On my Greenbelt bicycle tour a month ago, a rider and I were ascending Mt. Hamilton together along a series of switchbacks. About a mile from the summit, I looked down to my right, and spied three other Greenbelt riders spinning up the hill. I sighed. This trio had been nicknamed "the Jets"; they were the fastest cyclists on the tour. Typically they lounged around camp sipping their coffee waiting for everyone else to hit the road, and then, without seeming to expend much effort, zipped past all the sluggards. They always seemed to pass me right before the crest of the biggest climb of the day, and today was clearly going to be no exception. Fie on them!
"Now I know what it is like to be on a breakaway during the Tour de France," I said to my companion. "Only to be caught just before the very end."
It's one of the signature traditions of the Tour. Early in a given stage (usually a "flat" stage -- mountain stages have entirely different characteristics) a small group of riders will leave the main pack -- the peloton -- behind and make a bid for stage-winning fame. But it almost never works. Eventually the peloton, working together, speeds up and catches the foolhardy escapees. (This is one reason why Floyd Landis' astounding, but now besmirched, solo breakaway in the 2006 Tour initially commanded such amazement.) The attempted breakaway is a touchstone of Tour dynamics -- bittersweet and almost inevitably doomed, but still fun, while it lasts. It has always signified a deeper truth about existence to me. Everyone has the chance to be a hero; everyone can give it a go, everyone can taste the glory for a few hours, but in the end, you're screwed.
For reasons unclear to me the New York Times has replaced the longtime dean of cycling reporters, Samuel Abt, with Edward Wyatt. So far, Wyatt has been perfectly fine, but he lacks Abt's flair, Abt's ability to make even the most humdrum stage sing with narrative drama. (Thankfully, Abt's coverage can still be found in the International Herald Tribune, online.)
But Wyatt distinguished himself in today's Times by interpreting the classic breakaway in a fresh light -- not as a quixotic gesture, but as a marketing platform. Every rider in the Tour is a living billboard, and breakaway riders benefit from hours of uninterrupted television coverage -- particularly in France, where millions watch every minute of the race. If you're a Tour team sponsor who sells products in France, that exposure is invaluable.
This news is at once enlightening and disconcerting. I'm not sure I wanted to know the crass motivations underlying the valiant breakaway. Instead of "win a stage for the Gipper," it's "stay in front a few hours before you lose for the Discovery Channel!" Woo hoo!
But upon reflection, I am satisfied by this even deeper truth about existence. The motivations that drive us are invariably more complex than a surface glance reveals: Every stab for glory provides for cover for less glittery incentives. And who am I to deny T-Mobile or Quick Step-Innergetic its moment in the sun, if in return it pays some extraordinary cyclist to ride for three weeks through the hills and valleys of France?