“To say that the race is a metaphor for life is to miss the point. The Race is everything.It obliterates whatever isn’t racing. Life is the metaphor for the race.” Donald Antrim
For those yet to discover the complex beauty that is the Tour de France, The annual high point of optional human challenge started on Saturday.
The Tour de France transcends sport. Epic to the point of parody it leaves other more obvious and less subtle activities to their monotone, two dimensional triviality. The Tour soars above, higher, longer, faster and harder than any activity we have so far dreamed, with the possible exceptions of war and polar exploration.
As a metaphor for humanity it offers a guide for everything especially our hubris and our frailty.
From the it’s earliest days Tour riders ingenuity with the rules has been remarkable, given that they had elected to participate in a “sporting” event. After the first event in 1903 the organisers had second thoughts about continuing when riders took trains and cars to avoid the brutality of thousands of kilometers of competitive human powered locomotion. And that was before the high mountains were introduced.
By the late 90’s the ingenuity had moved on from the mechanical to the chemical. Riders and pharmacologists collaborating to concoct magic potions, Getafix style.
The win at all costs mentality was precisely parallel to our wider society. The quick fix, bend the rules, ends justifies the means approach of business, politics and cycling were all in tune.
People suffered and died as a consequence of the culture. Cyclists in an open air sweat shop, felt trapped in an inhuman system of exploitation where their own influence was muted by a code of silence, by a dearth of people willing to take a stand.
Then, in 1998, the lid was abruptly lifted. A Belgian team worker with a pharmacy in his car was stopped at the French border en route to the Dublin start of the Tour. Suddenly most pro cyclists were on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the law.
Just as businesses were beginning to be called to account for their excesses of exploitation of people and planet, cycling too had to face up to the Darwinian binary of sustainability. Transcend or succumb. There is no safe middle ground.
So began 13 years of cultural transformation for cycling. A painful process of awareness inching it’s aching way through the peleton. Parallel to the spread of environmental awareness and integrity through politics and business.
It has taken cycling 13 years to achieve some level of honesty, the process is not complete. During that time riders died. Young men whose hearts stopped in their sleep as ventricles tried to pump blood thickened to a treacle with EPO. Athletes who lost their grip on reality and ultimately their lives, tortured by pressure, dishonesty and stimulants to breaking point.
The Tour is not unique, it is the metaphor. It is the parody. It is the culture, of our culture grown in the petri dish of the peleton and examined under the microscope.
We have taken, are taking, everything to the breaking point. The sea, the atmosphere, the land, the financial system, the human spirit.
In 1998 the crisis in cycling was propelled from it’s underworld into the glaring lights of a police interrogation cell. It still took 13 years for 200 members of the Tour de France peleton to get it – and there are those who still haven’t.
For the 2011 Tour the peleton is cleaner, more honest, more authentic than ever in it’s history. The culture has changed. The future is healthy. Cycling has become something to aspire to, something to be proud of, something to love.
Society has some way to go.
What made the difference in cycling was not the rule makers or the teams. What made the difference was individuals growing up and taking responsibility. Individuals realising that their decisions had consequences for themselves and for others. Individuals realising that winning at any cost was just too expensive. Through this process the Tour, it appears, has chosen to transcend.
What will the rest of us do?
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