On the bucket lists of many roadies I know (including mine) is an extended vacation in France to trace the wheel tracks of the legends of the Tour de France. Or, for those more touring-oriented, discovering secret climbs to follow a ribbon of switchbacks to the sky.
Three books arrived on my desk recently that put me in France like this, at least for as long as I was reading them. One’s now on my coffee table so that I can ogle the photos and plan our trip to cycling heaven anytime I wish.
That book is Hank Barlow’s Switchbacks, Vol 1, Rhône-Alpes, Some Lesser Known Cols. Its 196 pages are chock full of beautiful color photographs mostly by the author (who has lived in France since 1994) capturing the grandeur of riding sacred French climbs.
If you don’t know Hank, he was the founder of Mountain Bike Magazine, back when the sport was being invented by former roadies, and was more about adventure cycling than doing backflips and shredding descents. So he’s a road rider from way back and filled this book with special climbs only a local would be able to tell you about.
He first started sharing the climbs on The Paceline Forum where he was egged on to turn them into a book, which he’s done. Notice that it’s Vol 1, hinting at a Vol 2 with more vertical treasures from France.
He writes, “These are rides that inspire and challenge and motivate, with sets of turns so well laid out that they sometimes seem to be helping you up the mountain, re-energizing your legs with fresh boost when you round a bend and discover another stretch of road so good you’ll dream about it when back home in bed.”
I love reading about and seeing views of the epic mountain climbs that await me someday, but it’s equally satisfying for me to read Hank philosophize about riding over the years in-between sharing his favorite hills. He’s been a hard-core rider longer than most and it’s nice when a guru takes you under his wing the way he does in this book.
Switchbacks, Vol 1 is sold online at http://www.velodogs-publishing.com/, and also at Vecchio’s Bicicletteria in Boulder and perhaps one day in other shops (if they want to). Price is $42 (plus shipping when ordered online).
The other two books are about Tour de France heroes: 2-time winner Laurent Fignon, who sadly died at age 50 of cancer in 2010; and Bernard Hinault, who was among the few to win 5 Tours.
I wanted to learn more about Fignon, because, like many fans, the thing I recall best is how American Greg LeMond snatched victory from him by a mere eight seconds in the final time trial of the 1989 Tour. Fignon’s nickname was The Professor, so I hoped the book, interestingly titled Laurent Fignon, We Were Young and Carefree, would tell his story from his own point of view.
It was translated from French by cycling writer William Fotheringham. This was a good sign to me because, as Steve Martin once joked, “the French have a different word for everything.” Seriously, when it comes to cycling, the French don’t just have different words, they have their own cycling language. And Fotheringham does a nice job translating so you appreciate the nuances of Fignon’s words as he paints a portrait of professional cycling through the ’80s.
I’d seen some negative reviews complaining about the lack of photos. You only get one on each cover. But, that didn’t bother me at all. Because Fignon brought back the races with his first-person stories and behind-the-scenes insights, like explaining how doping slowly took over the peloton and when he realized everything he’d known was changing, and why.
The book starts with him taking a frank look at whether or not he’ll always be remembered as the guy who lost the Tour on the last big stage of 1989. And at first you might think he’s whining about how LeMond pushed the limits of the rules to beat him (using aero bars and aero helmet). LeMond fans may tune out right there. But if you give Fignon a chance, and keep reading, he wins you over and you start seeing things from his point of view.
I enjoyed the book a lot and learned much more about this champion. I never knew that he dealt with so many devastating injuries, or that he was as dominant as he was when he was 100%. Like LeMond, who was prevented from winning more Tours by gunshot wounds, it’s clear that Fignon, too, might have won more had his luck been better.
The Fignon book was actually given to me by a teammate. If your local bike shop or bookstore doesn’t have it, you can get it on amazon.com. Lastly, I should explain that it contains nothing about his cancer and death; it sticks to his cycling career.
The Badger, The Life of Bernard Hinault and the Legacy of French Cycling is a book I haven’t even opened yet. But, I wanted to tell you about it ASAP, because you might have recently seen the ESPN 30-30 segment that we wrote about in RBR that covered the Greg LeMond/Bernard Hinault cold war when they both raced for team La Vie Claire. Here it is in case you missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbrM4D6yB1k
I’m a big LeMond and Hinault fan. LeMond sometimes trained and raced here in the Bay Area of California where I live. I’ve met him and even sort of raced him once on a team in the World’s Toughest Triathlon near Lake Tahoe. And I was a big Hinault fan and went to see him when he came to San Francisco with Greg and the whole team to race in the 1985 Coors Classic – something I’ll never forget.
So, I’m eager to dig into The Badger and get the other side of the story presented by ESPN, which I felt gave a biased view of Hinault and what happened during the Tour. I think it’s likely that Hinault wasn’t so much trying to manipulate and control LeMond as he was just being himself and racing the only way he knew how to race.
He wasn’t nicknamed the Badger for nothing. He got into fights during races, once crashed and broke his nose and got right up and finished a stage, and often took crazy chances to win – and try to win – races. I think a guy like that races more on instinct and emotion than calculations and trickery. I’m looking forward to getting to know him a lot better and learning the other side of the 30-30 controversy.
Unlike the Fignon book, The Badger has 9 color and 24 B&W photos capturing Hinault’s cycling life. It’s a 385-page softcover, sells for $18.95 and is available online at http://www.ipgbook.com/the-badger-products-9781613734186.php?page_id=21
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.