Review of Selling the Yellow Jersey

Eric Reed, Selling the Yellow Jersey: The Tour de France in the Global Era. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015. Pp. 251. Notes, index, 19 halftones, 1 map, and 3 tables. $45.00 hardback.

Reviewed by Cian Manning

Eric Reed, an associate professor of history at Western Kentucky University, analyses how the French related to the wider world in the era of globalisation through le Tour de France. In Selling the Yellow Jersey: The Tour de France in the Global Era, he uses three strands to trace these developments: 1) through the growth of telecommunications, methods of travel, and evolution in the mediums of the media; 2) the examples of host towns such as Brest and Pau in hosting stages of the Tour and how they relate to globalisation; and 3) the growth of ‘celebrity’ culture through race stars such as Jacques Anquetil, and how, in turn, they influenced cycling culture across the world.

Selling Jersey.jpg

University of Chicago Press, 2015

The first metric Reed uses to analyse the Tour de France and globalisation offers a fascinating administrative history of the competition. The development of the Tour from holding host stages to the make-up of the stages themselves (flat, mountainous, time trials) was shaped to allow firstly its founding newspaper L’Auto to have regularly scoops, as well as an element of melodrama, when competing with its rival, Le Velo. Editor and cycling fanatic Henri Desgrange established the competition as a vehicle to promote the paper. The creation and honing of the ‘melodramatic narrative’ of the Tour detailed a battle between man and nature, which included a historical awareness of the surroundings. Reed writes ‘…journalists continually referred to previous Tours in their coverage, evoked the great battles and the pantheon of cycling heroes from the past, and connected to France’s physiognomy’ (p. 32).

This informed developments in the sport of cycling with the Tour acting as a template for others to follow, such as the Giro d’Italia (in 1909) and Vuelta a Espana (in 1935) that form the triumvirate of Grand Tours. Reed explains that the press ‘helped to constitute communities of readers that followed the Tour de France entirely in the newspapers’ (p. 50). This evolved to radio and television, which influenced the staging of the Tour; organisers sought to maintain the struggle and endurance of individual cyclists without limiting the drama. The race evolved from a six stage race, won in 94h 33’ 14’ by Maurice Garin, to twenty-one stages in 2016 televised for four hours each day. Facilitating commercial opportunities helped expand the format.

We see the tensions of French culture and globalism, as well as the class dimensions were exemplified by the changes of the make-up of competitors from individuals to teams. Race organisers’ reluctance to include sponsored teams led to the creation of national teams that in effect precipitated the professional teams today that have a General Classification or team leader and eight domestiques (“servants”) to aid his cause. Once more commercial opportunities influenced the development of the Tour. Yet the language with which the world of cycling converses is French and developed through French.

In relation to the impact on towns such as Brest and Pau (one is Breton while the other is considered an English town in France) and their relationship to the globalisation of the Tour, Reed brings the reader an interesting social history of identity, economic decline, and identity re-formation to adapt to the changing world. The Tour once more acts as a template for which French towns vied, hoping for the prestige and possible financial rewards of the event. Towns realised, though, its benefits were more promotional then material. Yet in this process, Reed suggests the ‘history of the Tour in its host towns sheds light on how Pau and Brest engaged the broader world and participated in the construction of France’s evolving national culture’ (p. 138). That in these rather untypical French towns, their identity, along more Parisian lines, is formed through the race.

The third metric of Reed’s study provides vignettes into the Tours iconic figures such as Jacques Anquetil. Central to the story of the five-time winner of the world’s greatest cycling race was his battle with Raymond Poulidor. ‘Anquetil represented cosmopolitan, modern society while Poulidor personified rural, traditional France, and their duels symbolized France’s struggle to come to terms with modernity,’ Reed writes (p. 100). In addition, the development of the ‘celebrity’ culture surrounding the Tour was due in part to the Italian cyclists, Fausto Coppi (who after compatriot Gino Bartali) helped introduce ‘the champion’s autobiography’: basically a rags-to-riches story. Such accounts detailed a childhood of poverty and depicted cycling as offering a path to a better life. Many sports autobiographies have followed this narrative, whether its golfers to the spate of English soccer player’s tombs of recent years. To which Joey Barton derided. However, they play their part in mythologizing the athlete and the Tour. A similar rivalry that personifies the tension between the French and globalism is that of Bernhard Hinault and the American Greg LeMond. For more of an exploration the two men’s relationship and the tautness between the Frenchness of the Tour and the wider world see the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Slaying the Badger.

Yet by far Reed’s most interesting assertion is that the obsession with drugs in the sport by the media in the late 1990s was part of re-defining the heroes of the Tour de France that were no longer French. He argues that ‘The French press was developing new measures and standards of heroism that linked athletic prowess, courage, and nobility to drug-free cycling’ (p. 184). The French media suggested that the French riders maintained their honour by not cheating, influencing the French School of Cycling going into the twentieth-first century. As much as this is a thought-provoking contention, its fails to analyse the world in which the Festina affair, Lance Armstrong, and the US Postal Team embarked on the most sophisticated doping program in history. Paul Kimmage, one of the journalists that has received only minimal credit for his pursuit of the doping issue, described the crusade by deeming Armstrong the ‘Cancer Jesus’. Kimmage, a former pro-cyclist, offered the antithesis to the autobiographies of Coppi with the Rough Ride, which detailed the crossroads an athlete who had previously idolised his sport comes to on the decision of doping (a link to an Irish made documentary on Kimmage can be seen here). Similarly, as much as the Tour is a representation of French culture, cheating has formed an integral part of its history from early on. The competition’s first winner, Italian born French cyclist Maurice Garin, was stripped of his second title in 1904 for cheating by taking a train.

Selling the Yellow Jersey serves as a great introductory work for anyone who wishes to see past the athletes who have formed the tapestry of the event. The book traces how the French influenced the world of cycling, how globalization impacted the Tour, and how the French adapted to these developments. This study is somewhat light on the most recent body of work from those within the sport of cycling from figures such as Paul Kimmage, David Walsh, and William Fotheringham. However, like the revolutions of the wheel of a bike it’s very hard to keep pace with all these developments. This is typified with the re-investigation of the circumstances of the death of 1998 Tour de France winner, Italian Marco Pantani.

More analysis of the smaller nations to have succeeded in the sport such as Belgium, Luxemburg, and Ireland would have added to the narrative. Though dominated by the French, the Tour had participants from these countries as well as Japan and a team in the 1950s representing North Africa. Even an exploration of how colonial countries, such as the south of Ireland, had more success in the sport than Great Britain up until the early 2010s would have enhanced the book. Furthermore, in what could be described as the ‘British Invasion’ of cycling through the exploits of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome with Team Sky could have offered another vignette in which to analyse the cultural tensions within the Tour and the continual impact of the media and commercial activities on the race.

As a work and analysis by the parameters Reed outlines at the beginning of the book, Selling the Yellow Jersey is a highly engaging story that will enrich the academic discourse and add to the understanding of the Tour for years to come.


Cian Manning is an independent scholar who has contributed articles on sports history in Ireland to publications such Pog Mo Goal, Sportlairge and City Edition, the match day programme of League of Ireland side Cork City FC.

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