Midweek Musings 9th September 2020

It’s Not About Winning, But About Taking Part

(By Cheryl Trundle)

‘An amateur should think long and hard before attempting one of these stages. Two would probably necessitate a visit to the doctor – and three would require a psychiatrist – any more and you should be checking if that person has written a will.’

What am I talking about? It is of course the Tour de France which is currently, if belatedly, taking place for the 107th time.

The first race, ridden in 1903 was organised as an attempt to boost sales of a sports newspaper L’Auto. Taking place over 23 days, divided into 21 stages (flat, hilly, mountainous and a time trial) it covers over 2,000 miles, is composed of 21 multi-national teams, attracts over 12 million spectators and 3.5 billion TV viewers. These days hosting the ‘Grand Depart’ i.e. the start, is a matter of great prestige and has been hosted by many countries across Europe, including London and York (2007 and 2014). Since 1975 the finish has always been in Paris riding down the magnificent Champs-Élysées.

At the end of each day the rider who crosses the finish line first is the ‘Stage Winner’ and gets to go up onto the podium. However other prizes are up for grabs. These include the yellow jersey for the fastest overall time (colour decided as being easy to pick out in a crowd of riders and also because L’Auto was printed on yellow paper); the green jersey worn by the best sprinter and time triallist judged by an immensely complicated points system (green because it was sponsored by a lawn mower company); and for the rider winning most points on mountain stages a polka dot jersey for the ‘King of the Mountains’.  

It’s also an opportunity to learn some new French vocabulary although peloton, domestique, maillot a pois rouges may not crop up often in conversation!

The race as it has evolved, has had its share of triumphs and tragedies. Previously ridden by day and night with each rider responsible for his own refreshment and repairs it has evolved into a complex affair of support teams, sponsorship, high level mechanics and complicated tactics. From the start there were tales of bike sabotage, catching trains to miss out stages, filling water bottles with lead to make you go quicker downhill, taking alcohol to numb pain (finally banned in 1960), and drug taking to enhance performance.

So, what parallels can be drawn from all of this which might be relevant today? Some thoughts are mine and others incorporated from readings around the subject. The Tour is a spectacle, a pageant a group endeavour which has been likened to a pilgrimage, the essence of which is endurance, a quest, a search of oneself and one’s limits. A time of reflection and reassessment of values, all of which can be experienced during the race in varying measure.

The second parallel is suffering. Cycling is not the most skilful of sports and one pedal stroke is much like the next. But it is painful and long, and more than fitness is required: namely, the ability to endure suffering and to ‘dig deep’ into one’s physical and mental resources. Cyclists pride themselves, more than on any other quality, on their ability to suffer. Luckily, very serious injuries and deaths are comparatively rare, but riders often finish stages with ripped clothing, road burns, cuts and grazes, and having broken bones in crashes, some even start the next day with fractured collar bones or hands.

In case this sounds too negative or masochistic the most outstanding element of this is that it is very much a team sport even if the winners are individuals. Most of the suffering is vicarious. The rider barely turning the pedals up the final climb is not usually a bad rider, but one who has utterly spent himself guiding his leader to the foot of that climb. Race commentators refer regularly to such actions as ‘sacrifice’. Or the mostly unnoticed efforts are those of the domestiques who drop back 200 metres from the peloton (the main group or pack of riders) to the team cars, stuff 6kg of water bottles down their jerseys for the team (roughly the weight of a racing bike), and then accelerate to catch up with a mass of riders moving at 25mph. It is entirely fitting that the overall winner, who receives approx. £460,000 in prize money is expected to share this equally with the other members of his team. Teamwork, of course, reminds us that we are all equally important for the fruitful functioning of the body of the church and that we should use our God given talents unsparingly.

Third, while the written rules of international cycling are byzantine in their complexity, there are also many revered unwritten rules. The most obvious of these is that the overall winner ‘processes’, with champagne and teammates, into Paris without challenge. Similarly, there are other times when it is appropriate to ‘attack’ the yellow jersey, and times when it is considered unsporting: for instance, early on in a stage if a rider has a mechanical problem, or takes a comfort break.

That these traditions are adhered to is not simply altruistic: riders’ contracts are short, and this year’s team-mates might well be next year’s rivals, and the loyalty of the professional cyclist is ultimately to the peloton as a whole, even though he is working for his team’s success. We would do well to remember that we should examine carefully the motives for our actions and their consequences.

Cycling like life can be hard, stressful, challenging, exhausting and frustrating but it can also be triumphant, exhilarating, rewarding and inspiring. If you are finding life more like the former than the latter (I am not necessarily suggesting that you take up cycling) then I point you to one of my favourite passages in Jeremiah 29:

‘For I know the plans I have for you …. plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you declares the Lord’.

(Jeremiah 29:11-14)

(Photo: https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2019/jul/26/leader-keeps-jersey-after-risky-descent/ )