Winning the Tour de France

I never get tired of watching the crux stages of the 1989 Tour. The L’Alpe d’Huez climb where LeMond falters while wearing Yellow, the final day in the Alps when Fignon extends his lead. And then the time trial final stage. LeMond in his goofy to our eyes Oakley sunglasses and swaying on Scott aero bars, Fignon low in the drops orienting beams of intensity through prism spectacles. Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées bricks, roaring crowds. Edge of my seat, lean forward, stand while LeMond himself crumples to the ground in elation. Yes! He makes up nearly a minute over 25k, beats Fignon and wins the Tour by eight seconds.

Us fans of pro bike racing—I’ve been and am—we celebrate the history, the landscapes, the spectacle, the drama of the competitions, strategy, and micro tactics within the race. We celebrate the teams of a team sport. We celebrate the riders. I’d be deflated to learn that LeMond cheated to achieve his ’89 victory. The disappointment would be over the fact that it was something other than what I thought it was, so what I think it is must be meaningful and important. The truth of it is essential to its power to inspire and elevate, and for the simple pleasure it gives to spectate. We look for sport to be true. Or, more accurately, we look for sport truly to match what we believe about it such that, under that description that we hold inside, we feel the surge of celebration, identification, admiration, and motivation.

The advantage that LeMond gained by using aero bars is often credited as decisive in that final time trial. Sure, Fignon complained before the start, but the race referees judged them to be legal. Nor was Fignon advocating for some luddite ethos, as evidenced by his two disc wheels. LeMond may have had an advantage, but it wasn’t unfair, was it? He saw before his competitors did the benefit of a more aero position, and, hell yeah, Greg! he took the risk of trying a new way. He embraced innovation, he was courageous, and it payed off. If Fignon wanted to use aerobars he could have had them fitted that morning. No, he wouldn’t have trained on the bars, his handling might have been dangerously wobbly, but that’s his fault for not seeing their potential earlier, right? LeMond won fairly, we say.

But ours is a qualified and gerrymandered sense of fair. It can’t be any simple equality sense of fair, where every player literally has an equal chance at victory. There is no sport that anyone cares about where each participant is assigned a probability of victory that is equal to that of every other participant, and a roll of dice determines the winner. Ours is not the fair of an ideal fair coin that when flipped always has a 50/50 chance of coming up heads. Sport is a pageant of revealed difference, difference in skill, effort, dedication, talent, innate speed, strength and endurance, cunning in preparation, willingness to take calculated risks where the penalty is defeat. We like for there to be an element of luck and uncertainty, but it can’t all be luck because we want sports to uncover something special and essential about the winner. The event of the match is the occasion on which difference is revealed, and we’re exulted by it. The winner is different from the loser.

As long as the difference is fair.

Here are some differences. A rider’s parents were both accomplished professional cyclists, and he now competes against riders whose parents were not athletes of any sort. A rider comes from a country with an extremely well financed sports performance program for juniors that she participated in, and she now races against riders who come from countries that have no such programs. A rider happens to be from the town at the foot of the final climb of a race and he is very familiar with the road, having often done it in training. A rider is sponsored by a company that develops an ultra-aerodynamic skin suit that no other team has access to, and she uses the skin suit in time trials. A rider has won some important victories due to determination and pluck, leading to sponsorship deals and appearance fees, making it so that he can afford to go to high altitude to train and to hire the leading specialists for private consultation. Or maybe it’s something simple, like when the team’s best rider gets whisked away at the end of a Tour stage in a private car so that he doesn’t have to wait around for the team bus to get his massage and start really resting for the next day.

LeMond had one of the highest VO2 max’s ever measured.

I know these differences exist in the sport that I love and every other sport, too, and that they confer advantages to some riders, but I still cheer. Maybe they are just extensions of the contingency of life that is somehow completely unremarkable and at the same time gut wrenchingly daunting. In sport, the moral outrage at the universe itself for making people so different in their prospects and circumstances just falls away and we celebrate the capacity for triumph in difference. Maybe that’s part of what sport is for, where we can leave behind whatever dark existential baggage we may have over the fact that we are, without fault, not as well off as many and, through no or little effort of our own, better off than so many more.

A rider takes a testosterone supplement in order to recover more quickly from hard training. A rider takes a drug that increases the number of oxygen carrying red blood cells in his body. A rider draws and stores his own blood before a stage race in order to re-inject it during competition to increase performance.

We’re disgusted by these shortcuts, they seem like gaining something unearned. Dopers may as well take the train during the race to a station closer to the finish to gain time on rivals, or install a small electric motor hidden in the seat tube to go faster. (Not to worry over my sanity, I don’t think the latter actually happened.) It is as if athletes must have an effortful, unbroken slope of increase in excellence with no gaps or jumps, and nothing taken without deserving it. But steady increase can’t be it, either, since some imaginary years long incremental doping routine that ended in increased performance would leave me as hollow as I feel about overnight sensations. And it’s nonsensical to claim that someone deserves her genes or growing up in a community with good nutrition or having access to good mentors.

So, what?, the excellence somehow has to come from something integral to the person, something about the complex of her or his will and focus and body where all three are implicated together and present. If we made a game of generating vexing counterexamples, I am sure this theory of fairness would lose, too.

With some differences, I seesaw between reactions, not settling viscerally one way or the other. Outside of cycling, think of a double leg amputee runner competing on high tech prostheses that have a mechanical advantage over typical biological legs. Think of a person competing in the women’s field because she has always inside her heart and culturally identified as a woman, even if biology is not as cooperative as we might hope in precisely determining gender distinctions. With other differences, I worry and lament that they will come. Envision a time where presently illegal performance-enhancing drugs are permitted as long as all riders have access to them and as long as they are administered under strict medical supervision. Due to genetic variation, some riders will respond better to the drugs than others and will do extremely well in races, even though they would not necessarily do as well if no one in the peloton were taking PED’s. I can see the calculated reasonableness in such sport, but I think I’d love it far less.

We want a level playing field. Funny metaphor, that, if you picture a sport held on a tilted pitch and one team always gets to advance the ball downhill toward their goal. But playing fields in this metaphor are two dimensional, so it makes sense to be angry if we find out that they are slanted when we thought they were flat. What happens when the playing field has a thousand dimensions of difference, each of which is at some angle? Some we evidently care about eliminating, some we very much want to preserve because that’s where the drama of sport resides, and some we aren’t even aware of it.

I say it again: I want cycling to be true to my beliefs about what makes it a great sport, even if I can’t always say what those beliefs are. Instead, I find them in the celebratory sensations I yet feel when I’m told how it was done. Hell yeah, Greg LeMond.