Review by Ian Keogh
While the Tour De France has permeated the greater public consciousness beyond enthusiasts, most people actually know little about it other than it’s bicycle race held annually in France. Those with a slight knowledge may know about the yellow jersey worn by the overall leader at each stage, and about the disgraced Lance Armstrong, winner every year from 1999 to 2005, but that’s just the bare bones. Jan Cleijne is a knowledgable cycling enthusiast, and he’s able to pass on both his knowledge and enthusiasm. You’ll come away from Legends of the Tour with a thorough appreciation of what was designed to be the ultimate test for cyclists over all sorts of terrain, and the people who’ve participated.
Cleijne is primarily an illustrator, although he has worked on European Disney comics, and despite its international success, Legends of the Tour remains his only graphic novel. It can only be assumed that illustration commissions flood in, because surely there’d be a queue as long as the Champs Elysees to collaborate with an artist so good. He works in a variety of styles, and his methods are phenomenally effective. Difficult stretches of a 1920s race evoke period illustrations of wartime trench life from a few years earlier, and he excels at visual metaphors such as a cyclist racing against time. His portraits are strong, yet he also presents vivid movement, and there’s no approximations of bicycles: he draws every spoke and scrap of handlebar tape.
Although there’s plenty of interest to be had in Cleijne’s explanations of the professional era, it’s the earlier days that prompt wonder again and again. Until 1930 the riders competed at night as well as during daylight, and in 1926 they did so through a mountain section in a raging storm. As if riding approximately 2000 miles in 23 days wasn’t enough, in 1913 the forks on Eugène Christophe’s cycle broke. Not one to give up, he carried the bike ten miles to a forge, then repaired it himself. He was disqualified as a young boy operated the forge bellows while Christophe worked! We learn about the great Italian rivals of the 1950s, the cyclist who survived a 70 metre fall uninjured, and some tragic early deaths.
Space limitations mean Cleijne can only skim through the history of the Tour De France and its dedicated and driven riders, but he alights on some fantastic moments, all of them so impeccably drawn. It was enough for The Guardian to consider Legends of the Tour their graphic novel of the year in 2014. British readers may be disappointed that the chronicle stops just before the British domination of several years, although Bradley Wiggins’ first win for a UK rider in 2012 is noted as part of the list of all winners in the back. This isn’t just restricted to the overall winners, but the important stage winners, and other relevant statistics. A cautionary ending notes that perhaps the controversy about performance-enhancing stimulants didn’t end with Armstrong being stripped of his titles, which has proved the case, although all subsequent wins stand.
You’ll almost certainly be put off ever tackling the Tour De France after reading Legends of the Tour, but there’ll be a deeper understanding and appreciation of those who do. As a primer, it’s difficult to imagine it can be improved on.