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The Explainer: Daily life in the peloton

By Charles Pelkey

We can guess that Jan Ullrich and Matthias Kessler were speaking German here, but what did they speak with everyone else?

We can guess that Jan Ullrich and Matthias Kessler were speaking German here, but what did they speak with everyone else?

Photo: Agence France Presse – file photo

I have two questions actually, and they both relate to being in the peloton.

First, it’s not uncommon to see the riders talking to each other early in the race or in the stage (for stage races) even if the riders aren’t from countries with the same national language. How do they talk to each other? Is there one language they all learn to speak, or do riders just try to find a common language between each other based on individual interactions?

Second, as all of us may know, four or five hours is a long time to sit on a bike. Under race conditions, riders are constantly given water and electrolyte-replenishing drinks from team support vehicles. I can imagine all this liquid becomes … a bit cumbersome on the bladder after a while. How do riders handle nature’s call during a race? How do they manage to catch up afterward?
Bart Stevens
Los Angeles, California

Dear Bart,
It used to be that most conversations in the professional peloton took place in French, Italian and Spanish, in that order. One early American pro to race in Europe, Mike Neel, raced on the old Magniflex team and pretty much had to learn Italian on the fly just to make himself understood by his teammates, directors and other team staff.

As you know, the first Americans to take on the Tour de France, Jonathan Boyer and Greg LeMond, both rode for Renault-Elf-Gitane and had to learn French, just to survive. (Indeed, according to LeMond, some of the early tension between the two developed after Boyer consistently mistranslated the post-race comments of his up-and-coming younger teammate, who was still struggling to learn the language.)

British riders had a presence in the peloton for years, most notably the great Tom Simpson, but even then those riders were pretty much required to speak a second language, most commonly French. But the presence of LeMond, Boyer and Neel also contributed to a gradual change in the default language used by most riders in the peloton. By the mid-1980s, Neel’s largely Anglophonic 7-Eleven team arrived at the Tour, just as pros from Australia and a new influx of riders from Great Britain and Ireland were making their presence felt in the peloton, too. Obviously, since then, 11 Tours have been won by English-speaking riders (LeMond, Stephen Roche and Lance Armstrong).

As you might suspect, that trend, and the growing role English has played in the growth of the Internet, have made English the new lingua franca of the peloton. Most European riders speak at least two languages, often more. Among the most impressive that we recall was long-time pro Johan Bruyneel — now the manager of Astana — who comfortably spoke six languages. Given that most riders are multilingual, virtually all of them have at least a minimal grasp of English these days. As a result, it’s pretty much the default throughout the sport. These days, a young American rider could conceivably compete in Europe on a full-time basis and never have to learn a second language. Whether that’s a good thing I’ll leave to you to decide.

The UCI now operates in both French and English, with its rules, regulations and press releases produced in those languages first and translated follow-ups issued as they become available. Of the two, English is taking on an increasingly dominant role. I was most recently struck by that fact last month while covering the world cyclocross championships in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. Every post-race press conference started with UCI staffers insisting that the questions first be asked in English, no matter the nationality of the winners.

The nature break

Your second question is probably one of the more frequent we get during our Live Update coverage of major events. Perhaps it’s just because most of us can relate to the need to relieve ourselves more than we can to the idea of flying up the 21 hairpins of L’Alpe d’Huez in 50 minutes.

You’re right about the need to relieve, especially on those long days in the saddle. The first and most common way to address the issue is the most civilized. Simply put, riders extend a degree of courtesy to one another and agree to stop en masse or soft-pedal while a significant number of riders water the countryside. (This approach is especially true in the women’s peloton, where the job of taking a nature break generally involves more than just standing at the side of the road.)

Comportement correct? The UCI generally won't balk at an organized and rural cease-fire like this one.

Comportement correct? The UCI generally won’t balk at an organized and rural cease-fire like this one.

Photo: Agence France Presse – file photo

UCI rules actually do limit riders to performing the deed on country roads, and you will, quite often in fact, see riders fined 60 or 70 Euros for the offense of “comportement incorrect,” which generally means peeing where a lot of folks can see you.

I don’t recall where I saw it, but one of the funniest photo captions I ever spotted in a cycling publication was placed under a picture of Laurent Fignon taking a nature break during the 1989 Tour de France, which he lost to Greg LeMond by the slimmest margin in the history of that race:

“We will never know exactly where Fignon lost those precious eight seconds.”

Funny as it was, it was probably inaccurate. Any time you have 180-odd riders living and riding together for three weeks — or for an entire season, for that matter — certain rules of the road develop. And probably the top one is that you just don’t attack while another guy is standing at the side of the road trying to pull down the midsection of his bib shorts.

It’s not always just bladder relief riders need, either. Sunday Times of London chief sports writer David Walsh tells a great story about the above-mentioned Tom Simpson demanding a young teammate’s cycling cap so it could be used for … uhhh … well, let’s just say it was used as a necessary item to ensure his chamois stayed clean.

That said, common courtesies can only get you so far. There are times — say, for example, when the peloton is still four minutes down on a five-man break with 20km remaining — that no one is going to slow down, no matter how much pressure your bladder is feeling. In those cases, riders may opt to try one of the more impressive and least broadcast feats in cycling — letting it hang out and watering the asphalt while riding. It’s more common than you might imagine. Indeed, riding in a neutral support vehicle in the 1996 Tour, I once passed by Djamolidine Abdoujaparov pissing off of his bike while riding uphill. I still can’t figure out how he managed that one, nor do I advise anyone to try that at home … well, on your home roads.

Finally, if all else fails, the rider has one last option. Rather than try to describe what riders under considerable pressure (of various types) do as a race situation makes it impossible to even slow down for an on-the-bike pee, I’ll direct you to one of my favorite quotes from the old CBS coverage of the 1985 edition of Paris-Roubaix.

American reporter John Tesh caught up with Panasonic’s Theo de Rooy after the race and asked him about his day in the saddle.

“It’s a bollocks, this race!” said de Rooy. “You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit.”

By the way, after laughing and regaining his composure, Tesh had the good sense to ask a follow-up.

“Will you ever ride it again?” he asked the mud-covered Dutchman.

“Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!” said de Rooy without a second’s hesitation.

A guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.
Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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