Contributed by Leslie Reissner
I will admit that I am prejudiced in favour of Graham Watson’s work. The British photographer has long been a fixture on the pro bike racing circuit and has published many books, all of which are on an honoured place on my shelf, along with a number of framed posters that give me courage during the Tour de Basement. His colourful photos brilliantly capture the action, the landscapes, the emotions, the big incidents and the little details, that make pro racing often unpredictable and so mythical.
“Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide” distills his 31 years of experience following la Grande Boucle into a compact but comprehensive volume that no fan of the Tour will want to be without. Unlike other sports events, where you buy a ticket and show up at the stadium or arena, the Tour de France uses an entire country as a playing field. And visiting it is not just a matter of taking your seat. Some planning, expense and effort is the cost to getting the true Tour experience and Mr. Watson, who clearly has a strong interest in food and wine as well as bike racing, is nothing if not thorough on how best to do this.
The book opens with suggestions on how to organize a trip to the event, such as choosing to go with a group or going solo, and some general information about travelling in France (visas, car rental, electrical adaptors and so forth). The chapter ends, as do the remaining five, with a “Legends of the Modern Tour” section where Graham Watson describes famous cyclists he has seen in action in particularly dramatic events.
Next is a useful chapter on how to follow the Tour, including maps to use when chasing across the countryside, and good ideas on logistics, such as dealing with road closures, followed by 22 pages devoted to France itself. Of course, the Tour has crossed frontiers and travelled to numerous European countries in its 106 years of existence, but the author only covers France and this is fitting: even if it momentarily graces Belgium, or Italy, or Germany, or Spain, the Tour is a reflection of France.
It is true that perhaps it is an older, quieter, more rural kind of France than the one that really exists, but judging from the 200 excellent colour photos in the book, la France profonde remains stunningly diverse and sumptiously beautiful. Always with excellent weather, it seems…
Mr. Watson’s travel experience is strongly reflected in the fourth chapter, which details all of the different regions of France, their special foods, and recommended dining spots and lodging. Each section is fairly short (there are 21 different regions, after all), but the photography and the personal vignettes the author offers serve to differentiate the quite unique regions.
Of course, in many places if you stand by the side of the road, the peloton will pass you in a few moments but there are alternatives, such as being at the departure of the riders, or at the finish line or just hanging out with the locals and cheering (or catching all the promotional junk thrown from the publicity caravan) and soaking up the occasion. You can learn about places like Pau, in Aquitaine, which has received the Tour de France no fewer than sixty-two times, making it the third most-visited in the itinerary after Paris and Bordeaux.
You could sample the Escalope de foie gras chaud aux raisins here–a roasted slice of hot duck foie gras with a raisin and grape sauce. Spectators clearly eat differently than Tour riders and Mr. Watson’s enthusiasm for the culture of fine eating is reflected throughout. I suspect his hotel recommendations are not inexpensive but chosen more for the travel memories they will convey and he does mention alternatives, such as gites or camping.
Of course, standing by the road in Brittany or Limousin might be very nice, but in the end we all know what really matters is being in the mountains. The Alps and the Pyrenees (and a select few others) are where the epic battles are joined, the elements overcome and gravity defied (or where it doles out exhausting punishment). The mountains are worthy of the dedicated chapter they receive. Having ridden some of the great climbs of the Alps and been present when the Tour has passed, I can say that if you are there you will be an element of one of the greatest parties on earth.
As useful and entertaining as the book has been up to this point, the final chapter is the piиce de rйsistance as Graham Watson, the celebrated photographer, reveals how you too can photograph the Tour de France. After a brief historical survey of photography and the race, he explains how to best position yourself for the different kinds of stages–sprinting, time trials, mountains, fields of sunflowers–and what equipment you might consider using. Of course, the photographs shown on the book will inspire you to capture the action on your own but it is clear that three decades of experience show whenever he pressed the shutter.
The book is filled with excellent maps, useful details and off-the-cuff insights (for example, borne is the name for the yellow-and-white milestone markers, and some French speakers will refer to the number of bornes rather than kilometers in giving distance) but is made particularly enjoyable by the personal style of the author. He offers tips on the best places for your own cycling, reminiscing about his trip along the spectacular Route des Grande-Alpes in 1979. I rode it in 2008, and it is still incomparable.
It is easy to find books on the Tour de France, and I probably have two dozen in my own collection since for much of the public (and most publishers) it is the only race that exists. But I suspect that this book will be the most expensive one you will ever buy since I defy anyone, after reading Graham Watson’s joyful-fan-prose, to look at the photo of the peleton passing the Ponte Valentre on the Lot River (p. 142) and not want to book a flight to France. Can a place so fairy-tale beautiful actually exist? Get this book, go there in July for the Tour and find out.
Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide
340 pp., paperback, Velopress 2009
Suggested retail price: US$24.95
When not daydreaming that he is Eros Poli climbing Mt. Ventoux on a solo breakaway in 1995, Leslie Reissner may be found going rapidly downhill at TinDonkey.com