Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the High Mountains) (review)

Do you love the Tour de France?  If not, this book is not for you.

With that said, let’s talk about it anyway. In this book, he covers specifically the Tour de France but also other events in professional cycling. The book is originally published in 1995 so the amazing year (1996) where the Dane Bjarne Riis won the Tour is not covered, neither is the victories of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador – or Lance Armstrong. Well, except in a brief foreword to the 2009 edition for some of them. And this is my main problem with the book – I started following the Tour in the early 90s so I don’t know that much about the years before and while it is interesting and Leth writes it well, I would have loved to have read more about the riders I knew and know and the races I’ve watched. This is flashbacks to Leth’s personal highlights of the Tour, his thoughts on professional cycling, doping, food in France, working as a film director and a commentator and more. And it’s fascinating.

As I’ve written earlier, Jørgen Leth has a way with words. And even though this is a non-fiction book about a bike race, it’s wonderfully written. And I don’t think the beauty of it’s writing is only because Leth is a poet and has a way with words. It’s also because he writes about what he loves.

Jørgen Leth loves bike racing and he writes about this love, specifically about his love for the Tour de France. He writes about his heroes, how he in particular love the tormented riders, the ones who has a bit more to fight against than just the stages and the mountains. He is drawn to the underdog, the rider who has weak knees, who doesn’t believe in himself, who struggles against inner demons. He loves the riders who can attack and shake everything up. And maybe that is because of his poetic eyes which see the beauty in the struggle, the beauty in the lone rider struggling across the highest mountains pursued by a chasing peloton, the beauty in an attacker cheating the sprinters of their finish.

As he puts it: ‘Bike riders ride bicycles. They ride from one place to another. They ride up, and they ride down. The first to arrive at the finish, has won. Along the way, things happen. It’s as simple as that.’ (p. 303 – my translation). And it is as simple as that. But what he then goes on to point out, is, that out of this, people emerge, looking directly out of the pictures, trying to create something extraordinary. And when that happens, Leth is ready to see it and frame it. To spot the moment which steps out of itself to become something durable. Something to remember and look back on.

And that’s exactly what he does – both as a commentator and as a writer. He spots the extraordinary in the ordinary. He sees the beauty in the struggle, he praises the courageous and cheers the fighters. His sharp eyes separates the contenders from the pretenders – but praises the pretenders when they dare, even if they fail. As long as they fail in an epic way. And he frames it all in beautiful words for the rest of us – along with commentating on the landscape, the weather, the geography, all of which add that extra dimension to both the race and extraordinariness of it all.

Such a pity that this book hasn’t been translated.

  • Title: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge
  • Author: Jørgen Leth
  • Publisher: Gyldendal
  • Year: 2009 (1995)
  • Pages: 330 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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