When I first thought I'd write about the 1919 Tour de France, I was going to write non-fiction. A sort of stage-by-stage recounting of what happened in the Tour.
But then - this has been done to death for plenty of other Tours - and I didn't feel that I would be able to get across the real character of this Tour, which - remember - took place just just as the Treaty of Versailles was being signed, in a country barely recovered from the war.
And with that format, how could I bring alive stories such as Jean Alavoine stopping for a nap in a ditch on the first stage? Or of how the peloton attacked Henri Pelissier as revenge for him calling them workhorses, in stage four?
So I decided to switch the book round, and let the riders do the talking. And that's when I decided to do a multiple first-person narrative, a little like Trainspotting without the Glaswegian, and plenty of bikes.
Being distinct and fair
The challenge - as a writer - is to make the voices distinctive enough, but also to be fair to the protagonists. Henri Pelissier comes across as a complete a***, and is largely despised (if respected) by the rest of the peloton. That bit is easy, but formulating a voice for Firmin Lambot, of whom little is written, and of whom there are very few interviews, is much harder.
To understand Firmin and his Belgian compatriot Leon Scieur, I visited the documentation centre at the Wielermuseum in Roeselare, and they directed me to a man who was brought up by Leon Scieur in the town of Florennes, where both riders were born. We exchanged emails and I got a picture of a man who never gloated, who planned meticulously, who was quiet and reserved, yet enormously generous. From the archives of l'Auto (the organising newspaper), a picture emerged of a man who turned up to the start line with at least 10 baguettes, and always carried a purse around his neck. with enough money to buy a new bike.
Leon Scieur, a future winner of the Tour, turned out to be more of an 'uncle'. A locomotive on the bike, but a genial, affable and loyal man.
Eugene Christophe is the anchor around whom much of the book revolves, for obvious reasons if you know what happened in the Tour (I won't tell you here - spoilers - but it's all over the internet). And for much of the cycling philosophy, I am turning to Eugene. I was lucky here that he does at least have a biography, unlike the other riders in the Tour. Unfortunately for Eugene, much of what is told about his career is his bad luck - and one day I hope to write about his one major victory, the 1910 Giro.
I'll save that for another day, but Eugene is a man hugely respected by the other riders, and is a big part of the book.
Being a little loose with the facts
Perhaps the biggest advantage (for me, as writer) of writing in the first person is that I can elaborate on the facts a little. I have tried as far as possible to be faithful to the facts, right down to the twists and turns in the road as elaborated by l'Auto in their route descriptions before each stage. Where they describe the state of a bridge on the stage between Grenoble and Geneva, I've used that rickety bridge to add colour to the race.
There are no bare-faced lies in l'Auto. When I write in Honore Barthelemy's more raw, youthful voice, I might exaggerate about the state of his feet, but he does repeatedly tell journalists and crowds alike that his ingrowing toenail is causing a stench.
But above all, it's a book about cycling - about the universal pleasure of riding a bike, and the universal pain of riding a bike for long periods. So I can't avoid the cyclist's love for his bike, or the obsession about gear ratios, or even how one rider plans his day around taking a dump and not being attacked by the peloton.
And so whether it's set in 1919 or 2019, the fact remains it's a book about riding a bike, and all that goes with it - so it's best told by the riders themselves.
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