1919. France. Cut to the peloton: the riders wear utilitarian grey wool jerseys, their team affiliations designated by their epaulettes – blue for Alcycon, purple for Peugeot. Cut to the man in the Yellow Jersey. He is Eugene Christophe. His jersey makes him a marked man, a beacon – it’s the hi-vis jacket of the day. He is the rider our eyes are drawn to, the rider with whom we are invited to identify, to invest with ideas of courage and bravery beyond the norm. His jersey marks him out as more than a leader – he is a giant amongst giants.
Cycling, as anyone who has stood on a roadside for hours just to catch a glimpse of the peloton flash past in a blur of colour and sound, is a unique sport. There’s no entrance fee – anyone can find themselves at a grass verge in the middle of nowhere in France or Italy or America and watch the greatest riders in the sport pedalling their guts out. For free, gratis, absolutely nothing. No over-priced seats in fancy stadia. Just you and maybe a camping stool, a picnic, a beer. Watching 189 grown men in lycra, smooth tanned legs pumping the pedals, knowing that maybe a quarter will never finish and that – of those who reach the flamme rouge – only one will add that victory to their palmares.
When Geo Lefevre and Henri Desgrange invented the entirely new sport of bicycle stage racing by creating the Tour de France, they did it to sell newspapers. The entire creation myth of professional cycling as we know it is based on an understanding of Georgio Vasari’s principal argument that to make something truly memorable, you must first make it exciting. Desgrange and his writers created sensation and they created heroes from working class men pedalling their way to better lives.
As cycling fans we have historically identified with the individual over the team. It’s partly historic – the earliest teams were little more than loose collections of individual riders, forced to look out for themselves. The term domestique doesn’t enter the cycling lexicography until 1911, when it springs from the pen of Henri Desgrange – who prized individual effort above all qualities – as a term of abuse. And it’s partly the structure of the sport itself – the selfless domestique or the lone doomed breakaway is as celebrated as the winner himself. Few remember that Erik Breukink won the stage on the ‘day the hard men cried’ on the Gavia. The myth of that terrible day in the mountains is focused on the rider who didn’t win the battle but won the war – Andy Hampsten, who would take the coveted Maglia Rosa all the way to the finish line.
In 1982, inspired by the football World Cup, Jacques Goddet wrote an open letter to the Tour de France visualising a cycling equivalent. The race would be globalised, with stages in the USA, Great Britain and across Europe before returning to its heartland in France. And it would be contested by national teams with the emphasis firmly on the team classification rather than the individual. “I imagine that the bike manufacturers and the team sponsors will appreciate the huge economic interest this will generate,” writes Goddet, “I hope that the leaders of our sport will be able to see what a race as brilliant as this will bring to cycling which has some work to do not to be left behind by other similar sporting events if it wishes to hold onto its ‘pole position’ with the public.” The idea of a cycling World Cup hasn’t flown – yet. But the complexion of the sport is changing – there is a willed transfer of allegiance from individual rider to team, a huge desire to shoehorn the sport into a one size fits all model.
Where the real meaning of a football team is played out on the pitch, the essence of a cycling team exists behind the scenes – in the team bus, or at the breakfast table, or in the deals done in the boardroom. In a sport based entirely on a sponsorship funding model, where teams are the playthings of corporations and oligarchs, the need to entertain the fans becomes superfluous. For a sponsor the only commercial real estate that matters is a rider’s jersey. Fans become little more than corporate shills - no football fan chants ‘come on you Arsenal Emirates’ where cycling fans are happy to paint corporate slogans like Allez Quickstep on the roads.
For a fan of football or any other team sport, cycling simply doesn’t make sense. There is no stadium of dreams, no space to house the collective hopes, expectations and despair of watching the team that you and your father and his father have followed back through time eternal. There is no definitive score, no sense of the meaning of victory within the narrative arc of a hard fought season. There are only individual riders co-operating in a peloton trying to ensure the eventual victory of one. Trying to explain that riders from different teams may willingly work together for different goals is like asking a football fan to visualise Barcelona and Real Madrid strolling onto the pitch and passing the ball happily to each other.
Cycling has its rivalries too, but they are between the giants of the road going mano a mano, when the cobbles or the hairpins – the closest we have to Wembley or the Bernabeu - have played their part and the real drama begins. When the peloton drops casually away like a stripper’s G-string to reveal the heart of the matter – who has the cojones or the smarts to go all the way to the line and raise their arms in that traditional V of victory. This is the moment when we and the cameras focus in on the individual, investing emotionally as much in the plucky outsider as in the grand champion. It is, as Roland Barthes that glorious gasbag of a sometime cycling philosopher said, not the muscle that wins. It’s the very idea that riding a bike might actually mean something.
Cycling remains only nominally a team sport, our collective spaces are virtual, the race plays out on holy ground that we may never physically inhabit. We continue to support riders who may or may not share our national identity though Dutch Corner and Irish Corner and the orange clad Basque fans of the Euskaltel team are testament to the fact that national ties are as strong in cycling as any other sport. And the rise of the superteams – Team Sky, Etixx-Quickstep, Tinkoff – has begun the process of shifting our emotional ties from the individual to the unit. But for now we stubbornly persist in prioritising the feats of individual riders over collective team performance.
Photos: Cor Vos
Follow Suze Clemitson on Twitter: @festinagirl