"The Tour de France Companion" is a Good Guide for American Tour Watchers

I just received a review copy of The Tour De France Companion by Bob Roll with a forward by Dan Koeppel. This book is:

  • partly a guide to the 2004 Tour de France,
  • partly a Tour history book, and
  • partly an introduction to Tour pagentry and symbolism for people watching the tour for the first or second time.

It's primary author, Bob Roll, is one of the on-air hosts of professional cycling for the Outdoor Life Network, the American home of the Tour de France. Dan Koeppel, Bob's co-author, described Bob's perspective on the Tour well in the book's forward:

In 2001, the Outdoor Life Network began broadcasting the Tour de France live every summer, hiring Bob as a sort of wild-man commentator, a needed counterbalance to its very authoritative but very British mainline announcers. As more people became {Lance Armstrong} devotees-- even folks who didn't care a bit about bikes-- Bob's talents became more obvious. The reason he's almost certainly achieved more fame as a television personality than he did as a bike rider is that, just as Lance Armstrong has figured out how to win the Tour as an American, so Bob has discovered how to explain the Tour as one.

Audience for this Book

The notion that this book presents the Tour de France from an American perspective is an important one, because a lot of people who want to know more about the Tour than they can learn in an hour or two of watching OLN would find reading most issues of Cycle Sport Magazine or Procycling, traditional sources of detailed Tour information that are widely available at American bookstores, technical and hard-to-follow. Similarly, many of the other books about the Tour de France have been written for people who already know a lot about cycling. This book makes no presumptions.

Experienced Tour followers will ask, "Does this book have anything for me?" Yes, but the features that will appeal to a long-time cycling fan will depend on your experience. If you've watched cycling on TV since before OLN, you are a serious club rider, or you've seen multiple stages of the Tour in person, you may find this book most helpful as a resource for explaining the Tour to less knowledgeable people than yourself. If you watch the Tour every year and feel you fully understand it, but you can't name any Tour champions other than Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, you will find a lot of new information here. But, the information that is new to you will be sprinkled throughout the book.

Book Sections

The book has a five page 2004 Tour de France Cribsheet including a race map and statistics, as well as lists of stages and the major climbs. It also lists the members of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, saying that nine members of the team will need to be chosen to ride the Tour.

The book also includes a 17-page summary of the history of the Tour. This focuses on the biggest highlights of the first 75 years and the recent influences of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, who have done a lot to expand the fan base beyond Western Europe. I know a number of people who watch the Tour de France, but know very little about its "pre-Lance" history. This part of the book is ideal for people like them, because they'll finally understand many of the historical allusions that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin make during the race.

There are well-written sections of this book that attempt to describe the typical Tour rider at different points in history, and the influence of bike technology over the same period. The evolution of bike technology is particularly something with which many cycling fans are unfamiliar.

Bob spends 17 pages talking about the mountains, mountainous stages, and riding strategies for the Pyrenees and the Alps. About the only people who won't get something out of this are fans that can describe the differences between the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d'Izoard, and Mont Ventoux off the top of their heads. I say this because 99 percent of the American Tour watchers I've met can only name one mountain that is important in the Tour de France: Alpe d'Huez.

The book also contains 11 pages about the written and unwritten rules of the Tour. Everything is discussed from the 1998 Festina scandal to the tradition of riding ahead when the race passes through a rider's home town. The book ends with chapters on fan participation, a sort of a glossary, and a complete index.

Omissions

I think the book omits a few things that would be helpful. In its discussion of teams and the differences between pro cycing teams and other pro sports teams, the book mentions that sponsors are often one or more companies or public entities such as national lotteries. It doesn't list the teams that were likely to compete in this year's Tour, and it only really talks about the US Postal Service, Festina, and Saeco teams with any specificity. I would have listed all of the first and second tier pro cycling teams, who their sponsors are, what the sponsors business is, and who their leading riders are.

The book does not rely on illustrations for any instructive purpose. About the only illustration in the book is a 2004 stage map. I would have included things like illustrations of mountains, along with an indication of how gradients are calculated. Maybe an illustration of the strategy of the finale of a sprint stage would have helped the book's core audience as well.

This book feels like an annual guide, but isn't titled that way. There are a lot of 2004-specific references. I hope that it will make business sense for the authors and publisher to come out with a new edition each year. But doing that puts them in competition with cycling magazines like Bicycling, Procycling, and Cycle Sport.

Summary

In going through the book, I thought of people that I know who would enjoy it. I think I will give a copy to my father-in-law for his birthday, which coincides with the Tour Prologue this year. I will keep a copy on the coffee table in the TV room at my house, and offer it to my wife a couple of times during the race. She's seen stages of two different Tours in person, but she is not the voracious consumer of pro cycling that I am.

Practically every American or Canadian who plans to watch the Tour on TV this year will get something out of this book. It may not be for you if you listen to the Eurosport audio streams before OLN comes on each day, or you subscribe to Cycle Sport or Procycling. But, if you're like me, and you are asked by family or friends to interpret what's happening on your TV, you'll probably appreciate having a copy of this book nearby.