Feudalism and Guilds in the Tour de France?

Howdy, Instapunderati! Thanks for stopping by.

It’s that time of year again, when even some of us who regard bicycles as more of a menace than a form of recreation* turn on the TV at 0700 or 1900 to listen to two Brits describing a long-distance race through France. It has become a ritual in Redquarters, mostly for the scenery.

MomRed made an interesting observation: the Tour operates like a feudal system.

If you turn around and see this, you might want to get out of the road.

This was before the body that administers the tour excommunicated Peter Sagan (for this year) for something that is looking less and less like a mortal sin and more like an instinct response.

But back to the basic idea. In the ideal feudal administrative system (i.e. the flow chart in most textbooks), you have the large mass of people. They are peasants. They agree to support a few warriors (knights/lords) in exchange for protection and the application of justice. The knights in turn owe allegiance to greater lords, up to a monarch, either a king or an emperor depending on when and where. There are duties and privileges that operate up as well as down the system, and everyone knows their place and stays there, so long as the others involved do their duty.

Within certain crafts you had guilds. In exchange for being taught the skills of the craft and given food and housing, apprentices worked for five to seven years for the master. Then they advanced to journeyman if they were skilled enough, traveled a little to see how other branches of the guild operated, and produced a master piece, as well as paying dues and funding religious functions and a feast. If all went well, they became a master with the rights and duties of the guild.

Now look at the Tour de France and other team-cycling races. The team is organized around the lead rider (the lord). He is the most experienced, and he is the one that is supposed to win the overall race. There are secondary races, like sprinter, king-of-the-mountain, best young rider, and stage winner, but the yellow jersey is the goal. Only the team lead races for the yellow jersey.** The goal of the team is to get him into yellow and keep him there. Period end.

Within the team you have domestiques and lead-out-men, plus the sprinters. The job of domestiques is to take care of the rest of the team. They are usually the new guys, and they drop back to get food and water bottles, then catch up with the others and deliver the supplies, then go get more as needed. They also serve as wind-blocks, and help get the lead rider or sprinter into position. These are the people you see peeling off the bulk of riders in the last five kilometers or so. They are worn out, job done, and they are dismissed.

The lead-out men set the pace and maneuver within the main body (peloton) to get the lead rider into position (like George Hincapie did for several riders, before his departure from pro-cycling). They may push the race tempo, trying to wear out the other teams before the last leg, or they may work to hold the tempo down if the weather is bad or there’s a problem of some kind, or if the senior riders think the peloton is feeling too frisky. Eventually the lead-out men may become team leads if they do their job well. Lead-out men shelter the lead rider and keep him in a good position for the last surge of the race. Then they step aside and let the lead rider take over.

The team manager decides all this in advance, with allowances for accidents, illness, and the Fickle Finger of Fate. Young riders have to try out for the team, be selected, and then work their way up into the ranks by serving as domestiques, lead-out-men, and possibly designated as sprinters. Teams are rewarded for their overall finish, and get even more if they have one of the jersey wearers, and the most if they have a Tour winner on board. That is their job – get the lead man into yellow and keep him there. They have sworn fealty to their lord, and they must sacrifice personal gain for his benefit and that of the team.

I realize cycling is a lot more complicated than that. And I know that there were more variations on the feudal system just within Western Europe alone than there were textbook arrangements. But it’s an interesting way to look at the Tour, non?

*I’m still a little biased because of bad experiences I had last month with cyclists in Europe. By law pedestrians have the right of way on sidewalks and in pedestrian zones. In reality, the cyclists claimed the right of way and cursed at people when we couldn’t get clear.

**If the lead rider goes out, then the team has the option to try and get a different member into the yellow jersey. If a team is down to less than seven riders still in the race, then every man is for himself and devil take the hindmost as far as it goes, because they are no longer officially a team in the team competition.

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11 thoughts on “Feudalism and Guilds in the Tour de France?

  1. If I turn around and see that behind me, not only would I want to get out of the way, I might want to stretch a line across the road, about three feet up, strongly anchored.

    • Tsk, tsk. Team BMC are not the bad guys this year. (Although I have a sneaking suspicion that the French are thrilled that the G-20 is in Hamburg and has drawn away a lot of the people who might try to do something to score political points.)

    • I’m solidly with P.J. O’Rourke: http://notanothercyclingforum.net/bikereader/contributors/misc/menace.html

      ” Mankind has invested more than four million years of evolution in the attempt to avoid physical exertion. Now a group of backward-thinking atavists mounted on foot-powered pairs of Hula-Hoops would have us pumping our legs, gritting our teeth, and searing our lungs as though we were being chased across the Pleistocene savanna by saber-toothed tigers. Think of the hopes, the dreams, the effort, the brilliance, the pure force of will that, over the eons, has gone into the creation of the Cadillac Coupe de Ville.”

    • Not to mention the cleverest at hiding electronic assistance / miniature motorization assist? 😛

      • I know some say “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” but for athletic competitions I can’t agree. However, given the financial incentives (and the egos) involved perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

      • No, its not surprising, which is why a parallel “natural bodybuilding” movement developed for example, for those who want to see what they can do without some of the performance enhancing stuff.

  2. “some of us who regard bicycles as more of a menace than a form of recreation”

    Some of us consider them a form of transportation.

    • And they are. However, after having been in places where bicycles insist on taking the right of way despite the laws of man and very crowded sidewalks and streets, I’m not as happy about bicycles as I used to be. Apparently, at least in parts of Belgium and Germany, “pedestrian zone” means bicycle zone: walk at your own risk.

    • Worst thing about cycling is the cyclists.

      There was a period where I commuted to work on my bicycle. After work I would sometimes ride extra distance for recreation and exercise (it was a short commute).

      For anyone interested, I worked in Kendall Square and lived in East Cambridge. For fun I would ride bridge circuits. That stretch of the Charles River has, for a number of miles, bike/walking paths on both banks and is crossed by many bridges. Which bridges you use to turn around decide the length of your loop. On a bike, and where I lived, Science Museum/Watertown Square was optimal.

      The worst part of it, commuting on streets or recreational riding on paths (that occasionally cross streets) was other cyclists. A particular subset of them seemed to think their special virtue made them immune to all laws – both those of traffic, and of basic human decency. It’s like they were in perpetual acute roid rage at all times.

      I didn’t want to be anywhere near, or be in any way associated with, those people. Eventually I switched to walking to work. Took longer, but got good exercise. Stopped riding bridge circuits.

      Then I changed jobs and apartments and had to buy a car. (Much higher paying job in the suburbs.) And exposure to cyclists, as a cyclist, had made me into one of those drivers who *really* does not care for cyclists. No irony there.

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