Book Nostalgia: The Big Loop.

Winter wielersupporters:  Time for reading and films.   Saw a pretty good movie last week with my wife, Sarah's Key.

My wife had already read the book, knew the story... and all about the 'Vel d'Hiv,' which really surprised me.   I didn't know the plot, but many of you probably know that this Hollywood movie (made from the bestselling novel) was based around a tragic event tangentially related to cycling:  The round-up (La Rafle) at the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris in July,1942, when thirteen thousand French Jews were arrested and locked inside the velodrome for days without air conditioning, food, water or sanitation - before being sent on a one-way trip to the death camps.
Vel d'Hiv in the film La Rafle

The 'Vel d'Hiv', Parisian cycling's epicenter since the turn of the century, is also the theme of the 2010 French film Le Rafle, based on the same event.   Both films are graphic reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust.  Count me among those who think it's good we're all periodically reminded about this.

Coincidentally, I'd recently read Jean Bobet's book "Cyclisme a l'heure Allemande" (Cycling on German time) a Christmas gift from last year I'd finally got to.

It's a great read:  Jean Bobet is a master writer. I'm a huge fan of his 'works', both on paper...and two wheels!  His historical, French language narrative provides an interesting perspective on how cycle sport survived in France during the second World War under German occupation, recalling the now forgotten heroes and villains of those years.  At the time, because road events were so hard to organize - food and tires being so scarce - track racing across France, and the Vel d'Hiv especially, became super-popular.  Track meetings provided a welcome diversion - even a bit of normalcy - to sports fans at a time when most were figuring out how to scrounge enough food to last the week.  How in the world  riders kept focus on their training during those years is amazing.  Maybe cycling was what kept them sane, kept their hope alive.

This past summer I also read that new Gino Bartali bio 'Road to Valour'.  Gino Bartali, riding hundreds of km in a day, smuggling documents to save dozens of Italian Jews.  Risking his neck for people he didn't know, simply because it was the right thing to do.   It's a must read.   And Gino is a hero you must admire.  

Seeing Sarah's Key, and the being immersed both in the Bartali and Bobet books couldn't help but remind me of another book... one that way back in 1974 -- 38 long years ago -- first tickled my interest in road cycling.

I was fourteen then, a skinny weakling junior high school 8th grader, stuck one ordinary day in a library study-hall class.  In there, you had to be reading a book, or a shrewish librarian would be all over your butt with a detention ship.  We were all Boston Bruins hockey fanatics back then, so we all raced to snag  'Orr on Ice' or 'Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins'..anything about hockey..or for me, Grand Prix auto racing.

Well that day, all those books were already taken out.  Perusing the remaining options, I grabbed a plain, green jacketless hard-bound book called 'The Big Loop', by an author named Claire Huchet Bishop.  

It was a 'wicked old' book, two decades old, even back then.   I knew Bishop as the author of several award winning children's books.  Her best known was Twenty and Ten -  a  story of French children hiding Jews from the Nazi's during the occupation.  A-la Bartali.  We'd all read it in sixth grade class.  

So I took The Big Loop, sat down, and was introduced to a world that - little did I know then - would pretty much shape and define mine.

Written in 1955, The Big Loop was a teen boys' fiction story about a poor Parisian teenager from Montmartre named Andre Girard.  It was your basic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story:  Before World War II,  Andre's father had been a top French hope for the Tour de France, but then the war came and he was shot by the Germans for carrying messages for the Resistance.   (A fate that nearly befell Bartali too in real life).

The fatherless Andre, raised in a Montmartre tenament by his single hard working mother, dreams of someday owning a bicycle and becoming a professional racer like his father.   She thinks he's frail, and wants him to study for university.

The story is one of Andre overcoming physical frailty, poverty,  his mother's objections, and prejudice against his Breton origins to fulfill his dream of racing in the Tour de France...'the Big Loop' (le Grand Boucle) - just like his idol, Louison Bobet.

The book traces Andre, his two best friends, and their boyhood nemesis Fernand through their school years, into the real world - all chasing their ambitions of racing in the Tour.

The story ends (predictably) with Andre being selected to the Tricolores (remember, those were the days of national teams in the Tour) and winning the Maillot Jaune at the Parc des Princes on his debut, while still a teenager.

Unlike today's teen fiction - which is often centered on supernatural fantasy- like most teen boys fiction stories written back then, realism was the background.  And of course, there needed to be an overt moral message:  In the Big Loop, it was the importance of solidarity, sacrifice, persistence, self-belief, friendship and loyalty.  Life lessons all woven in, and hammered home.

Although I'd started reading reluctantly, I was quickly hooked.   (I recall it also conveniently solved the problem of finding a theme for an upcoming French class term project...)

The Big Loop's author, Claire Huchet Bishop grew up in Le Harve, the granddaughter of the village storyteller.  After studies at the Sorbonne, she began working at the first French children's library in Paris.   And cultivated her talent for children's storytelling.

Later she married an American, emigrated to New York, and started telling stories at the New York Public Library.  She also started writing, and soon carved out her niche in books for older children, many of which were set in France during and after the War.  

She made frequent trips back to France, and did the research for The Big Loop during the summer of 1953.   Growing up in France Claire had always been interested in Le Tour, but what triggered her desire to write this particular story was reading the results of sociological test given to French factory workers that showed how acutely most had yearned for a bicycle as boys... and reading and hearing the heart-rending stories of their struggles to get one.   Owning something an American kid nowadays takes for granted, was an impossible dream for most of them.

During the '53 Tour she subscribed to France's two daily sports papers, interviewed young riders, pros, managers, journalists and past champions, and traveled around France, watching the Tour in several places.  And she was among the 40,000 in the Parc des Princes velodrome to see Louison Bobet circle the pink cement track with the flowers of his first of three consecutive Tour victories.

The resulting work from her summer of 1953, The Big Loop was published in 1955.  Despite being a children's book it provided a surprisingly deep and richly detailed introduction to the Tour de France and the fundamentals of road cycling for the young American audience it was written for. 

In my case, it planted just enough inquisitive seeds that other subsequent and random cycling exposures over the next few years (the French 'ten-speeds' at the local bike shop, opportunities for long group rides with friends, local open 'citizens' bike races) dot-connected into a passion that never eroded.  

The book sparked a desire to work and save for that first Mercier '10-speed'.  It seeded the idea to install a handlebar-mounted bottle cage on it before the first of many 'cross-country' bike ride with my high school friends.

It introduced fingerless gloves, stiff soled black leather cycling shoes, cotton cycling caps, wool padded shorts and of course that first red-white-blue 'Charly Gaul' tricolor jersey.   It introduced the concepts of 'drafting', eating during long rides, gear ratios, and training logs. It turned 'play-races' up small coastal Massachusetts hills into battles up mountains called Tourmalet and Galibier that then we could only imagine.

And it sparked dramatic interest in, and improvement in learning French.

Andre on the Tourmalet
Her text, and the many really rich pen-ink illustrations by Barcelona poster artist Carles Fontserè (which I've posted here) were enough to seed dreams and stimulate a quest for adventure.  (Aren't boyhood dreams always the fuel motivating so much sporting ambition?)

It's funny to think in this day of the internet about a time when such simple imagery of a exotic foreign adventure could stimulate the imagination, motivate so much passion, unleash so much energy.

It's ironic that today, with endless cycling photos, info and video all over the media and the web-  a free mouse click away - that cycling draws fewer young people.

Why is it less attractive to today's teens?    I think it's primarily because in today's instant gratification, 'me-centric' modern culture, activities centered around solidarity, sacrifice, persistence, real (not digital) friendship, and loyalty are less attractive.  Kinda sad isn't it?

The Big Loop described in pretty good detail how Andre learned cycling through 'club rides' - informal groups of young riders getting together, and going out for a day on the bike:  Leaving Paris, out to a far flung destination outside the city, and riding back.  Learning pace lines, shifting, how to fix flats, group riding etiquette.

 I think back with rose tinted nostalgia on similar rides with many high school friends in the mid seventies where we taught ourselves cycling in much the same way.

No coaches, no adults.  We'd get between six to twelve guys together, pick a destination, and just escape.  All the time.  Rides that let us discover and explore our region.  No parents, no teachers.   Just a TA plastic water bottle filled with honey tea or water, food in pockets, and off you go.

That sweet first taste of freedom.  No substitute for a road bike for that...

Similarly it was how a lot of my Irish friends got their start in cycling - on unsupervised youth hostel rides into the Wicklow mountains.  It was how Bartali, Bobet, Gaul, Hinault, Kelly and Roche all started.  And thousands more less famous.  In small gaggles of schoolboys 'playing cycling'.  Go hard, go easy, stop to eat, race up the hills and to the town lines.  Stop when you want to explore something.   No structure, no supervision.    Discovering new roads, new destinations.  And all under the power of your own two legs.

Sadly, those rides don't exist anymore.  Not around here anyway.  You never see packs of teenage kids riding cheap road bikes to some town 20 or 30 miles away, sandwiches and fig newtons packed in saddle bags and pockets.

No, what I see today is teens moving slowly on the sidewalk on BMX bikes, baggy clothing masking borderline obesity, wearing a flat-brimmed caps turned sideways.

Or walking along the side of the road, baggy pants falling down around their ass, staring at a four inch digital screen texting....

..or not seen at all, because they're so rarely outside and moving.

Cycling needs to figure a way to resurrect those 'cross country' rides by teens.  It's the key to increasing Junior participation.  That - not racing programs - is the key to the sport's future.  

I know riding on the open roads is not so easy, nor as safe anymore  - the recent tragic losses of Lejaretta and Sander to motor vehicle accidents sadly points that out.   

Perhaps mountain bikes provide an easier entry point and a substitute, but it's not the same I think.   There's something about riding town to town...something about the mobility of escaping out front door...the natural concept of man as a pack animal, hunting in a pack, riding in the chain gang... covering big distances under your own power.      

Decades after first reading it, I snagged an old copy of The Big Loop off the internet.  Silly I know, but it was a nice nostalgic souvenir of my youth.  Once in a while I notice it on the shelf, and it reminds me of how the things that can trigger lifelong passion can be so random.  

And provides a bittersweet reminder of a seemingly lost age when a teen's leisure hours were mostly outside, with 'more face-time, and less facebook'.


  1. What a terrific post! I started cycling at about age 10 based on a book my father bought me: "Let's Go Cycling". It was a UK book that describes traditional cycling club life in much the same way as you do above. It's now 45 years since I joined my first club-ride - that book shaped my life. I still have it - it's one of my most treasured possessions...

  2. Thanks for reading Peter, glad you liked it.

  3. Great Post. I too devoured The Big Loop as a youngster just getting into bicycle racing. Even though, as you mention, the story was quite dated when I read it (and I checked it out many a time from the school library) it inspired me to battle up the "climbs" on the way to school like I was racing in the Tour.

  4. i was similarly inspired as a youngster By Tom Simpson's "Cycling is my Life" along with a book about the Tour by a guy named Peter Clifford. Happy days. Enjoyed the post as I do everything you blog.
    Minor point, but as a Luxemburger Gaul wouldn't have been wearing the Tricolor!

  5. You're right John..shouldn't have said tricolores... I meant that old Red top-White chest -Blue bottom Luxembourg national champion jersey Charly often wore during the Tour. I was a simple classic, my first cycling jersey and I wish I still had it. However (like you) I do still have a dog eared copy of Simpsons 'Cycling is my life"! Thanks for reading!

  6. Nice bit, thanks for posting it. Regarding teenage kids riding bicycles for fun - awhile back my wife (with the college prez' enthusiastic blessings) tried to start a cycling club. At least in the midwest, we found an attitude something like "if I'm going to sweat in the hot sun I should be getting PAID for it. Maybe this is caused by the recent generations of farmers OR related to athletic scholarships...but few were interested in putting the effort into cycling. We found the same thing later with a "cycling lifestyle" class she taught. Most of the kids were simply too lazy....riding a bike was just too much work, let alone learning to ride in a paceline, etc. Every sport has its time and place and who knows if a new generation will take to the bike in an age when it's mostly MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) as they say, either long-timers like most of your readers or the more recent refugees from the golf course. As you point out, things are not helped by the instant gratification idea - when you try to show someone the correct way to sit on the bike, ride a straight line, etc. the too typical response is "how dare you criticize me!" so after one or two episodes like this you just let 'em be ignorant.

  7. Love the illustrations. Never knew this existed. Where do you keep all these books??????

  8. I love the sitting on the handlebars while the bikes laying flat. We used to do that but today they would be afraid of cracking their 300 quid boutique carbon bars...


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