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.
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.