Cycling is a beautiful sport. At its most artistic it is captivating and breathtaking. There is something about the juxtaposition of the machine, the suffering of the rider, and the backdrop of the outdoor stadiums that so utterly captivates us. Like any good entertainment, it appeals to us on a basic, emotional level. We allow ourselves to be swept along by the sheer visceral emotion of the experience – uplifting as well as tragic. Why, then, do we attempt to give pro cycle racing (and sport in general) a wider meaning, a moral significance?
What is life but a search for meaning: how did we get here, where are we going, what does it all mean? “The characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things,” said philosopher John Dewey. We want things to be more than emotive experiences; we want them to have a context and a weight in human affairs. This is where ‘myth making’ comes in, which, according to Roland Barthes, is a particularly “bourgeois affliction”. All sports go through this process and the myths are usually genuine attempts to give gravitas to human endeavour. More often, though, they are cynical attempts at marketing. The Tour de France is replete with examples. In 1910, Henri Desgrange co-opted the local vernacular of “circle of death” for the inclusion of the Pyrenees and played up the reports of bears and wild animals that would make the stage an “epic” one. Never mind that, as Graham Robb argues in ‘The Discovery of France’, cyclo-tourists, and likely a bunch of locals, had been crossing the peaks for years. The Tour ride was epic as it was documented in black and white – how little times have changed. Continue reading