The Tour de France reminds us of the multiple ways that it is possible to win in pro bike racing. The possible permutations for a rider crossing the line first seem almost endless. Even supposedly specialist riders, such as Mark Cavendish, an expert at following his lead-out train to 200 metres then launching an unbeatable sprint, can surprise us with their skill, speed and resourcefulness in difficult racing situations.
The most prominent ways of winning are from the bunch sprint, or in the mountains from a select group of grimpeurs all fighting to conquer the high peaks. But the most stylish and elegant way of winning is via the breakaway.
Winning with style
At its heart, the breakaway is a doomed endeavour, an exercise in futility. A small group of riders must battle a relentless peloton that is adamant that it is controlling the race, and the group must also battle against itself. Each rider wants to ride hard enough to have the break succeed, but not too hard so as to be spent by the time the sprint comes. A breakaway might therefore be doomed by a hard-chasing peloton, or by its own infighting.
For a breakaway, the odds of success are not good. In theory, a breakaway needs a substantial gap to succeed, a minute of time for every 10 kilometres to the finish (or so goes the rule of thumb) once the peloton starts chasing in earnest. In theory, the breakaway needs to only go faster than the rider on the front of the peloton. But this is of little succour when that rider might be a time-trial machine like Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin or Dave Zabriskie, and that the rider on the front will bury himself for a few kilometres then switch over to another hard man, and then another. As the gap gets smaller, the morale of the breakaway riders begins to suffer; and once they ease up for just a few moments, they may not have the heart to continue to fight.
A breakaway might succeed not because of the strength and tenacity of its participants, but for reasons outside of its control. The peloton may lack the enthusiasm to chase, or tactical and political decisions may be being made to ‘allow’ the breakaway to succeed. But that does not diminish the achievement if it does succeed; working in the wind is hard, time spent battling out the front is the among the toughest moments in cycling. And this is even more so the case if it is a solo breakaway – one rider against the wind, the elements, and everyone else.
No matter the number of miles on the front, winning alone is the ultimate victory – the finish line photo containing just the winner, with no other rider in sight. The ideal, perhaps, is to ride in a successful breakaway, then to ride away from the other riders with 15, 10 or 5 kilometres to go, taking advantage of a moment of hesitation from the others with a decisive show of strength, tactical savvy, and panache. These are the wins of which legends are made.
Winning with honour
According to the old sporting adage, rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen, while football/soccer is a game for gentlemen played by thugs (an adage that says as much about the class origins of those respective sports in England as it does about the games themselves). One might say that cricket is a gentlemen’s sport played by gentlemen, with its public school overtones and often arcane rules of sportsmanship and good conduct.
How, then, to classify cycling? As the Tour de France has recently reminded us, professional cycling is a brutally cruel sport that emphasizes suffering on a grand scale. In what other sport would a participant be physically ejected off the pitch and into a barbed-wire fence, then being forced to continue on while having his wounds attended to by an emergency doctor on the actual field of play?
When the Tour (and other pro events) were even more brutal, it is perhaps no surprise historically that cycling was largely a working-class sport. A day spent on the bike was perhaps no harder than a day in a coal mine or a factory or on a construction site. Henri Desgrange, in his iron-willed control of the Tour de France, wanted its working-class riders to become members of the bourgeoisie, using cycling to advance both their material fortunes and their conduct – to become gentlemen. Hence a myriad of rules and restrictions, fines and penalties, to control and reward the conduct of riders.
Bike racing, as well as society as a whole, has moved away from the class lines of its origins. While the UCI is now the Desgrange-like figure of enforcement of mind-numbing minutiae, the idea of respectability and fair play, of riding like gentlemen, has evolved as the peloton itself has established and enforced codes of conduct. There are many unwritten rules: respect for the yellow jersey, conditions under which attacking is allowed when other riders are in difficulty, when other teams should be chased down, conduct in breakaways and so on. The ultimate goal of these rules is to allow the peloton to function as an entity, safely navigating treacherous roads, as well as to give cycling a sense of fair play. That these rules are always being challenged and debated shows how the idea of fair play can evolve over time. At last year’s Tour, furious debate raged after Alberto Contador attacked Andy Schleck when the latter had a problem with his drivetrain; this year, David Millar has commented on the lack of respect shown to Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey and that they have had to fight for position in the peloton.
Riding like gentlemen is all well and good, but the stakes in professional racing are always high. The situation is much improved from even a few decades ago when a handful of stars monopolized the contracts and the money – leaving most riders to compete for the crumbs. Riders now have guaranteed salary levels down to the pro-continental level, and a range of other protections. But pro cycling (like most pro sports) remains a precarious existence: the years of earning power are limited, performances can be fickle and lucrative contracts elusive, injuries sudden and debilitating, and the chances for most to grab high-power wins are limited. The combination of genetics, training, mentoring, motivation, and just plain old luck to get to the top of the sport is elusive to all but a small group of the absolute top-class riders.
Which is why all the riders at the Tour de France are ‘riding for keeps’ and that the racing (the first week in particular) is fast and frantic and dangerous and sometimes not very fair. Every rider is fighting for position, whether to get in a breakaway, to win the stage, or to protect a cherished team caption (who will ensure results, press coverage, and bonus payouts). The Tour is the sport’s biggest stage, and it is important to shine. And this is why Contador attacked Schleck in 2010, why Millar and Hushovd don’t get all the respect they deserve, why the bunch won’t always wait after crashes, why teams will punitively chase each other down to prevent a rival team getting media coverage, why a rider in a breakaway will sandbag on the back to increase his chances of winning a sprint, and why in those sprints that fists will sometimes fly. Fair play is one thing, but if a judicious application of race tactics will further a rider’s or a team’s fortunes, they will probably go for it. The race jury, or a jury of their peers, will assess the consequences at a later time (and that there may be consequences for a team, such as a lack of help in the peloton in response to some ‘transgression’, is what makes it so interesting).
At the amateur level, however, in the racing that you and I partake in on the weekend or during the week, there are no monetary or professional factors at play. While Cat.1-2s riding for a sizeable purse (or the possibility of advancement to the pro ranks) might have some excuse, the remainder of us in the lower categories do not. Cycling is both beautiful and brutal and we have an obligation to emphasize the former. As such, the burden of fair play and riding like a gentleman is much higher. As such, we would be wise not to follow many of the examples of our professional heroes. We would do well to adopt their style and sang-froid, but not their refrain of ruthless riding.
In its application, racing (and trying to win) with honour might involve many small concessions, such as letting another rider take the wheel in front of you if they want it, not cutting other riders off, pulling through when asked (and not yelling from back of the paceline, “someone pull through”; if you’ve enough energy to shout, pull through yourself), not chasing down every single break, taking your turn on the front instead of ‘tactically’ sitting at the back and waiting for the sprint, and not shouting and banging your handlebars when you and your $2,000 race wheels get pipped for 5th at the local Tuesday night crit by a first-timer on a cyclo-cross bike.
This is not always an easy task. We’re enthusiastic about our racing, and we delight in trying to cross the line first (and to perhaps even make a victory salute). If you’ve ever zipped up your jersey just before the sprint, you’ve probably been bitten by the racing bug. Sometimes we see the ‘racing line’ down the outside or through the inside that isn’t actually there. And we make excuses to ourselves for sitting on the back: “I’ve been too busy working/child raising/carousing to train; I rode for 90 minutes to get to the race; I really need to win this $5 prime…” (and your author has made some of these excuses himself).
Our obligation in amateur racing is to ride fast and to ride fair, to ride as much as we can with style and aplomb. Our obligation is to ride like gentlemen. As Graeme Fife might say, the bicycle is a “beautiful machine”. So bike racing is thus a beautiful sport. For us amateurs, this is a total truism. So next time you race, resist squeezing through the smallest gaps, let someone in, launch a doomed attack, take your turn on the front and ride hard, and smile and chat and enjoy the racing. And you might be surprised just how fun it is to race (and maybe win) with honour.