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

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There are a good many diversions from the main narrative that in themselves add to the total picture. 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! The genesis for the entire project was the chance arrival in my life of a reel of ancient Tour de France film, of uncertain provenance, and unclear origin. As it is, and against all odds, the peculiar privations of lockdown have combined with Ned Boulting’s restless soul and a healthy dose of serendipity to bring us something rather wonderful. Join him as he explores the history of cycling and France just five years after WWI - meeting characters like Henri Pélissier, 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.

The film was so fragile that it couldn't be watched until Ned could find someone who could copy it without destroying the old nitrate film. It’s a brilliant piece of historical detective work to unpick each scene of the film, identify the riders and race officials, and paint a broad canvas of the cultural and historical context. At its core is a snippet of film of the 1923 Tour de France and it would be easy to say the book is about Ned’s quest to find out as much as he could about it. The film mostly featured a fairly standard peloton ride, but towards the end there was an “attack” – an attempt to accelerate away from the pack – by a “Beckmann”, over a bridge.

It's a personal story too of nobody particularly famous, but none-the-less whose story intersects with others more famous, and set in a context worth considering as we navigate our present.

Come down the travelators, exit Sainsbury's, turn right and follow the pedestrianised walkway to Crown Walk and turn right - and Coles will be right in front of you. 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.I’d even switched my brain off when it came to the various factual infelicities that invariably appear in books like this. If you want to read an excellent cycling book which goes back to grass roots of the sport try 1 more Kilometre and were in the showers by Tim Hilton. Added to this was, by 1923, an air of defiance to the immediate post-War Tours, cycling through the devastated landscape in which the guns had finally fallen silent. From his cycling commenting to his one man shows Ned has shown himself to be one of Pro cyclings biggest fans. I have no idea how Boulting managed to get this so wrong, missed Gallica’s captions and somehow dated the pictures to 1925.

To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. It sets him off in fascinating directions, encompassing travelogue, history, mystery story – to explain, to go deeper into this moment in time, captured on his little film.As interesting as the story of how Boulting pins down the precise year of the film, 1923 – weather reports and clothing confirmed it couldn’t have been 1924’s appalling heatwave – and starts to attach names to faces, is the insight he gives into the “heroic age” of cycling. There’s also a healthy dose of genealogy that would make for a great spin-off of the Who Do You Think You Are? When cycling commentator Ned Boulting bought a length of Pathe news film featuring a stage of the Tour de France from 1923 he set about learning everything he could about it - taking him on an intriguing journey that encompasses travelogue, history and detective story.

This book explores the wider situation in 1923, a period of history I have to admit to not knowing very well at all.It sets him off in fascinating directions, encompassing travelogue, history, mystery story – to explain, to go deeper into this moment in time, captured on his little film. And so – in the same way that, today, Bianchi and Peugeot and Gitane are owned by the same company – Alcyon had subsidiary brands in its portfolio. It’s only 2 and a half minutes long, but it contains enough material for to fill not just one book, but many. If Boulting even mentioned the Petit Tour in 1923 – or, for that matter, the Critérium des Aiglons – I must have missed it. Boulting leading himself astray is one thing, but when he then tries to take his readers with him down some duff history cul-de-sac, that’s a problem.

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