Aside from the iconic leaders’ jerseys worn in the race, the route maps of the Tour de France are perhaps the race’s most recognisable visual representations.

Cartes du Tour

The latest publication from Rapha Editions plots the history not only of the world’s most famous race but also the country that hosts it. Editor Guy Andrews and renowned writer Paul Fournel discuss the inspiration behind their new book.

06 July 2018

Aside from the iconic leaders’ jerseys, the route maps of the Tour de France are perhaps the race’s most recognisable visual representations. In their current guise, the yellow hulk of l’Hexagone, dotted with blue and red marking start and finish towns, is criss-crossed by black lines demarcating stage routes and transfers.

But they haven’t always been this way. The route maps have evolved over time, plotting not only the history of the race but that of the country it traverses. From year to year, the maps bear semblance yet are continuously changing, telling of a transforming landscape, progressions in infrastructure and a nation more connected.

Cartes du Tour, published this week by Rapha Editions, collates route maps from each edition, from the first in 1903 to this July’s race. We spoke to editor Guy Andrews and renowned writer Paul Fournel about the inspiration to write to book and just where they found all those maps.

One of a limited run of only 200 copies, the special edition of the book features an inside cover signed by renowned cycling historian and author Paul Fournel.

Was it your interest in cycling or cartography that inspired you to write the book?

GA: I can’t say that it was one or the other but there is one particular map that sparked the initial conversations. It has adorned the walls of every office Rapha has ever had and beautifully depicts the route of the 1958 Tour. Having walked past it countless times, Simon Mottram and I agreed that we should write a book to tell the entire story of the Tour and its host country through the medium of the maps.

Beyond the history of the Tour, what do the maps tell us about the history of France?

PF: By reading the route maps, you follow not only the history of the race but also that of the country, the opening of new mountain roads, the advent of plane travel and the proliferation of the TGV rail network. They have fundamentally changed French people’s conception of their own country, its landscapes and its cultural variety. In the beginning, the Tour de France brought about a wave of national self-discovery each morning as the public caught up with the events of the previous day’s stage.

Which are your favourite maps in your collection?

GA: The maps from the so-called golden era of cycling through the 60s and 70s are amazing. We’ve tried to keep the book simple because the beauty of those maps speaks for itself. I began following the Tour in the 80s and 90s when it all started to go wrong. One of the reasons we started doing this book was to bring those old maps back to life.

What has helped boost the Tour’s international profile over the years?

PF: As time has gone on, the Tour has risen to international acclaim and become an invaluable tool in attracting tourists to France. The 1980s saw the introduction of television images shot from helicopters by cameras able to rotate through 360 degrees. The organisers had the idea of filming the landscape as well as the race so now you have thousands of people watching the Tour who are not overly concerned with the racing but rather with the landscapes it traverses.

So it’s fair to say that the Tour has always had commercialism at its core?

PF: Certainly, the Tour de France is a commercial enterprise. Where once money came from the proceeds of selling newspapers, it now comes from a raft of towns and cities in France and beyond who vie each year to host a stage. Alpe d’Huez is the perfect example. Previously known solely as a skiing destination, the Tour transformed it and now thousands of cyclists visit each year to count the twenty-one hairpins on their way to the top.

The 1964 edition of the Tour, plotted here on the left, was dominated by the intense rivalry between Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil.

Perhaps an even better example is the small Alpine village of Pra Loup?

PF: That’s right, before the Tour visited for the first time in 1975 Pra Loup was nowhere, unknown to all but those who lived close by. But the day the Tour visited was the day the iron grip of Eddy Merckx on the Tour and the sport was broken by the swashbuckling youngster Bernard Thévenet. It was a stage that sent shockwaves through the sport and put Pra Loup on the map. The race brought huge visibility to the town, which, all of a sudden, exploded to become a veritable tourist hotspot.

Has the Tour’s commercial success restricted the freedom of route map illustrators?

GA: The Tour is not in public ownership, the ASO is a private company which is, quite rightly, protective of its brand. The Tour de France is the jewel in their crown. Once upon a time, it was a bit more relaxed and you could simply draw a map of the route and print it in a newspaper as a pullout. Nowadays, you’d have to ask for permission which would most likely not be forthcoming. It’s a shame that the ASO have reverted to a functional Michelin roadmap-style route map but that’s the way it is. Matt Blease drew a wonderful alternative route map a couple of years ago which is in the book and added some much needed creative license. It would be nice to see more of that.

Pra Loup, first visited by the Tour in 1975, is one of many small towns that have been transformed by the race.

To what extent can the route planners affect the way the race plays out?

PF: As the book shows, periods of dominance by a rider who excels in time trials prompts more mountainous routes while all-conquering climbers have oft been thwarted on visits to the cobbles of Northern France. The route makers have never been under closer scrutiny as during the 1960s when the fierce rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor split France in two. Upon the route’s release each autumn, fans of both riders would scrupulously examine the route in search of any outstanding feature that might lend an unfair advantage to their hero’s rival.

But the sport also brings people and places together, doesn’t it?

PF: Of course, cycling brings people together in a way no other sport can. The Tour de France played an important role in unifying the nation, bringing far-flung border towns and hidden mountain valleys into a broadened national conscience. In the same way, sejourns across international borders to France’s neighbours have helped forges closer bonds. Since the first Grand Départ outside of France in Amsterdam on the 1954 edition, the Tour’s cross-border ventures have become commonplace. The 2018 race is remarkable for its observance of France’s borders; 15 kilometres of Spanish tarmac are the only international interlude.

On a more practical note, where did you go to find the maps?

GA: I’m a magazine collector – my loft at home is full of various publications from the 50s and 60s mostly – so I know a few places where you can find these things. There’s an amazing shop in Paris called le Comptoir de l’Image which serves as an archive of French newspapers and magazines. That was my first port of call so I got a few from there. Parisian flea markets were another happy hunting ground, I got into the habit of visiting markets whenever I went to France. Beyond that, it’s a case of trawling the Internet and seeing what you can find on websites like eBay. I was amazed by just how comprehensive our collection became in the end. Everyone likes a collection, don’t they?