Portraits of the Race

What do photos tell us about the Tour de France?

In the past couple months, I’ve written a few Twitter threads (1, 2, 3) on how the contemporary Tour de France–team-centric, professional, and focused on small differences in time and speed–has diverged from the Tour of the yore, a race that privileged the individual, emphasized endurance, and contained within it the sometimes odd-to-modern-eyes core of amateurs and professionals.

These larger differences shape and are shaped by the machines, stage structures, cyclist accommodations, salaries, and negotiations between administrators and towns, to only name a few of the factors that went into the shaping of this race.

Today, I’d instead like to look at pictures. Specifically, the portraits taken of cyclists before they began the Tour.

If l’Auto had printed it in color, Francis would have stood out against the forested backdrop in his horizon blues. Did he ride into town that morning, offered a single day’s leave by his commanding officer? He was then a poilu in the 19e Escadron du train, transferred in January, garrisoned not so far away. Of course the unit’s role in the war wasn’t over, so his registration might've necessitated a longer journey. Supplying other units would continue for years as the occupation went on, as soldiers and those who returned or never left rebuilt what they could. Those roads and villages and barracks and fortifications would take hard labor and materials that couldn’t be gathered from the wreckage, materials Francis’s unit helped transport.

His brother, Henri, wore the same.

Though they were separated for much of the war, they now belonged to the same unit. Best to have them apart as the fighting went on; you never knew when an entire unit could be wiped out. Now that was over, the government could make things a bit more convenient for those who would have to remain in uniform for another month, year, perhaps longer. Any time was too long for the brothers who had races to attend to, lives to continue.

The photographs were taken with a large format camera. You can tell thanks to the tonal range, the depth of the portraits–Henri’s, in particular–which comes close to lifelike. I don’t know if l’Auto had a dedicated office camera, or whether they took the portraits with the same one used on the race route: an early 4x5 Speed Graphic or the like.

They’re distinct. Henri’s appears to be taken with a longer focal length lens, his pose is direct and confident, the photograph’s contrast brings his features into sharp relief. It suits him, which is perhaps what the photographer had in mind. Henri was brash, confrontational. Francis was guarded, a bit more strategic. With a muted tonal range, he appears ephemeral, as if disappearing into the backdrop. There’s no mistaking Henri is the subject of the portrait.

Reduce the saturation, cut away the graphics, paste on street clothes and there’s still no mistaking this year’s cyclists from those in 1919. I don’t mean to make the tired argument about how romantic things were, though I’m willing to accept that might be the takeaway.

The cyclists are part of a team now, with designated roles. A Tour cyclist isn’t just a Tour cyclist, but instead a member of a larger unit. It’s how they race; it only makes sense that’s how they’re described.

The photographs are clear. One sees the jerseys down to the sponsors. What’s their identity? A cyclist. A professional one. Henri and Francis were soldiers, at least for a time. Eugène and Firmin were mechanics. The racing season began and they put on the grey and blue of La Sportive, at least in 1919, but would in time return to those other identities. Viewers knew they held onto them as they passed through their towns.

The cyclists’ pose is uniform, even if they have specialties: rouleur, climber, sprinter, puncher. Below the cyclists, not shown here, is an even longer list of those who support them, equal members of a team that desires the pinnacle of athleticism.

There are continuities, too. The contemporary cyclists’ pose recognizes a role Henri Pélissier found for himself in those early years fo the race, when others were more deferential to the “Father of the Tour,” Henri Desgrange. Pélissier claimed to “run on dynamite”: cocaine, chloroform, strychnine, etc. Him and Francis were some of the few who didn’t turn to booze, at least not regularly, at the end of a long stage. I’m not saying anything about the Groupama cyclists; I’m just saying there’s are recent Tour controversies you’re already aware of.

It’s disappointing there are few photographs of the 1919 race itself: a couple from the end of the last stage, as the cyclists rode into Parc des Princes, one or two as they left cities along the way, these portraits. Others were either lost when l’Auto’s archives went missing at the start of World War II or no one wanted to show the cyclists racing through the Western Front’s destruction.

I’m grateful these few photos at least exist.

Necessary Hawking:

You can pre-order Sprinting wherever you purchase your books.

If you’re worried about getting your copy before this year’s Tour begins, you can enter this Goodreads giveaway for a chance at winning a digital copy of the book, ending May 31st.

Once this year’s Tour begins, I’ll be chatting with Phil Klay for the book’s launch at Powerhouse Arena on July 1st. It’s virtual, so you can tune in from wherever.

And Finally, a Cover

Launching Sprinting Through No Man's Land (for pre-order, at least)

Hi All,

I realize over the past year or more I’ve mused about various elements related to the writing then editing and production of Sprinting Through No Man’s Land, my book about the 1919 Tour de France.

All the while I didn’t have anything meaty to show you. An otherwise blank page with some sales copy has been sitting on various booksellers’ websites, but the book lacked even a cover and copy tends to only show the most commercial elements of a story, written by those who know the book well, but also those who mostly hope it just sells.

Along with the start of this year, we’ve launched the book, available for preorder on your local bookstore, BookshopAmazon, etc. and on Goodreads now. I realize I’m the least reliable person to tell you anything else about this book, so I’ll let a few others speak to the book and its writing. I also tweeted a short thread sharing the same news as well as a bit about the book’s inception.

Jason Fagone, the bestselling author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, called Sprinting “Vivid and inspiring. A century ago, in a brutal race like no other, cyclists faced war-torn roads and their own demons, and Dobkin spins through their tale in a sweet gear, showing the power of sport and the resilience of the heart.”

Jen Percy, author of Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return from War described it as “A moving and deeply researched book documenting the Tour de France’s rebirth after the Great War. Dobkin’s prose is lyric and at turns intricate and sweeping. He brilliantly captures Europe’s collective longing to rebuild through a competition whose epic terms and improbable cast of characters speak to the hope and uncertainty that defined a generation devastated by violence. More than a chronicle of sport, this is an incredible story of how the mind and body reckon with the scars of war.”

Phil Klay, National Book Award winner and author of Missionaries said “Astonishing. With beautiful prose, compelling narrative, and meticulous research, Adin Dobkin does far more than just record the history of a race—he conjures an entire world reeling in the aftermath of World War I.”

Elliot Ackerman, National Book Award finalist and coauthor of 2034 said the book is “Beautifully written, compellingly told, Adin Dobkin weaves together a masterful narrative of war, returning to the resiliency of the human spirit.”

This book has been most of my life for the past few years. Its bones shares some of the questions, proddings that first drew me to writing: how culture intersects with the immediate and long-term aftermath of a war. It’s also, unsurprisingly, a lot more than that and hopefully reflects the sort of writing I’ll have a greater opportunity to take on in the future (proposal #2 is in-progress right now). 

If you follow any other writers, I’m sure you’ve heard them say how important pre-sales are to the book’s eventual success. They show the publisher people are interested in actually reading the thing. That first chunk of sales allows the book to climb charts when it launches. If you have the means to do so, ordering the book would mean a lot to me. But, if you need more convincing, which I entirely understand, we’ll have plenty more in the months leading up to its launch (podcasts, interviews, excerpts, etc.) that you’ll be able to take a look at. 

And if you’re in the biz, give me a holler about galleys, etc.

That’s it for the moment.

A.

Slow Winter Weeks

Since finishing work with my editor, a near-constant back-and-forth between myself and the production team at Little A has started, only slowing this last week and a half with the holidays. A few notes, from one person or another:

  • Can the interlude datelines be unbolded?

  • The serif reads too purple, maybe one closer to Garamond (or just Garamond)?

  • The fleurons read too purple, maybe an interpunct or ellipses?

  • Does this font speak to pre-war or post-war?

  • Do these accents do the same?

  • What about the photo crop? The color saturation?

I tried reading Gass’s The Tunnel and did read the note he attached to the manuscript. A mistake, maybe. Fewer working gears with Sprinting, but I like books as objects (as well as what’s inside), so can’t help but think about how the parts add up to the whole. I recognize much of this doesn’t translate to the reader’s time with a book.

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At the same time, I’ve started work on the next nonfiction project. It won’t be public until next year, if ever. It follows a few students who attend an art school in the 1940s. Whether great art is created from retreating from the world, or constantly learning about it, attending to its issues.

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I’m halfway through teaching a creative writing research class at Catapult. Last week’s readings, on the accumulation of research and on synthesizing information, included Nan Shepard’s The Living Mountain, Wil S. Hylton’s NYT Magazine story on Laura Hillenbrand, and a few Svetlana Alexievich essays and lectures. Difficult questions about confronting a mass of sources (unless Robert Caro) and a drought of them.

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I read John Williams’s Stoner for the first time recently. One of the few late pandemic books I’ve enjoyed. And I’m about halfway through Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey, My Own Life and surprised just how much I’m enjoying it. I knew I was interested in the form, but the delivery is just as enjoyable.

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No essays or stories in the works, but the formal launch of the book will happen soon after the new year (along with the cover, the blurbs, all those other machinations). I hope you’ll tune in for those.

A.

How Many Times Can You Draft a Book?

A little more than two weeks ago, a book manuscript was sent to my editor for her first round of edits. The passivity feels appropriate. That email was preceded by a few months of revisions with some new drafting here and there for subjects I had not fully fleshed out and which hinged upon other subjects I needed to get right before I could adequately take them on. A few friends read the manuscript and offered up their comments. I printed out the roughly 300 pages a few times, marking them up with a sharpie pen and neon sticky notes and a few different highlighters, only to change course when I opened the word processor window and typed the revised paragraphs into the new draft.

I determined the date, leaving a month before the manuscript’s deadline hit. If the deadline wasn’t for another year, and I had started writing at the same time, I could and would have revised it another nine or ten times; I don’t doubt I would have used the extra weeks. There were particular sentences, a few historical descriptions I knew I didn’t get right, but whose solution I didn’t yet see. After turning in the manuscript, I’ve found some of their proper forms while others have remained hidden.

Students have asked me when I know revisions are done. It’s an impossible question to answer. Never, if you view the book as a changeable object, one that shifts as the creator does according to new research and ideas and an environment beyond that creator’s control. Of course that doesn’t mean the object will get better for anyone. If it does, the improvement might only be temporary. Even the writer will eventually look back and wish they had stopped at one earlier point or another.

The revisions get smaller, at least, for most people. Chapters turn to sections turn to paragraphs turn to sentences. A few times spinning around the last will generally put you in a good place to give it to others, not considering any deadlines. A more holistic measurement considers the aims of the project at its outset, but I know plenty of writers who don’t think in those terms.

On the bright side, in the weeks before getting back edits, I’ve found time—the first stretch in years—to develop a few feature pitches and to begin thinking about book number two.

A Bonus:

A Friend, Nikon F2AS, Ilford HP5 (+3)

When One Battle Ends, Another Begins

Reader,

I’m writing this after pulling my head out of writing for the day. Last Friday, I got back to the U.S. from a research trip to France. I wound up almost circumnavigating the country by the tail-end of it, though I did miss the border with Spain. In sum, it was 3,200 miles of driving, plus a train ride between Paris and Marseille and countless (okay, thanks to the iPhone, maybe not countless) footsteps in each of the towns.

I’m no expert on trips of these sorts. This last one was the first of its kind, and likely the last, until there’s a new (or rather, even newer) book in the works. It was an exhausting experience, even with the energy given off by traversing a country in the space of a month, visiting locations that aren’t entirely off the beaten path, but are at least not close to the top of most people’s wish lists. It was solitary and there were few days of rest, but experiencing the country like that will hopefully translate to the writing in the book, particularly the parts that have the riders following these lands which are incredible, but slightly outside the focus of most World War I, France, or history watchers (for example, the Vosges Front: more on that below).

Now the writing begins. Or continues. I’ll be sitting here at my desk from seven or eight in the morning until the afternoon, sometimes night, hopefully spitting out a thousands words a day. That’ll allow me to get a draft together by the end of summer. Then, I’ll revise it a handful of times before giving it to a few select readers. Back to revisions. Then, it’ll go to my editor (writing a book takes a lot of hands).

However, as promised, I did get to see some things that won’t make their way into the book. I thought, however, that you all might like to see some of them. The Canon AE-1 took a beating on this trip, so there were fewer clean shots than I would’ve liked, but a few still came out okay.


A “Bornes du Front” at Hartmannswillerkopf. A sculptor named Paul Moreau-Vauthier came up with the idea for these markers following WWI’s end in 1920. They would be placed at locations where the Allies launched their offensive against the Germans in 1918. 118 stones were placed from 1921 to 1927 along the front. This one was the final stone placed during Moreau-Vauthier’s initial effort. Unfortunately, a number of the stones were damaged in the WWII.

A dugout at Hartmannswillerkopf. The large battles along the Western Front between France, Belgium, and Germany to the north are the ones we talk about most in popular history. If you dig a little further, you can hear about the Eastern Front. The Vosges Front we miss out on. It’s the southern area of the Western Front, near the Alsace-Lorraine. There are some incredible sights here, both in terms of history and general scenery. Trenches at sixteen to twenty degrees of gradation, that encountered freezing winter temperatures, in close proximity to the enemy. I wound up walking all around this area and while some of the conditions in World War I are difficult to imagine, the difficulty of this terrain is next to impossible to consider.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Commonwealth Forces). Somehow, though there was plenty of rain on this trip, perfect clouds came out for each of the memorial visits. Thiepval itself is staggering in size and looks out over the flat land that was once the site of the Somme battlefield. Now, it’s mostly farmland. Unlike some other stretches of the Front, the war’s effect on the landscape is not immediately apparent. But in the occasional forest in the middle of a wheat field, you see the miniature berms and slopes of craters.

Okay, so technically the structure off to the left is from the wrong war, but I liked the grass, okay?

Until next time,

A.

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