Last summer, in the French Alps of Savoie, by the Italian border, I stayed somewhat accidentally in a gîte d’étape—a hostel-like guesthouse intended for hikers and bicyclists. At the time, it was filled with riders following the route of the Tour de France, which would be finishing its eighteenth stage close by, in the town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Rising late by comparison, my companion and I were met with confusion. The owners—a husband and wife—conferred loudly, baffled that we had arrived only for vacation: “pour les vacances!”
The Tour is a serious pilgrimage for many—spectators and racers alike. And the photographs of a new book, “Magnum Cycling,” which collects more than two hundred shots of riding events—the majority from the Tour and other scenes in France—are unified in capturing something holy. The book features pictures from seventy-five years of Magnum photographers’ work: photos by Robert Capa at the 1939 Tour; Henri Cartier-Bresson at the 1957 Paris Six-Day Race, a velodrome ride; Tours of the nineteen-eighties; training days; the sacrilegious “Lost Tours” of the early two-thousands (dominated by Lance Armstrong); and more.
In Capa’s work, we see the solemn awe of young spectators and the soon-to-be terre sacrée of Paris and the rest of France on the eve of war. In the blanching lights and charcoal shadow of Cartier-Bresson, inside the velodrome, images of cyclists at leisure and at blurring speed—when the noise of the crowd would have been deafening—are infused equally with the intense quiet of purpose. In other photos, we find the rituals of riders—bathing and at rest; displays of gruelling dedication; the excitement of worshipping crowds; and, of course, the march of the race, wherein the mass of many forms a single field. In perhaps my favorite photograph from the book, a black-and-white shot by John Vink, taken during time trials for the 1985 Tour, a young man checking a chalkboard written with results wears its plastic, windblown cover like a veil.
My companion and I last summer had, in fact, arrived in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne as devotees, too. We were there for my father—a Francophile and a committed cyclist—who had died, and for whom the Tour was a convergence of things truly adored, a type of high summit. We watched the bikers climb the final small hill of the eighteenth stage, and wrote his name on a riders’ route nearby.