I was in Australia recently for the final stages of the Tour de France. What was surprising was not simply that every Australian I met (from gallery owners to cafe workers) was aware that something called the Tour de France existed. They were avidly following it. Now in part this was simple nationalism: it looked like an Australian was going to win the whole damn thing and impress the entire world (and, as we know, Cadel, the local boy, did make good). Even though the country is rugby mad, perhaps it is true that there was less competition at the time; the Wallabies had just, as expected, walked all over a second-string Springboks side and no one seemed that interested. Yet, while it may have been the kind of ego-centric nationalism that fueled the Armstrong phenomena (“Hey! An American is winning something! What’s he winning again?”) it was clear that the sport of cycling was getting a major boost. Most of the people who casually mentioned the Tour were watching it for the first time. Clearly they were captivated by the suffering of the mountain stages, the lonely strangeness of the individual time trial, the odd ceremony of the final stage giving away to the homicidal intensity of the sprint along the Champs Elysees. They were having the same reactions I had the first time I really watched the tour: confusion, fascination, admiration. What they were clearly confronting was the fact that the sport of professional cycling is really like no other sport.
Strange Moments in Sport
I was reminded of this last night when I was watching the Kiwi film Boy (2010). At one point the title character, mildly stoned and partly drunk, is sitting on the edge of a bridge, in the bright sun, out in the middle of nowhere. As the character begins to drift in and out of reality, suddenly a small peloton of weekend cyclists, their rainbow collection of lycra almost glowing in the sun, swings around the corner and purrs across the bridge. In plot terms, it is a complete non-sequitur; no cyclists play a role earlier in the movie or subsequently. Instead, the appearance of the cyclists stands as an isolated, hallucinatory marker of life gone suddenly, essentially, strange.
But what is it that makes professional cycling so odd compared with other sports? Think about the usual sports that people in the US are passionate about. They are sports based around either individual brilliance or team effort. Professional road cycling is therefore going to be odd on the face of it because most events are simultaneously an individual and a team event. More difficult to grasp, from someone weened on the thuggery of ice hockey, the tedium of golf, and the pointless tedium of baseball is that your ability to succeed as an individual depends on your success as a team. . .and the team’s achievements depend on the collective results of your individuals. But road cycling has another dynamic that makes it strange (and, to those of us who love watching it, wonderful). Teams don’t just compete against one another, they cooperate with one another. Individuals don’t just compete against one another they cooperate with one another.
Which brings me to one of the signature elements of road cycling: the breakaway. One powerful element of great sports as spectator events is that they do more than simply entertain and divert us, they spark our imaginations, provide powerful metaphors that we use to interpret other parts of our experience. The breakaway is, for me, one of those metaphors, a potted drama that captures something essential about the human condition every time it happens.
Life on Two Wheels
If you’ve ever watched a big stage race like the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia you’ll be familiar with the breakaway. A group of riders jumps off the front early in the stage and tries to put as much time as possible between themselves and the main field. Hopefully they can establish enough of a lead that they can stay away until the end and gain a stage victory. Part of the inherent drama of the breakaway is the statistical idiocy of it. Because breakaways almost never succeed. More than 90% of the time they fail; the main field catches them up with a few miles to go, sweeps them up all at once or picks them off individually, and they are relegated to an anonymous pack result. So breakaways form and cyclists bury themselves in the near certainty that their efforts will be all for naught. They do it, however, because of that 10% chance. Maybe, just maybe, something will go wrong with the juggernaut bearing down on them for behind. Perhaps it will be something dramatic like a major crash, a stroke of ill fortune for others that turns out to be the golden ticket for someone in the breakaway. Perhaps it will be something as mundane as in-fighting between the various teams that ensures an effective pursuit never gets started.
Breakaways are compelling for other reasons, however. First, there is the complex calculus that dictates the composition of the breakaway groups. Since stage races are based on cumulative time over many days of racing, the breakaway cannot contain any contenders for the overall race result. It has to consist of people who are, for the purposes of that particular race at least, nobodies. What every member of the breakaway is hoping for, of course, is that at the end of the day they will have defied the near certainty of defeat and someone will have been transformed from nobody to somebody with a victory in a major stage race. Very occasionally (especially if there is a disaster in the main field) someone will become more than a somebody, and will ascend to the pantheon, as happened with Voeckler when he became part of a breakaway in this year’s TDF.
Finally, it is the drama within the breakaway that is often so compelling. In order to build up a sufficient lead to constitute an official breakaway, rather than simply “a lame group of guys dicking around a couple hundred metres up the road,” the breakaway has to work well together. Individual cyclists from different teams need to function as if they are all on the same team, seamlessly swapping the lead and keeping the circulation going so that they all share the load equally. Inevitably there comes that moment, however, when each individual cyclist in the breakaway starts thinking beyond the immediate task of staying clear of the charging field behind them, and starts to think of the end of the race. Of how not to work as a team. Of how to try and beat the guys you have just been working faithfully with for the last hundred or so miles.
This is where cycling becomes so much more than a mere cycle race. More than the obvious drama of the finish, the tensions in the breakaway are the place where the race achieves its poetry, where it takes on the character of fundamental existential dilemmas. How long does the breakaway attempt to carry a member who is flagging? How does it deal with someone who won’t pull his or her weight because they are saving their energy for the finish? The games begin, the breakaway becomes a group of individuals, people start calculating their own individual chances, looking at each other kind of funny. . . Sometimes it is this very behavior, when the riders start trying to game one another, that ensures that the breakaway will be caught.
It is this bizarre mix that makes every single breakaway almost a parable of the human condition: the everyday drama of competition, struggle, strategy, cooperation, game playing,betrayal, hubris, and tragic miscalculation in which we are all enmeshed as we struggle to define ourselves and stave off the inevitable shadow of pursuit.