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1923: The Mystery of Lot 212 and a Tour de France Obsession

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Even with added adjectives you can see that a written description of two-and-a-half-minutes of film won’t fill a 300-page book. It starts about 150 kilometres and six hours into the stage, still another 260 or so kilometres and more than nine hours of racing to go. When he is finally able to talk to Beeckman’s granddaughter and outline what he’s found out, he touches on his motivations: “To be the gatekeeper to so much information was both a responsibility and an honour. In both pictures the Belgian has the same disarmingly serious gaze, though in one he appears startled, perhaps from the elation of success.

Beeckman was a solid if ­unremarkable member of his cohort; his attack captured on film a rare occasion in which he especially troubled the limelight. Ned Boulting is the UK's best known voice of cycling - he commentates on the Tour de France for ITV, and all other major cycling races. When the story does get back to Beeckman, as it does occasionally, I am left wondering how reliable a narrator Boulting really is. It's not just about cycling, you don't need to have any knowledge of Le Tour de France to enjoy this book. We don’t share your credit card details with third-party sellers, and we don’t sell your information to others.

Into this gloom came an unpromising curio – an old reel of unknown provenance up for auction, claiming to contain footage of a 1930s Tour de France. Mostly it feels like Boulting has tried to craft an image of Beckmann he wants to believe in, a quiet man who spoke with his legs, like the best Tour heroes should. years later it is hard to comprehend just how different life was, let alone how much more different it was about to get. The picture of Beeckman Boulting has built up in his head – and which becomes a series of imagined accounts from the man himself – is based on what cycling journalists said about him in race reports. From his cycling commenting to his one man shows Ned has shown himself to be one of Pro cyclings biggest fans.

On the left, one of the Agence Rol images that can be found on Gallica, on the right a similar image from the pages of Le Miroir des Sports in August 1923. Most of it is really a self-indulgent lockdown diary, Boulting telling us how horrible the whole thing was, as if he was the only one to endure it. Join him as he explores the history of cycling and France just five years after WWI – meeting characters like Henri Pelissier, who won the Tour that year but who would within the decade be shot dead by his lover using the same pistol with which his wife had killed herself.I think it’s supposed to have something to do with the Second World War being a repeat of the First, Covid being the Spanish Flu, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being the German invasion of Belgium (which one I forget), all of this telling us how history repeats and we might as well just give up now. This book was seriously boring to the point where I skipped some of it and didn't bother reading to the end. I have never read any of Ned's work before but as a cycling fan I have certainly heard his commentary and so I know if anyone could produce a volume like this based off just a 2 1/2 minute film then Ned can! Boulting’s focus on Belgian rider Théophile Beeckman, the main protagonist of the film reel about whom very little is known, reminds me of that feeling when you pass someone on the street and realise that, although you’ll most likely never cross paths with them again, they have complex lives, relationships and stories of their own. Beginning with a fragment of a century-old race, Ned has written a ‘biography of the unknown rider’.

There are a good many diversions from the main narrative that in themselves add to the total picture. It’s only 2 and a half minutes long, but it contains enough material for to fill not just one book, but many. In fact, as he begins to identify certain figures on the film, he discovers that one of them was behind a mutiny, one year later, against the conditions.The rider Theophile Beekman (he had multiple spellings of his name) was just one of those riders who never won the race but did win a couple of stages and finished at respectable times.

The stories of Beekman, Pelissier and others in the race were really interesting as were the writings about the Tour itself. I expected an in-depth review of a 100-year old race, but this was only one aspect of a brilliant book.

This book could be considered a dedication to the obsession that Boulting soon had to find out as much information as he could about the people in the film clip and the events surrounding that race. This is a journey of personal discovery, with Boulting presenting himself as one man against a world indifferent to his inquiries, a man alone putting right what once went wrong by remembering the forgotten, uncovering the overlooked and painting in again a man who has been airbrushed from history, Beeckman somehow having acquired the full trifecta of historical annulments.

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