Roll up for the ride of a lifetime

As the Tour de France reaches its centenary, Simon O'Hagan scans the shelves for a title that can compete with the race itself
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There is no such thing as the perfect body for a cyclist. The best climbers tend to be small because they have less weight to carry. Then again nothing beats length of leg when it comes to powering over the flat. And just as cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, so the plethora of cycling books that has been published to coincide with the Tour de France's centenary is characterised by similar variety.

The coffee-table extravaganzas are the ones that catch the eye. Is there a more photogenic sport than cycling? But other new titles confirm that cycling literature is on a bit of a roll. The resurgence began with Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike, which rightly won the 2000 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. That was followed in 2002 by William Fotheringham's outstanding biography of Tom Simpson (Put Me Back on My Bike), Matt Seaton's poignant evocation of life in the saddle, The Escape Artist, and Matt Rendell's history of Colombian cycling (Kings of the Mountains), all three just out in paperback. The Rider, by Dutchman Tim Krabbé, is an existentialist masterpiece that dates from the late 1970s but was published in English for the first time last year. The Tour de France has in the last few years also received the elegant attentions of Julian Barnes. Now there is more.

Of the latest crop of publications, the one worthiest of consideration is Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France (Simon and Schuster £16.99). Written with lordly panache, the book manages to retain its narrative drive while making frequent forays into other areas of French life.

Wheatcroft's love of the Tour is really an extension of his Francophilia. A seasoned journalist whose previous books have included socio-political studies of South Africa and Israel, he had not written much about sport until covering the Tour in 2002. But his research is impressive, he brings characters to life, and he understands the Tour's mythic qualities and why they matter so much - to France itself and to all those people for whom the profundities of the race leave other sports events looking inconsequential.

People are at the heart of Wheatcroft's story. The appalling suffering riders endured in the early years is sharply conveyed. His appraisals of such problematic figures as Eddy Merckx and Tom Simpson are telling. And he is very good on the rivalry between the arrogant and aloof Jacques Anquetil and the much more sympathetic Raymond Poulidor, two men who split France down the middle during the Tour's golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. Wheatcroft is too much in thrall to the Tour to address drug-taking with anything other than reluctance.

Knowing as much about France (and other subjects) as he obviously does, Wheatcroft has not wanted to waste any of that knowledge. In interspersing Tour history with chapters of travel writing that take a general look at regions of France, he allows himself certain indulgences, and while there is a lot to enjoy in these digressions he leaves himself open to the charge of pontification.

Wheatcroft's frame of reference can be too wide. He likens Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour, to John Christie, the legendary head of the Glyndebourne opera house. The comparison jars, not because it may not be true, but because it hints at a strain of pomposity in Wheatcroft that elsewhere is undisguised. He refers to Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence but cannot actually bring himself to name either title or author. At the same time, there are flashes of naïvety, and while Wheatcroft does an admirable job of simplifying cycling's complexities for the general reader, his grasp of technical matters is occasionally shaky. These, though, are minor cavils. This is a great story, vividly told.

A work of greater expertise is The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France (£16), on the face of it a mere reference work but in the hands of compiler Les Woodland in fact an idiosyncratic, often opinionated read and hugely informative. With this, Yellow Jersey, the Random House sports imprint that took its name from the colours of the race leader in the Tour de France, has produced another beautifully crafted volume.

The product of similar devotion, Golden Stages of the Tour de France, edited by Richard Allchin and Adrian Bell (Mousehold Press £12.95), gives a range of writers the chance to revisit dramatic moments in Tour history that could be pinned down to a single stage of racing. It's a nice idea, and contributors of the calibre of John Wilcockson and Matt Rendell are put to excellent use. One for the aficionado, though.

Fresh from his Simpson triumph, William Fotheringham has taken the opportunity presented by the Tour centenary to produce A Century of Cycling (Ted Smart £20), an effective blend of words and pictures that emphasises that there are great races other than the Tour, notably the spring classics that dominate the calendar in the earlier part of the year.

Finally, Tour photography, and what a wealth of it there is. You have a choice of two handsome volumes - unless you want both, and you won't find much duplication. In its official history (Tour de France: The Official Centennial 1903-2003, £25), Weidenfeld has had the advantage of unfettered access to the archives of L'Equipe, the French daily sports paper which in its original guise as L'Auto magazine was the organisation that founded the Tour. But Le Tour: A Century of the Tour de France by Jeremy Whittle (Collins £25) barely suffers by comparison. And its introduction, by the three-times winner Greg Lemond, is better value than that offered by Lance Armstrong in the equivalent slot in the official history.

We all have our favourite pictures. My personal top three might include riders cooling off in the Gulf of St Tropez in 1950; a mud-spattered Robert Jacquinot (pictured), wolfing down a bowl of soup during a café stop in 1922, his bike propped against the wooden table; and the epitome of broken dreams that is summed up by the image of Federico Bahamontes after he quit the 1960 Tour, waiting with bike and suitcase on the station platform at Dunkirk. None of these pictures features action in the conventional sense - for that one might go for Anquetil and Poulidor shoulder-to-shoulder on the Puy de Dôme in 1964 - yet it is impossible to look at them and not grasp what it is that makes the Tour so special.