David Coventry Interview | The Incredible Tour de France Story Behind 'The Invisible Mile'
How Antipodean riders fought through wooden rims and dangerous nights back in 1928...
Cataclysmic crowds closed in on the men who had broken away from the peloton on Mont Ventoux, one of the most gruelling climbs on the Tour de France.
There was less than one and a half kilometres of the 178km to go on the stage. Richie Porte’s calves piled through the pedals and powered him up the class five ascent one wheel ahead of Team Sky favourite Chris Froome and Dutch rider Bauke Mollema.
The crowd closed in around them, suffocating the riders with panting praise and claustrophobic fanaticism, shouting and spitting support in equal measures as they stepped in closer until there was no closer to go. A supporting motorcycle ahead was forced to break in front of the breakaway riders, who in turn hit the moto and subsequently the floor.
Porte and Mollema got back on their bikes as the chasing pack rode past the fallen riders. Froome could not continue on the saddle; his bike had been broken. He began to run on foot down the road ahead, through the frenzied fjord of fans with painted faces and camera phones at the end of their arms, his cleats clattering off the concrete before he was reunited with a saddle.
It was a moment as farcical as it was romantic, and one which will no doubt live to define the 2016 Tour de France; a Tour which has been plagued with concerns over rider safety, with talking heads criticising the insufficient barriers and lack of appropriate officiating.
But truth be told, if the scarce separation between rider and supporter is the biggest concern for the competitors of the modern day Tour de France, they’ve got it light. Back in the early days of the Tour, a sideliner hunting a signature would have been a breath of fresh air; a welcome break to the mileage – and if you did go down, you would’ve been waiting a while on that team car.
“Take away every luxury of the modern rider, everything they have by right, and you have the reality of the past..."
“Take away every luxury of the modern rider, everything they have by right, and you have the reality of the past," says David Coventry, author of The Invisible Mile, a newly released novel about the first English-speaking team to enter the Tour de France, way back in 1928.
David’s debut novel focuses on the experiences of the Australasian Ravat-Wonder-Dunlop Team, a four-piece outfit made up of Australians Ernest Bainbridge, Percy Osborn and star cyclist Hubert Opperman, and New Zealand rider Harry Watson.
He came across the story in 2012 in a previous job as a research manager at what was the New Zealand Film Archive, after being asked for footage of Watson – “I think what really got me excited was the convergence of sport and the way it mimics religion in its rituals and mania, the representations of WWI and the mechanisms of history."
Written from the perspective of a fictitious and unnamed fifth-rider in the Tour de France team; Coventry allows himself the freedom to imagine and create within the borders of a factual past.
His on-bike descriptions do more to put you in the middle of the peloton than any on-board camera could; the thoughts of his protagonist transporting the perseverance in the mountain air and the pain of each pedal stroke to your seat.
Coventry writes of the nights spent on the saddle, of the pills and the alcohol, of the camaraderie, of the rivalries and of the feeling of pushing on after a colleague has been struck down knowing that there’s every chance it could be you next.
Coventry continued: “The best way of summing it up is the attitude of the race’s overlord, Henri Desgrange [who first started the Tour in 1903]. His ideal race was one in which the last rider left in the race would be the only rider worthy of the yellow shirt.
“He wanted the riders to suffer. He wanted the race to be inhuman. And so it was. There were boils, dysentery, flu, car crashes – as in cars crashing into them and motorcycles doing the same – sprained ankles, infected sores, snow, poor food, dehydration, mountain stages starting at midnight, constant punctures, dust, bugs, the gravel roads, cobblestones and mud.
“Oh, and the bad singing – apparently the team loved to sing, and I can only imagine it being shocking.
“To compare the eras would be to name every aspect and discuss them individually for a night or two, and then move on to the next. The race is the same in name only now. Which isn’t to say today’s race isn’t incredible. It is incredible, but it’s vastly different."
Back in 1928, the Tour de France was a literal tour of France. The route followed the borders of the country almost exactly.
“The race is the same in name only now. Which isn’t to say today’s race isn’t incredible. It’s just vastly different..."
The race was competed in a team time trial format, and teams were allowed to replace exhausted or injured cyclists with new cyclists, a rule introduced to give weaker teams a fairer chance.
In truth though, this did the opposite. Most teams had eight, nine or ten riders in their roster. Ravat-Wonder-Dunlop had only four, or five in Coventry’s novel. The plan had been to fill the rest of the team with European riders on arrival in France, but this plan fell through.
“A key motivating factor in the novel’s narrative is the narrator’s anger and distaste the team felt at riders leaving and being able to come back again later," says David. “Other teams could replace sick riders.
“If there had been a proper peloton they might have fared better. But they exhausted themselves trying to protect their main rider way before any of the other teams did. When you have ten riders swapping out the lead role, you can run at a much higher speed before exhaustion sets in."
And there were no spare bikes allowed. Riders would have to find someone to repair their bike or do it themselves at the side of the road if they had a mechanical; something inherently frequent given the standard of bicycle.
“They would be riding on one gear up 2,000 metre mountains, since Henri Desgrange believed derailleur systems to be contraptions unworthy of real men. Riders were forced to ride fixed-wheel machines. They had wooden rims and flimsy brakes. Heavy, but I imagine beautifully engineered.
“The team wouldn’t [have ridden anything like the Tour before]. At least not like what they experienced in the mountains. They were doing pretty well in the race before they hit the Pyrenees.
"Opperman and Watson held their own going up. They didn’t have the technique for navigating such plummets going downhill though and crashed over and over again. The tactics and riding techniques were much more advanced in Europe at the time. A different culture of competitiveness meant a different way of attack and holding back. They were on a steep learning curve."
The French didn’t give them much of a chance either. Hubert Opperman may be a legend in the world of road cycling now, and was even well known on his arrival, but he gained much of his credit over in France in that 1928 Tour and the summer of racing that followed.
The Australasian team originally turned up with bikes that were mocked and without much respect to their name, though they did grab a few French hearts as the novelty act from abroad, and as former soldiers who had fought in France during the war.
“The last rider left in the race would be the only rider worthy of the yellow shirt..."
“Nobody took them terribly seriously, but they were eventually taken to the heart of the French people," the author continued.
“For example, the stage end at Charleville-Mézières saw the crowd all waving Australian flags. The fact that they just kept going gave them a lot of goodwill. And I can only surmise there was a sense of gratitude for the ANZAC commitment during WWI. I think they were welcomed back in that sense.
“Opperman was the holder of many records, so he arrived with a reputation. And it was a reputation that was met out in the months after the tour when he spent the cycle season in France competing and winning. He was a real force and much of his fame comes from those months out beyond the scope of the novel.
“Opperman would just take off and try and make up time [when the rest of the team tired]; a lonely soldier in the sunset. Watson later claimed they would have won several stages had they had a team of seven or eight, and looking back at the statistics and times, this might well have been true.
“Watson was also an extremely good rider but the team were making things up on the fly and relying on Opperman's skills as a leader a great deal. Watson described him as a genius."
We won’t go as far as to spoil for the reader how the gallant efforts of the Australians and New Zealanders panned out in the long run on the 1928 Tour de France.
Though a quick read of Wikipedia will confirm a few facts for you if you are desperate for immediate answers, we’d recommend grabbing a copy of Coventry’s novel and immersing yourself in the madness.
It’s a story of endurance; riding head first into trouble and defying the odds; of superhuman grit, and often blind, aching determination. The novel may be largely fictitious, but if the gruelling pain sequences seem startlingly candid, it’s because they came from a similar place of pain.
“I relied on my imagination for the most part, and let this be informed by a dozen or so histories of the Tour. The book is 100% fiction built around a framework of facts, and it was a lot of fun until I got sick writing the thing.
“I came down with ME, which had a great effect on the book. My knowledge of exhaustion and pain comes directly from that. It is pretty real. It remains pretty real.
“Then I essentially became an actor whilst writing. I was a rider and I was covered in dirt and scabs, stunk of urine, booze and mud and rode in the pain of exhaustion and half broken limbs."
If Coventry suffered while writing, it shows in the strength of the text; in the inner doubts and struggles of the protagonist, outstandingly developed and shrewdly deployed as a vessel from which to frame the savage challenges of the race.
The novel brings the reader to an era where the Tour de France was more about survival than stage wins, when it was rampant with corruption and unpredictability often coloured a shade darker than even the mountains they rode through by night.
It would be an ignorant voice who would deride the modern Tour as even comparatively simple – as Coventry says, the two editions of the race share little more than a name – but one thing is for sure, the 1928 edition certainly puts into perspective some of the commonly talked about points of the present day.
We don’t know about you, but we’d take a broken bike and a run through the heated Mont Ventoux crowd any day over a night-time climb up the cliffs of the Pyrenees on a fixed-gear bike with wooden rims.
Read the rest of our July 'Superhuman Issue' on Mpora here