Legends of the Tour, by Jan Cleijne

It’s hard to know really what to think about Jan Cleijne’s Legends of the Tour. There’s no doubting that it has many virtues… but how many of them are really down to the book, and not to the events themselves? The book does just what it says, relates a few of the legendary events of the Tour de France. This means it has some of the greatest stories of the 20th century to choose from, the power of which is immense – just look, for instance, at how they are used in Krabbé’s De Renner, which I finally got around to reading (in translation, of course!) a few months ago. I wasn’t really convinced that Cleijne was adding much to the stories, to be honest. Does that matter? I suppose it depends on whether we are looking to evaluate the book as a work of art and craft, or for its enjoyability.

Part of the problem is the question of audience. Who is Legends of the Tour really for? Most likely its main readership will be cycling fans… but we know these stories already. Is it really for non-fans? They would certainly appreciate some of the stories, but is there enough here to explain both the technicalities and the symbolism of the sport? I’m not sure. I suppose the ideal reader, then, would be somewhere in between – familiar with the idea of the sport, but not yet au fait with its history. Fortunately, in this country, right now, that seems like a blossoming market…

Perhaps I should go back and begin at the beginning. Legends of the Tour is a graphic novel divided into ten chapters, in chronological order, relating some of the history of the Tour de France through its most famous moments.

First things first: the ‘graphic’ part is exceptional. Cleijne chooses to progress his art style to symbolise his eras: we begin with an imitation of sepiatone silent film, move through into glorious technicolour, and end up in a panoply of realistic hues. I can appreciate this, and admire the skill (Cleijne’s drawing style is not photo-realistic, and is somewhat sketch-like, but it conveys the events well, depicts the appearance of historical figures with remarkable accuracy, and is also able to convey thoughts and emotions through the art alone)… but I do wish more of it was drawn like the middle pages, which are stunning. The era of Coppi and Bartali is really beautifully portrayed, and I was literally stunned for a moment on turning a page when the Italian Prime Minister is calling Bartali, at the Pope’s request, to save his country: the sickly turquoise of the dejected Bartali’s hotel room explodes into the orange and red of Italy on fire with riots and protests on the eve of civil war, before Bartali filled with the holy zeal of the Papal injunction rides through bright lime-green rain and mud into a hazy white light at the end of the road. Later, the terrible xenoscape of the desert of Ventoux seems literally to glow in the fatal sun, a gleaming silver-gold, as Simpson climbs to his death. Other points are conveyed through whimsy and metaphor: a giant Cannibal is portrayed happily actually eating from a bowl filled with the bodies of the other riders, Monsieur Chrono actually rides around the outside of a giant watch, before we see inside his own nightmares as he rides his heart out looking over his shoulder at a shadowy chasing peloton where all the riders have clocks for faces. There are moments of infographic genius, as when the resolution of the 1989 Tour is explained in two very small panels at the bottom of the page: Fignon strains on his bike, sweat pouring off him as he passes the crowd, ponytail streaming in the wind; and then LeMond, crouched compactly, head encased in a scientifically-calculated helmet, nothing else in the world but him and the air that passes over him, the lines of the wind over his aerodynamic form helpfully inked in (Fignon lost the Tour in a time trial on the final day, the margin of defeat only eight seconds after three weeks of racing – aerodynamicists have since calculated that the Frenchman must have lost more time than that purely through the more conservative rider’s greater drag compared to the high-tech American).

There’s no doubting Cleijne’s abilities as an artist, and specifically as an illustrator. And yet I do wonder whether the book would have been better if he had been a little less clever, a little less good at conveying the meaning concisely, a little more tied to one style or mood. Yes, a book like this needs some variety, but the contrast in styles, and the contrast between high drama and amusing whimsy (the progress of LeMond and Fignon through the Tour, for instance, shown through a combined-profile chart with little smily faces superimposed on it) was for me a little too great, and became… not exactly actively offputting, but I think a barrier to full immersion.

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(It’s actually less grey in real life. It’s more black. The title circle, the shadows, the background, all sort of different shades of black)

A bigger problem is the stories Cleijne picks and how he tells them. Two of the ten chapters are very brief moments in history: van Est’s fall into the chasm (his heart may have stopped, but his watch didn’t miss a tick) and Simpson’s death in the lunar desert. The rest deal with large eras, typically through single riders: 1903-1918 (Garin and the train, Christophe and the forge), 1918-1939 (the Circle of Death, Leducq), Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault-LeMond, Indurain, and Festina-through-to-Sky. Events that don’t directly concern the key riders tend not to be present, which makes for some shocking omissions: how can you have a book on the legends of the Tour and not include Brive-Agen? The Fall of Rivière? There is no Charly Gaul, only a little (and unflattering) Louison Bobet, no Bahamontes… no Frantz for goodness sake! Pantani is only mentioned as someone who was overshadowed by Festina. Even for the main riders, there’s a lot missing, with only one or two short anecdotes each – we don’t get to see the hubristic Anquetil riding to defeat his own teammate, for instance. Hinault in particular is badly served – his era is instead portrayed from the point of view of Zoetemelk, and then from the point of view of LeMond.

The biggest sin of the book, therefore, is that it’s not much longer. I would have liked to have seen not only more legends, but in more detail… too much of the book is told as a dry history with flashes of anecdote, rather than as actual stories. There are seven whole pages devoted to The Story of Buysse and the Circle of Death, and I wanted the book to carry on being like that… but it wasn’t.

Perhaps this would have been less of an issue for me if the words had been able to carry more of the strain. Don’t get me wrong – the writing isn’t bad. Well, the main body of the prose isn’t bad, and the snippets of dialogue, while arguably not good, are good enough for what they need to do. But the writing does not excel, and Cleijne seems reluctant to write too much. Sometimes, when he gives himself enough pictures to tell the story – as with Buysse – that works, but when he’s in his more accelerated, history-in-brief mode, he doesn’t have enough panels to succeed through the art and he doesn’t allow himself words – and his words are too dry – to really succeed through the prose.

The result is not bad. Quite the contrary – this is clearly an enjoyable book, and will probably be enjoyable whether you’re a fan already or not. But the thing is, given this material and given Cleijne’s evidently immense artistic and illustrative talent, the book should be a lot better than probably enjoyable. It’s like reading the 50-page comic-book version of Complete Greek Mythology… yes, it can be a fun enough read in its own right, but it could have been so much more!

I have a couple of additional quibbles. If it seems like all I’m saying is quibbling, well… I wish I weren’t, because it’s entirely unfair. But unfortunately what’s good about this book is that the illustrations are fantastic and it’s about the history of the Tour. And those are two very big things, but unfortunately there’s not much I can say about them. If I went on about the legends of the Tour themselves, I’d be in danger of saying more about them in the review than you’ll find in the book; and I’m afraid I don’t have the art criticism knowledge to explain exactly why or how the illustrations are so good. So it’s another case of the old paradox, where the good, no matter how good, is hard to talk about, whereas all the minor flaws can be enumerated ad nauseam.

But I do have a couple of quibbles, related to one another. One is that Cleijne does play favourites somewhat, even beyond his selection of characters: Coppi, for instance, gets a full send off and what-happened-after, whereas Bartali just disappears out of the story without a mention. And in a similar vein (no pun intended) I was disappointed with the way Cleijne handles doping: of course, there is no solution to this that will please everybody, and I don’t want the entire thing to be about doping. But this is far too much the omerta view of history. Sure, the final chapter deals with Festina, Armstrong and after, and chapeau to the author for including a little glimpse of the Passion of Christophe Bassons (the only Festina rider not to take drugs – he was offered a contract of €270,000 per month conditional on taking EPO, and he turned it down for a salary one-tenth that size riding clean). I would have liked more – I think it if understates how Bassons was psychologically tortured by the rest of the peloton for speaking up against Armstrong (his entire team refused to talk to him, shake his hand, or for most of the time acknowledge his existence, and in more practical term they took the extraordinary step of refusing to share win bonuses with him), and for the full sainthood story you could fast-forward to the tormented Bassons (he quit cycling entirely after a few years) not only publically forgiving Armstrong but sympathising with the ostracism that Armstrong now experiences. In fact I think this illustrates my earlier point about the book not being sufficiently storyish – I would have taken Bassons and made him the protagonist of his own little ‘legend’, and this wouldn’t necessarily have taken many more pages than are actually devoted to him. It’s not necessarily wordcount that’s the issue, but presentation: Cleijne uses Bassons (and most of the stories in the book) as an example, a for instance, rather than plonking us down with a character at a point in time and showing us things from their point of view.

Anyway, well done for having Bassons at all. But not so well done, for instance, in the strong implication that EPO use began only at the end of Indurain’s era (though well done for that marvellous little drawing of Bjarne Riis!)… in reality, the huge improvements took place at the beginning of the Indurain era and Indurain was among the finest examples of them. Sure, I don’t blame Cleijne for not coming right out and accusing Indurain – even if “everybody” says he probably doped, he never failed a test, I don’t think there are any specific eye-witness testimonials incriminating him, and everything is circumstantial, so a book that flat-out says he doped is likely to irritate a whole bunch of lawyers. But Cleijne doesn’t just not say it, he almost goes as far as he can to say the opposite. Likewise, there’s no mention of Fignon doping, although he later confessed to it (not EPO or transfusions, though, just pills). In that huge section on Zoetemelk – and I don’t begrudge him that section, since finishing every Tour for nearly 20 years is a big achievement by itself, and everyone loves eternal seconds finally getting a win – there’s no mention of the fact that Zoetemelk not only popped pills but transfused blood. And this is doubly problematic because – no, wait, trebly problematic! – because Cleijne talks about the very same Tour where Zoetemelk was penalised ten minutes for being caught doping, but doesn’t mention that fact. It’s one thing to ignore an admission, another thing to ignore an official sanction; likewise, it’s one thing to brush past a year (he can’t tell every story) but another to include a year and fail to mention the most famous thing about it, even if it does cast a negative light on one of his favourite riders. And while we’re talking admissions: Cleijne’s happy to follow the omerta view of history and admit that Simpson doped (and in part died for it) while ignoring the doping of everyone else in that era. Anquetil gets an entire chapter but there’s no mention of he himself saying that it was impossible to win the Tour without doping. There’s no mention in an earlier era of Il Campionissimo’s doping, even though that’s a key part of that legend: the modern, scientific, experimental, rule-breaking Coppi against the pious old conservative Bartali who relied on praying as he climbed.

While I’m at it, I’d have liked to have seen a little more content about the changing face of the Tour itself, and its format, over time. But you can’t have everything.

What you can have, though, are some really good illustrations of rainfall. Seriously, Cleijne’s a master of storms, showers, mud and cold: I actually felt cold and damp just looking at the pictures, for all that they’re more suggestive than detailed.

In the end, then, Cleijne shows – if there was ever any doubt – that there is a great graphic novel to be made out of the Tour… or at least, a great graphic short story collection. A Tourmarillion, as it were. And if ever that gets made, Cleijne also shows that he ought to be near the top of the list of artists called in to illustrate it. But this book isn’t really it.

It is, however, nice to look at, and competantly written with some really good moments. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in either the Tour (/sport/life) or graphic novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some great stories, but told too much as though by a historian, rather than by a storyteller… too cold and curt at times.

Emotion: 2/5. Likewise. Even with something like the death of Simpson, it’s difficult to get caught up emotionally in the death of a sketched-out figure you’ve only seen a dozen panels of, and the words don’t bridge that gap.

Thought: 2/5. Doesn’t really need much thinking.

Beauty: 5/5. Beautiful artwork, beautiful stories.

Craft: 4/5. Full marks for the artwork, but the writing, plotting, pacing and so on, while broadly competant, are nothing special.

Endearingness: 4/5. Just a bit too short, too light, too piecemeal, too distant for me to love. On the other hand, the stories are epic and the illustrations charming.

Originality: 2/5. They’re the Legends of the Tour. The word ‘legends’ there suggests that originality is not the priority.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. I feel a little bad about the tone of this review, which isn’t exactly positive. Because yes, this is a good book. If you’re debating whether to get it, the answer is yes. [There are people who probably wouldn’t enjoy it at all, but then you probably wouldn’t be considering it in the first place…] It’s just that it’s hard not to judge it against what it maybe could have been. Or perhaps we should say: what it maybe could be. After all, this is Cleijne’s first graphic novel. Maybe one day he’ll decide to do an updated, longer, more detailed version! We can only hope. Maybe he could even hire Krabbé to do the writing…

Until then, this is a good (which is rare enough in itself) but not great book. On the other hand, it’s not like it’s got a whole lot of competition in the “graphic novel adaptations of Tour de France history” genre, so far as I’m aware, so you may as well get it if that’s something you might be into.

Oh, and it’s got a really beautiful textured black cover. [Or it does if you get it off the press and seal it in a vacuum. Otherwise, you just have to breathe on it and that pristine beautiful black will mark in small but irritating ways. But given the normal standards of book covers, I’m grateful they put the effort in, at least…]

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