF history for over 100 years. Embrace your inner TdF geek. After all, one never knows if winning a fortune on Jeopardy hinges on who donned the final green jersey in the 1963 Tour. Of course that would entail lucking into a Cliff Clavin-esque category selection.
If there was one thing lacking from the prose, it’s visuals. The only photograph within the entire book is the cover shot of Lance Armstrong resplendent in yellow. Professional cycling is such a visually stunning sport and anecdotes throughout the book could have benefited from a few strategically placed images to complement the text. I’m guessing that the cost of copyright clearance for iconic TdF images may be prohibitively expensive.
And on the subject of visuals…and serendipity…and the truly small world of people who race somewhere in the vicinity of the 12K dreamer realm is this post I made back in March of this year. Yes, that’s me front and center in purple looking a bit worse for wear. And to the right, in the solid red jersey, is none other than J.P. Partland. For the sake of disclosure, I’ll admit that I knew his name and could recognize him from my days of racing in the Northeast primarily through his proliferation of hair kept in a ponytail, but I can honestly say that I’ve never spoken a word to him prior to somewhat recent email communications regarding a possible review of Tour Fever. Who would have thought that our paths would intersect once more nearly 15 years later courtesy of “the internets”. What is apparent is that J.P. Partland is a kindred spirit afflicted with a fever, fervor, and fascination of the Tour de France…and Tour Fever is an able steward for those just embarking on understanding the Tour or for the more grizzled aficionados who’ve felt the Fever wain in recent years.