With a workaday route for stage four, and no major upsets, it seems now is a good idea to offer some brief, and scientific reflections on cyclists’ psychology before the mountain stages, which I presume will offer a whole new avenue of inquiry on the crazy ways which the pros think. Broadly speaking, cyclists are crazy. Or at least, they have a mindset that leaves them utterly outside of normality. Other endurance sports just don’t compare to a Grand Tour. Up and down mountains, over one hundred miles a day, every day, for weeks. This doesn’t exist anywhere in sport; it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of sport. And it must hurt. It must have you want to cry. Why do it then?
I won’t even try to offer an answer for this question because nothing definitive presents itself. Of course, the sense of achievement at simply finishing must be a motivating factor for some, especially since so many cyclists are not racing to win. But for every amicable trier, you get a character like Mark Cavendish. Bent on winning the green jersey, the sense of achievement at finishing the whole Tour doesn’t seem such a major attraction for him; there was suggestion yesterday that he may drop out if his abysmal points score doesn’t improve; yet he enters endurance races like le Tour rather than just track cycling or shorter events. If the achievement of endurance isn’t a motivating factor for him, why bother?
What seems to remain true of all these cyclists though is a disconnect with the real world which allows them to finish stages. They seem practically impervious to pain, finishing stages with fractures, looking like they might be entering shock and then jumping on teammates bikes, bleeding and cycling, never stopping. I would even speculate that this comes with a hallucinatory separation from the real world, as is manifested by the seemingly genuine belief in conspiracy theories that exists amongst the field: that bikes are being fitted with miniature engines, that the race organisers are out to hurt them as much as possible and so on. Witness too the complete lack of social skills that most of these guys seem to have. Yes this can be attributed to their exhaustion, but does not this hallucinatory nature come from exhaustion too? Does the multitude of locales in such a short time make everything seem less real, more real, neither? Does the presentation of huge fluffy teddy bears by two beautiful women and a group of men in ill-fitting tie-less suits make riders feel like they have any more a realistic grip on reality? Do cyclists even notice the surroundings that I have waxed lyrical about? Do they ever go insane?
These questions will perhaps play themselves out in the mountains, for Stage Four was a little dull. No big crashes, no terror of the cobbles, and a deeply unsatisfying sprint finish. I missed the highlights so I only saw the action of about the last 70km. Even the countryside, though pretty, was a little boring; the most interesting thing I learnt today was that people in the north-east of France just can’t get enough of carp fishing, though Reims Cathedral was, of course, majestic.
The main interest for me then, lay in the breakaway group that led for the most of the stage. There seems to have been no real mention of them in the press coverage of the stage, and so I’m afraid I’m unable to give their names. The amount of time the peloton took to reel them in defied all the commentators expectations and as they hit the series of roundabouts in the last 5km, I wondered whether they wouldn’t just manage to retain their lead, especially if there had been a crash amongst the lead pursuers.
The relatively prosaic nature of this stage also afforded an excellent view of team tactics in the run-up to the sprint, with elbows out, teams jostling for position and this balletic movement across the road as groups separated and converged organically. The movement of cyclists in le Tour can probably be calculated with the golden ratio. Then Alessandro Petacchi won. Sometimes the run-up to the sprint is more interesting than the sprint itself.
Would you have tried to console Cavendish after he failed?
Will Cavendish’s anger improve his performance?
Should the wearer of le maillot jaune be crowned like French royalty in Rheims cathedral?
What’s more boring – facts about the Dutch countryside or facts about carp fishing?
Next time: Stage Five Epernay – Montargis. By the looks of things, a tiring stage, though there should be plenty of fascinating Francophile information as le Tour hits Champagne country.