EVERY SUMMER SOME 200 professional cyclists set out to race over 3,000 kilometres round France in the most gruelling test of mental and physical endurance in the world of sport.
What Geoffrey Wheatcroft achleves in Le Tour is to set the race in its political and social context. An accomplished historian, he is also a journahst, Gee from the professional historian's concern for the approval of his academic colleagues. If he sometimes tests his readers with detailed accounts of individual tours, he refi-eshes them with his chapters on the towns and provinces through which the Tour passes. Wheatcroft is a connoisseur of France's history, its art and literature, and its food. As the Tour passes Grenoble he reminds us that it was there that Stendhal acquired his hatred for his father and the bourgeoisie. Normandy 'intersperses beautiful buildings with sumptuous meals'. Its capital, Rouen, was the scene of Madame Bovary's fatal carriage ride. At the fictional seaside resort of Balbec Proust's narrator imagined Albertine's friends as the 'very young mistresses of professional cyclists': an indication of the social salience of cycling in the years before the Great War.
It is Wheatcroft's astonishing expert knowledge of other competitive spectator sports that allows him to set