peloton – n (ˈpe-lə-tɒn)
The main field of riders in a road race.
[French, literally: pack]
In the past I’ve fancied myself as a cyclist, though not radical. I have a decent road bike that I really paid too much for. I’ve completed the ever-daunting century a couple of times, which is cycling at least 100 miles in a single ride. My friends and I used to regularly do a Pasadena to San Diego cycling trip, though, to be honest, this ride was more about where we would eat than it was for speed or accomplishment. (I still remember singing “I Can See Clearly Now” at the top of my lungs while riding along the Pacific at Seal Beach. Really, how fast were we going if singing was involved?) Whatever the case, riding and watching cycling on television has taught me some things. Watching television? Seriously?
For quite a few years, during the now defunct reign of Lance Armstrong, I watched the Tour de France religiously. Prior to this I was uncertain as to how these stage races operated. For whatever reason I’d always assumed that you entered these races individually and tried to win them individually, kind of like runners in a marathon would do. Not so. You can’t even enter the Tour as a racer unless you are part of the team. As the near month-long races came and went I found myself more and more fascinated by the team aspect of bicycle racing, and mostly by this organic entity called the peloton. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Tour de France 2013 consisted of nineteen teams, with each team at ten riders apiece. One hundred ninety men, all with skinny arms and torsos and thunder-thighs, hopped on their bikes and, in twenty-one stages done in a 23-day period of time, cycled over 2,100 miles, most of them finishing. Unbelievable if you really think about it.
As I watched these races on television I observed many close-up shots of riders together interacting, communicating, maneuvering. I saw teams trying to get their lead rider into an advantageous position that would best suit the interest of the team. Sure, there is the team leader, just as a football team has a quarterback who happens to be the franchise player around which the entire team is viewed by the world. But it is about the team. For example, Team Sky, a satellite broadcaster out of Great Britain, proudly boasts their lead rider, Chris Froome, as the winner of the 2013 Tour de France. However, without the help of the other nine riders, each specifically hand-picked for their skills at helping this win, Froome would have most likely been relegated to somewhere in the middle of the pack when all was said and done. Froome got the win, but Team Sky celebrated because they actually won.
I love this about stage racing. You can’t do it alone. But the best part, as far as I am concerned, is much better and includes all of the riders. It is…the peloton! As you watch races like this one you notice long stretches where they are traveling over flat, country roads you see a giant pack of riders zipping along at around thirty miles per hour. When you get the shot from the helicopter flying overhead, that pack looks like a living, active, shape-changing entity; an amoeba taking in the sites of the French countryside. The riders at the front stay there for a little bit, then move along the sides to the middle and then work their way back up front. As the shot gets closer you get a chance to see the middle of that amoeba and you notice that those cyclists there aren’t even pedaling half the time. They are chatting with each other as their bicycles zip along at thirty-plus, sort of like they’re on their way to the market to pick up a baguette and some table wine.
“What time should we start dinner?”
“Does 7:30 work for you?”
“That should be fine. Let me check with my wife.”
“Come by early for drinks.”
“Do you think England should join the European Union and switch to the Euro?”
“Don’t know. You?”
In almost every stage of these races we get to see a small handful of riders (sometimes one, but rarely) decide to jump out in front and start pedaling like Beelzebub is chasing them on a Harley. This is called a “breakaway” and these riders are betting that if they put in a ton of energy early on they can get way out in front of the peloton and possibly win the stage without competing with 189 other riders at the finish line. I’ve seen this happen so many times and it rarely works. That small group hangs in there for several hours riding in a rotating single file, each one taking ten or fifteen seconds at the front, then pealing off to glide back to the end of the line. Their faces look like someone is jabbing icepicks into their thighs. Announcer Phil Liggett often cries out in his marvelous English accent, “They’re really suffering out there!” Then, with just a scant few miles remaining, you get the camera shot out in front of this breakaway looking back at them…and there it suddenly appears: the peloton! It gets bigger and bigger, closing in on the rag-tag, forlorn handful of beaten, bedraggled bicyclists, eventually engulfing them like a blue whale feasting on a smidgeon of krill. The large peloton is so much faster than the handful.
The Tour is a race with eventual winners on a podium, but the concept of the peloton continues to pique my interest. Here are a handful of reasons why l like the peloton.
“I’m winning, I’m winning! … Now I’m not.” Being in the lead is not the goal, except to help the group. The energy the leaders have to expend is so intense that even a few seconds in the front makes the strongest rider go weak very quickly. Each rider can only lead for a minute at best before giving way to another. When you lead you are only there to serve the peloton.
“I hate you! I need you! I hate you! I need you!” Personal conflict is not an issue. As you can well imagine with alpha male, testosterone-packed, world-class athletes…there will be some personality conflicts. There are guys that just cannot stand being in the same room together. I’ve seen that in every Tour I’ve watched. Yet, they need each other in that peloton. And it is there that they must, and do, work together. It makes me giggle at times.
“You guys make my life so easy!” When surrounded by the peloton, the riding is easiest. In the center of the peloton the riders expend about forty percent less energy than a rider would on their own. From time to time a rider needs to recover from a difficult ride from the day before. Perhaps they are under the weather. Perhaps they crashed a couple of days earlier. They are able to “rest” there for a time until they have the strength to contribute at the front.
“Hold your line, bonehead!” You must have constant awareness of the riders around you. Traveling at thirty miles per hour with the riders nearest to you only inches away demands conscientious alertness as to where you always are in relation to everyone else. The road is a fickle beast and doesn’t always run straight, sometimes turning suddenly, or presenting one of those European roundabouts, or becoming an intersection where the riders need to negotiate a hard right or left. When it does this you can’t cheat and move to the inside of the curve, or corner, or roundabout for an advantage. If you do this you take out the riders next to you, along with those traveling behind you. You need to hold the line you have, and the other riders must as well.
“Danger, Will Robinson!” Riders in the front warn riders behind them of danger. The road is never perfect. Each one has potholes, debris, sudden bumps, any number of things. Hand signals are used pointing these out. Down the line you see these signals passed along until the entire peloton is beyond the danger.
“Hey, where did Jan go?” Unwritten rules. In the mountain stages the peloton gets broken up into smaller version of pelotons because there are only a few really good climbers, and these are most often the ones that compete for the overall Tour win. If a group of, say, ten of these are riding in a pack, there are certain things that are done that are not in the rulebook. I remember in one certain mountain stage a number of years ago that the competition for the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) was especially fierce for seven or eight of the riders, and, in this particular stage, all of them were in a pack climbing a mountain at a pace that would have given me a coronary attack. At one point Jan Ulrich, who was a long-time rival and friend of Lance Armstrong, fell. The entire pack slowed down and waited until Jan could get back onto his bike, pedal back, and rejoin them. Only then did the pace resume to what it once was. What? They waited? Would you see that happening in a marathon? Nope.
As in any analogy to life, if one takes it to its furthest conclusion it falls apart. I’m aware of performance enhancing drug scandals that riddle this sport, immoral activities among famous riders, etc. That NEVER happens in any other sport, right?
But let’s look around us. Who, in your life, is weak right now? Who do you see that is just hanging in there? Do you know someone who is just ready to quit the race? Someone you know might just need the group to gather around and say, “Why don’t you rest here in the middle of the pack for a while? We’ll bust through the wind for you and protect you from the elements. If you can just pedal a little bit and stay in a straight line, you’ll be OK. We’ve got you covered. You’ll be strong one day, but for now, you’re fine. Rest those legs. Relax. Hang in there. Oh, and watch out for that rock!”