The chapel of Notre-Dame des Cyclistes sits on the grounds of a former 12th century fortress in southwest France, just beyond the border of Gascony. In 1959 Father Joseph Massie wrote to Pope John xxiii requesting he designate the chapel an official sanctuary for cyclists. From the penny-farthing shaped iron gates to the moth-bitten jerseys belonging to Anquetil, Coppi, Bobet and Merckx, this shrine speaks of the religious fervour shown to the world’s grandest stage race, the Tour de France. I’m certainly not a pious man, but the closest thing to religion for me is road racing. It’s easy to see evidence of pilgrimage, sacrifice, devotion and faith when regarding the images of Fausto Coppi cresting the summit of the Col d’Aubisque, the struggle in the eyes of Tommy Simpson or the aesthetic perfection of Jacques Anquetil on a race bike. And it is no surprise that the hardship, the suffering and incredible feats of human effort are respected, celebrated and worshipped by so many. Of course, riders today still have to suffer for a living, but the exploits of what many term the ‘Golden Years’ of road racing have a particular appeal for me, and anyone who enjoys the spirit, history and beauty of the Tour de France.
Before TV helicopters, Lycra, carbon fibre and heart rate monitors, Tour riders seemed more fragile, more like the rest of us. Men and boys who had grown up working in factories, mines and farms learned to suffer for a humble living, training their minds and hearts towards the simple act of survival. The opportunity to race a push bike over mountains, have the flash bulbs pop at you as the Newspaper moto whizzes by and people cheer your name was to truly become a living icon. To have your face and athletic physique featured in the pages of Miroir Sprint was something to suffer for beyond reason. Maybe that is why the heroes from the golden years still appeal to us in the 21st century; we can easily relate to the emotions and effort they displayed. James Straffon’s triptychs and iconography within this book speak of a religion, the attempt by simple people to achieve immortality through the act of racing bikes. The work tells of bravery, performance, honesty, treachery, hope, despair, tragedy and many other things. It is life played out through the biggest race in the world. Something we can all worship now and forever. 

Simon Mottram Founder and Chief Executive, Rapha

Performance Art
by David Millar 
Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.” 
John Ruskin I have been lucky to experience days on a bike where everything has come together. I’ve always called these my magic days, when function is transcended by form. It’s these days that allow me to glimpse the sublime. When I chose racing bikes in France over art college in England I never thought that it would open my eyes in the way it did. I imagined I was taking a fork in the road of my life that would send me away from the abstract and remove the opportunity to experience and see the world in a certain way. After all, the life of an athlete is quite different to that of an artist. The thing is I didn’t become an athlete; I became a Tour de France rider. The Tour is not like any other sporting event, in fact, for many it is barely a sporting event, it is a memory of youth, an annual piece of summer nostalgia. Each generation has its heroes and villains, whether you follow the Tour closely or not you are aware of who they are or at least that they exist.
For three weeks every July the Tour de France becomes the birdsong of France. If the Maillot Jaune [yellow jersey] is the hero then the Lanterne Rouge is the antihero, they bookend the race, there is a strange sense of one needing the other to exist. It is difficult to choose which of the two has achieved the greater feat, and often it is the latter who will have provided he story to which people can relate to because it is through witnessing his suffering and daily battle to survive that we are offered something with which we can truly empathise. James Straffon encapsulates all this perfectly when he refers to the ‘rich tapestry’ that is the Tour and he has indeed ‘picked apart’ the threads in order to understand the life within. His imagery is mixed, not only in content but in media, and he has created his own tapestry traversing the rich history and landscape of the century old race. This in itself is a rarity. Since its inception Le Tour has been a race for writers, spawning some of the greatest sports literature written, yet artists very rarely take up the challenge of capturing it. This is not surprising considering what a chaotically epic spectacle the race can be; it is hard to capture what won’t be caught. James has taken up the challenge and found a visual vocabulary for the chaos, he has brought it all together: the Tour de France has become art.

by James Straffon

In his volume of essays entitled Mythologies (1957), French philosopher Roland Barthes examines modern cultural phenomena, and in particular the creation of modern myths. Among them resides Le Tour de France comme épopée [the Tour de France as epic] - a provocative analysis of this seemingly simple sporting event. In it he covers many aspects of the race - geography, morals, myths, doping, the ‘battlefield’, and the players. Of the landscape, Barthes refers to Mont Ventoux (often labelled the Giant of Provence), a notorious mountain stage epilogue to any Tour, as “… un lieu d’épreuves pour les héros…” [a testing place for the heroes], and ‘...un enfer supérieur où le cycliste définira la vérité’ [...a superior hell where the cyclist will define the truth]. Here we get a sense of this annual contest reading like a classic novel, or epic poem. An Iliad for modern times. It even begins, each year, with a prologue. So epic indeed: each subsequent Tour adding a new chapter or verse to this infinite magnum opus. A century-old cycle race as scripture, every edition a tale of high drama, human fortitude and frailty; cinematic backdrops, passion and romance. These are the values which draw my focus as an artist. My muse is the mythology of bicycle culture. The end result a visually-rich vista; captured moments in time; the stories of yesteryear reworked into a modern framework. On that ground, making pictures from the past allows me to resurrect those heroes from their superior hell, and honour their exploits on the gallery wall. LE TOUR: from Maillot Jaune to Lanterne Rouge represents the very essence of my work - an apotheosis - a sporting event and its players, repositioned as an exhibition of devotional imagery. In setting out to create this body of work, one which explores the uniqueness of the Tour de France, I found the subjects transcended the sport itself; the rider on the bicycle somehow placed independently of their reason for being, yet still providing context. In other words, reworking the myth as an artwork brought a certain divinity and cultish standing to the subject. From the outset I consciously sought tangents, keen to make works which were allegorical and that displayed some sense of adventure or dramatic sub text.
My choices were driven by imagery which I felt contained emotional resonance. Some came ready formed - the drama of the crash (La Chute!), or the tears of failure (Le Grand Fusil); others told their story through a juxtaposition of tableaux (Papà Fausto), relationships exposed through a re-editing of their respective timelines. Consequently, my journey (both in terms of research and then making) from commission to exhibition has been an education in itself. I picked apart the rich tapestry of the Tour de France, discovering a multitude of threads. Bizarre and disparate contributions came forth - confectionery, chimney sweeps, newspaper moguls, department stores, bike-hook suicides, donkeys called Marcel, betrayal, mineral water, and cycling for the underground. No other sport or sporting event fuses such diversity; ‘La Grande Boucle’ justifying its claim as “the most physiologically demanding of athletic events.” And the fabric of my creations - the delicate leaves of vintage magazine and news reporting - was material for the masses. My journey reached back through the early years of the 20th century, with La Vie au Grand Air (1906); the pre-war eccentricity of VOILA (1934); the allure of Paris Match (1939); the hallowed vaults of L’Équipe (1977). In addition, I sourced the offbeat and fantastic - bygone toys (Paris 1000, 3DDY), demoded vinyl recordings (Tour de France (3.00), auspicious footwear (Dave the Brave and Modifications). Key to all these items is their ephemeral nature, their vulnerability, and a certain nobility through decay. LE TOUR is an alchemy of elemental materiality - the scent of wool, paper, grease, blood, with the variant landscapes of France, the raw passion of triumph and the agony of failure. At the same time, it embraces the myth and represents the past. Critically, this body of work is defined by a single word - finite. The materials I formed into tableaux shone with vulnerability and impermanence. They, much like the cyclist on the Ventoux, may define the truth - that which is fleeting and gone tomorrow can be beautiful. In 1949, American Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This concept seems to neatly abridge the drama of every Tour de France. One could argue that the thousand faces are those of the heroes who rode in this great cycle race.

All artwork, text and images © James Straffon 2024.