Yellow Jersey

Passion Risk Tenacity Consistency

What The Tour de France Teaches Us

Last week I talked about tenacity. I quoted Giorgio Armani talking about 'Passion. Risk. Tenacity. Consistency.'' These qualities come to mind when I think about cycling and especially the Tour de France.

The Tour de France is professional cycling's premier stage race. It finished last Sunday after three gruelling weeks around Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and France in the extreme heat. The Danes were overjoyed that their hero, Jonas Vingegaard, won the Yellow Jersey as the leader of the race at the end in Paris. Copenhagen to Paris via the Alps and Pyrenees in 21 stages is no mean feat.

Beautiful and Hostile

The America's Poet Laureate, Ada Limon, said recently,

I think a lot about the word tenacity. What it takes to survive in a world that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes hostile. I’m always amazed at the body’s willingness to continue, to keep going. The heart that keeps pumping, the lungs that keep breathing, the way the will to live can outsmart those other dark voices inside.

This, for me, perfectly encapsulates the Tour. As seen on television it is frequenttly beautiful as both individual riders and the peloton wind their way through often stunning countryside. It is as frequently hostile as they battle rain, winds and heat, especially when climbing steep inclines in the mountains. Most of the riders continue for around 3,500 kilometres, although there are those whose bodies give through injury, exhaustion or, this year, through Covid infection. Their hearts keep pumping, their lungs keep breathing. They keep facing the dark voices inside telling them they cannot go any further, it is time to let go and stop.

Mark Soler, a domestique for the UAE team, was advised to climb off during Stage 16, but he continued to the end of the stage, determined not to give in. He missed the time cut by 15 minutes, so his tour ended. He was not the only one, however, to struggle against the time limit. On the next stage, stage 17, Fabio Jakobsen just made the time cut by 15 seconds, ready to continue the next day, no matter how worn out he was.

It's Not About Winning

Every rider in the race has their own reason to take part, their own reason to continue. It is not all about winning, in fact most of them do not end up winning anything. There are the jerseys to win stage by stage and overall; Yellow for the leader—the shortest time—, Green for the points leader—the most consistent finisher—, Polka Dot for the mountains—the most consistent finisher up the climbs—, and White for the leader below the age of 26; but mostly the achievement most sought after is finishing in Paris. Getting to Paris says a lot about the rider, no matter his time gap. The sprinter, Caleb Ewan, was this year's Lanterne Rouge, the last finisher at just over 5 hours 40 minutes down on the leader.

What is important to me is that the race is about far more than individual effort, it is team sport with complex team tactics and an unwritten code of hounour within the peleton. This combination is what ensures the race continues year after year with such amazing support from fans.

At the top level fans have their favourites to win and support riders accordingly. This year Tadej Pogacar, last year's yellow jersey winner, was the favourite for many people. His swash-buckling style of attacking his opponents is loved for its individuality and guts. It is equally hated for its arrogance and lack of thought. This year this style was found wanting because it failed tactically. The team Jumbo Visma, Jonas Vingegaard's team, outsmarted him in Stage 10 when Vingegaard and his team mate Primoz Roglic attacked Pogacar relentlessly and made him crack in the climb up to the Col du Granon. Pogacar hit back time and time again but Vingegaard and his Jumbo-Visma team contained the Slovenian. Jumbo Visma used a simple, but effective tactic of using two riders to attack Pogacar encouraging him to counter each attack, wearing himself out in the process.

The Unwritten Code

Equally important is the unwritten code within the peloton. There are times when it is not considered sportsmanlike to attack the leader. So when he goes for comfort break to peloton slows down and does not take advantage. On Stage 18 on a fast downhill race bettween the two leaders Vingegaard nearly crashed and soon after Pogacar did crash. He scrambled to get back on his bike to find that Vingegaard had waited for him to continue their race downhill. It was a tactically astute thing to do, but more importantly, it was a sportsmanlike way to treat his rival. They shook hands briefly as Pogacar acknowledged what his rival had done.

The peloton has many rules that keep it working as a unit while pursuing the rivalries inherent in it.

We can all learn from this way of living and dealing with others in the world. More attention to an honour code, such as this, would make an enormous difference to politics. The current British Government has lost all sight of this and continues to lie to take advantage of any opportunity to make money and trash its rivals. Until this improves there is not much hope for the country.

The former American cyclist Scott Martin said,

To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain [...] at cycling's core lies pain, hard and bitter as the pit inside a juicy peach. It doesn't matter if you're sprinting for an Olympic medal, a town sign, a trailhead, or the rest stop with the homemade brownies. If you never confront pain, you're missing the essence of the sport. Without pain, there's no adversity. Without adversity, no challenge. Without challenge, no improvement. No improvement, no sense of accomplishment and no deep-down joy. Might as well be playing Tiddly-Winks.

That kind of puts it all into context. You need passion and you need to take risks, but in the end it is worth it, they say...