The longest journey

Yellow Fever: the dark heart of the Tour de France

Jeremy Whittle <em>Headline, 307pp, £6.99</em>

Anyone who watches a mountain stage of the Tour de France for the first time will witness an agony more appropriate to a painting by Hieronymus Bosch than a contemporary sporting event. Physical debilitation is inescapable: arms and legs baked dry by the sun; eyes bloated and bloody; lips cracked; veins and sinews etched in the skin; the individual muscles so distinct as to be an anatomist's dream; no spare flesh anywhere - most markedly on the faces contorted in exhaustion, some to the point of delirium. The greatest and most venerated of all sporting endurance events, the Tour enjoys a mythological status that makes it quite untouchable - especially in France, because this is a race that binds into a single entity the infinite variety of the French landscape, from Alpine passes to the Atlantic coastline to the great Parisian boulevards. To speak of the Tour is to speak of striving beyond possible limits, the stuff of legend.

In 1998, the legend buckled. The leading team, Festina, were banned after a pharmacy of performance-enhancing drugs was discovered in the car of their soigneur. The threshold of human endurance was being crossed - but only with a spectacular cocktail of erythropoietin, growth hormone, anabolic steroids and masking agents. Was this really the end of innocence, or simply confirmation of what was already known: that the Tour could not be won on a diet of sandwiches and mineral water?

Jeremy Whittle's Yellow Fever is a personal and journalistic account of the 1998 Tour, deriving its pace and structure from the race itself: each stage is covered in detail, the sense of restless movement captured by Whittle's forays into run-down hotels and cafes en route, as he struggled to keep up with the racing and the scandals, of which there were many. Suspicion engendered suspicion as each team was scrutinised. When the French authorities detained and strip-searched some riders, sporadic protests were consolidated into a virtual strike as one stage became a procession. Despite the myriad crises, the late-night ambushes of hotels, the hesitant official line, the proliferation of rumour and counter-rumour, the Tour did make it to the Champs Elysees - and involved some of the most exhilarating racing of recent times. The maillot jaune was decided in the Alps by two climbs whose very names strike fear into any cyclist: Col du Galibier and Col de la Madeleine. On the former, in freezing conditions, the defending champion, Jan Ullrich, was broken by his nearest challenger, Marco Pantani, the climber sans pareil, who sped up the 2,645m climb as though it were Highgate Hill, taking nine minutes off the cadaverous and hypothermic Ullrich. The next day, the German tried to break back with a breathtaking echappee up la Madeleine, leaving the rest far behind - except Pantani. This was a heroic head-to-head, the Tour rediscovered in its own myth-making.

Whittle's book, although ostensibly about the "dark heart" of the Tour de France, serves as an excellent introduction to the event. It captures first-hand the cycling pageant that struts around rural France for 25 hard days in July every year: the caravane publici-taire, in which all the sponsors display their gaudy products; the vast media circus; the teams, their mobile homes and support vehicles; the complex strategies, the planned and spontaneous echap-pees, the terrible climbs and terrifying descents, the shocking collisions, the vicious sprints; the twin peaks of pride and ambition that enable the riders to endure the relentless punishment. This is why even to finish last, as the lanterne rouge, is to earn as much respect as to finish in the maillot jaune.

Having stumbled through the scandals of 1998, the Tour continues to create its own legends. When the Scotsman David Millar made a sensational debut this year and won the prologue - to the acclaim of the Continental sporting press - he insisted on sleeping in the maillot jaune. How sad that his performance was but a footnote in the British press.

Henry Sheen reviews regularly for the NS