Monday, August 31, 2009

Back in the Saddle

"Cowboy up, cupcake!"

--Colton, in The Legend of Colton F. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller

It was day five of the Tour de France when I noticed a "movement" that has stayed with me for a few weeks. I'm not an avid cyclist but I watch sports, any sports, when I work out at the gym, and when I'm relaxing at home, and when I write (right now it's Inter Milan versus AC Milan, Inter up 1-0 in the 27th minute). But that particular day, and for those past two weeks, it's been the Tour de France.

The peloton in the Tour is the main body of riders in a bicycle road race that, belying the massive amounts of raw power required to move those bikes up mountains and over cobblestones and alongside the Mediterranean, snakes its way through the France in a remarkably smooth, elegant mass. When the camera does a bird's eye view of the peloton, the mass of riders looks like quail moving through grass, or sparrows heading south, or the wind blowing across the face of the ocean. Over 160 riders, even 180 if there hasn't been a break away, packed together, drafting four inches to the left of the back wheel of the rider in front of him, driving their legs at an average of 90 rpm. The riders at the front of the peloton do the work, breaking the air for those behind them. As their energy depletes, they peel off to the side, and rejoin the peloton in the middle to the back to recuperate. In a well-developed peloton, riders in the middle expend up to 40 percent less energy than those who ride in the front. Interestingly, and fittingly, in the peloton, the front rider and the very last one receive the same time.

Nevertheless, it's better to be at the front of the peloton than in the middle or the back. If you watched the Tour de France, you'll have noticed the white and yellow jerseys of Columbia-HTC, with their star sprinter Mark Cavendish, streamlined together at the peaked front of the peloton, together with the turquoise Astana and orange and blue of Rabobank. In the sprint for the finish, if there has not been a breakaway and the peloton is leading the race, each team operates on the principle that the seven riders other than their version of Mark Cavendish will drive themselves to exhaustion, breaking air at the front, with Mark tucked in behind their back wheel. As the lead riders feels himself giving way to the burn in his quads that signifies oxygen depletion, he pulls to the side and another sacrificial ram takes his place, pistons pumping as they drive the last kilometers to the finish line. As they hurtle to the finish line, at a particular moment whose announcement I have yet to notice, the ram pulls to the side and opens up the road for Mark Cavendish, whose blocky thighs are turning his pedals at a mindboggling rate. Without a backward glance or a wave of the hand in gratitude, Mark powers past those who have worked to pull him along for the finish line. If he does as he is supposed to, all glory to the team, and perhaps the green jersey, winner of the most points, for him. It's a thrilling sight, to see all that power and determination moving at the speed of will and mind toward that finish line. I'm grinning just remembering those final sprints.

There's safety in the peloton. More people to do the same amount of work. At times in each stage, there's bound to be some brave soul who breaks away; some cyclist who thinks that he will be able to get a jump on the peloton. A few riders will break with him. But the peloton remains unphased. Unless they misjudge the ability and skill of the rider, it is rare for the peloton to react to a breakaway, particularly if it happens in the early kilometers of a stage. Wisdom dictates that the mass of the peloton, working together, will reel in any small group of riders, particularly a lone rider, with nobody to draft off who has to do all the work himself.

But, I'm not writing this to open up a discussion about the benefits of staying in the middle of the road, about the dangers of breaking from the pack etcetera, etcetera. I'm writing this because I saw, in the fifth stage, and again in one of the later stages, a brilliantly matter-of-fact rendition of rescue. Rescue has been on my mind lately, ever since a pioneer trek reenactment in Wyoming in June. I've been thinking about rescue, about how we rescue, about what people do when they are being rescued, about the timing of the rescue and when events are put into play, sometimes long before the need ever arises. Watching the Tour de France this summer, I believe I've found the way I would like to be rescued.

During the fifth day, Robbie Gesink, a "protected" rider on the Roba team went down hard in a crash. Who knows how it was caused . . . a cobblestone, a rider in front who changed tempo and Robbie couldn't react in time. I saw him tumble off the side of the road. The peloton didn't stop. The flock of bikes flung themselves past him. He got gingerly to his feet, testing his wrist. The road was empty of racers. Those who saw him fall rode right by without breaking rhythm. If it hadn't been packed with spectators on both sides, there would have been no way to tell there had ever been a race passing through moments before. He got back on his bike. He flexed his hand, twisting his wrist (which would turn out to be fractured). Suddenly, like guardian eagles, there were two Roba riders, in their familiar orange and blue. The riders didn't stop, didn't put their feet on the ground, didn't sit down to commiserate with Gesink. They turned to face the direction in which the peloton was pulling, slowed slightly to let Gesink slip in behind them, and raced to catch up to the main body that was cycling away at the rate of 30 miles per hour.

The commentator, Phil Liggett (who makes watching the race worth it just to hear him), purred, "Oh, here comes the team. They'll be back in the peloton in no time. Just you watch them work together to get Robby back." Sure enough, within five minutes, they were back in the main body. Besides, the fractured wrist, you couldn't tell there'd been a crash. "Ah . . . there you go. Well done, boys," Phil Liggett purred again in his British burr. "Nicely back, Robby. Nicely back."

In one of the later stages, another team's rider bent his front wheel on the wet cobblestones. Within seconds, a support car had glided in beside him, an industrious man hopping out with replacement in hand, the second man at the wheel sat with a radio to his lips. Into the camera view glided his three team mates, they looked down, he looked up, the wheel was tightened, and off they went, the fallen rider tucked in behind those who had turned back to bring him nicely back to the peloton. Perhaps it was his mistake that caused the wheel to buckle; maybe he took the turn too sharply, pulled the brake at the wrong time. But, in the exchange of wheel and the return of his team to pick him up, there seemed to be no recriminations, no discussions about what happened, about what he should have done instead. All I saw was a swooping movement, a gathering up of the fallen rider, and off they went, up in the saddle, thighs pumping, calves taut, off to catch the peloton.

I like that there's not much on the spot discussion. I appreciate that when the rescue is carried out, the rescued is expected to contribute to his own return. Even with fractured wrist, Robby Gesink rode off behind his team. Yes, one could say that there is a sense of the British prep school, jolly-hockey sticks, stiff upper lip about this way of rescue. That I'm just yearning for days gone by when I wore green, peter pan collars and white ankle socks and played netball during little break. But it's more than that. It's the real life fact that the world/peloton does not stop in the face of error. The forward movement goes on, and the rescued must speed up to catch up, which speeding up and catching up they are perfectly capable of doing. This manner of rescue seems to recognize that mistakes are inevitable, that mistakes and error (especially one-offs) are not indications of an inherent weakness that dooms one to a life of failure. As Ruby, the protected daughter in Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman, realizes after a disastrous first marriage, "It took me a long time to learn that mistakes aren't good or bad, they're just mistakes, and you clean them up and go on."

So, I am coming to think that when I fall or one of my wheels happens to catch on the cobblestones in my life and I end up face forward in the gutter, I want the Roba team to rescue me. I want the rescue eagles to swoop down, to hesitate in my vicinity, and to look at me, with my fractured wrist, as if they have every expectation that apart from that one fall and the small detail of the ulna, I am capable of tucking in behind them, just four inches off their rear wheel, and cycling toward the peloton. And I want to be treated that way—capable, with strength and power, with the ability to move forward under my own power. I don't want the sideways glances, or the murmurs, or the hushed voices. I don't want Jim Rome with his hysterical play-by-play which will inevitably veer off into speculation about what's going to happen now, what will be the impact of this fall, what are the statistics of riders who fall getting back to the front, and how much did the last minute change of coach/tire/bike shoe contribute to the crash. I just want Phil Liggett—who continues to see me as a professional rider, part of a team, who happened to fall on a turn—to watch our effort and skill and say, "Nicely back, Tessa, nicely back."


  1. Wow! Timely thoughts, I really needed to hear this today. Thanks

  2. Lovely, exactly and precisely.

    I want to be rescued like that too!

  3. Is it only the "protected" or "top" riders that get rescued, or do they do the same for any member who goes down?

    I really hope all riders get rescued in the same way

  4. Really enjoyed this post. Lots to ponder on. thanks for posting.

  5. That was cool. As I rely more and more heavily on the net for a memory-replacement tool, I searched 'cowboy up cupcake' and a few other things to try to find the name of a novel I had read and forgotten (enjoyed the book, but having now re-seen the title, I'm not THAT surprised that I couldn't conjure it). Anyway, of course my search brought me to this site, and I started reading about the Tour de France, and the quail in the grass, and scanned a few other passages and realized a) what a lovely selection of observations and hard work this page I fell into represents; b) how much I must miss by eschewing the whole 'blog' thing, and c) what a gold mine the internet CAN be.

    Really fine writing here, which I'll get back to after making lunches for the kids and all that other stuff that distracts.

  6. Wonderful insights. I love reading your work. It lifts me up!