Extract: William Fotheringham’s introduction to The Great Bike Race

Posted on 8th April 2016 by Sally Campbell
Geoffrey Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race is the classic work which hooked so many British imaginations toward the glamour and drama of the world’s greatest cycling race. Lovingly and sensitively reissued by Velodrome Publishing some forty years after its first release, even today Nicholson’s text carries the raw power of all truly great sporting writing. From the reissue’s introduction, the Guardian's cycling correspodent William Fotheringham examines the book’s extensive legacy.

It is one of the most evocative of opening sentences: ‘In my case I came upon the Tour de France by way of Whitley Bay and Morecambe.’ To paraphrase the late Geoff Nicholson, in my personal case I came upon the Tour de France by way of The Great Bike Race. There are books that change your life and shape your life. This is one of those.

In my case, it is probably the one. I was thirteen when the paperback appeared in 1978 and my mother brought home a copy for me. That paperback is still with me thirty-seven years on.

The Great Bike Race arrived in my sweaty paws when I was at my most impressionable age — in the same way that Nicholson’s sports editor at the Observer ‘couldn’t have picked a more susceptible reporter’ to send to the Milk Race in 1959 — and it was after devouring his elegant, dryly witty phrases that I began hitting the Devon hills on a clunky old bike.

The Great Bike Race remains, in my eyes, the finest book ever written about the Tour de France. The blend of the four core elements of the Tour — travelogue, anecdote, dramatis personae and narrative — is perfectly balanced, presented with a perfect turn of phrase, the craftsmanship worn so lightly that a wry smile is ever present as you scan the page.

Nowadays, there is less need to define peloton or ravitaillement, but in the 1970s... there was a need to translate the Tour, to explain, to interpret, and one of the great strengths of The Great Bike Race was, ‘making a rather foreign event perfectly intelligible,’ as the New Statesman’s reviewer put it.

The Tour retains the fundamentals that Geoff found so alluring: adventure and suspense, speed, physical stress and hazard, constant change of scenery, the element of the unpredictable and ‘tactical variety... riders attacked and chased, flagged and rallied, formed instant alliances for instant ends and broke them without another thought.’

British cycling culture of the 21st century is a world away from the 1960s and 1970s when, as Geoff put it, the sport faced, ‘the same kind of problem that soccer has done in the United States. How to promote a sport with no indigenous tradition?’ It is hard to conceive of the situation that he found himself in in the 1960s, when, he writes, ‘cycling was not the proper concern of a serious paper, and sports editors were less than enthusiastic about covering the sport.' Thanks to Sir Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish, Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins, that tradition has been forged, to the extent that Great Britain has become a dominant nation in cycling worldwide.

In sport, the greats rarely make successful comebacks long after their heyday, but great literature at least can outlast the mere humans who figure in its pages and shine time and time again. The Great Bike Race and its writer deserve nothing less.

William Fotheringham is the cycling correspondent at the Guardian, covering every Tour de France since 1990 bar one, and is the author of best-selling biographies of Eddy Merckx and Tom Simpson, while his latest book is a biography of Bernard Hinault.


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