For fans lining the roads of France, winning is less important than how the race is ridden.
As we drove to the course, the small team camper bounced and creaked as it followed the motorcade of team cars along the small sinuous roads through the rural Brittany countryside.
We passed dozens of cyclists ranging in age from 12 to 70, dressed in a mosaic of pro team and club colors, who were also on their way to the circuit to watch us race in Plouay.
Closer to the course the roadside ditches were lined with cars parked at angles as their drivers and passengers walked towards the start area. Flags clutched in their grasp, showing allegiance, flapped high above the spectators’ heads, in synch with their gate and the lightly blowing wind. On their backs they packed their lawn chairs and picnics — surely loaded with wine, cheese, bread and sausage — to comfortably pass a day at the races.
At the start, the early morning air was fresh with an odor of manure from the fields and algae from the sea as the clouds, which had rolled in from the Atlantic were still thick before the expected afternoon sun arrived. The camper’s air was thick with the quiet nervousness that comes with a one-day race — a tension formed in the anticipation of triumph and the fear of failure.
Like a canvas becoming a painting, the elements which become a day at the races in Brittany formed around the course as the camper came to a stop among the hundred other teams vehicles assembled near the start.
As we prepared ourselves in the tight den-like camper for the race, the mechanics unloaded the bikes and lined them up on the bus in a row like soldiers guarding a castle, the soigneurs readied the mussettes of food and loaded the bottles on to the bikes, the director prepared his spot in the car for a day behind the wheel and the crowds of spectators slowly gathered around the hive of activity to intensely watch the tasks which are routine to us but unique to them.
In 2000, I raced in the world championships in Plouay on a circuit similar to the one on which we now ride yearly. The worlds attract massive crowds at almost any venue. Despite the persistent and cold rain that lashed down on the countryside for the week of races the spectators still lined the circuit through to cheer each category’s race. The crowds who watch today are similar in size yet perhaps not quite as international. They are the tough rural Northern and Western French. Their fervent passion for cycling is deeply rooted in their history and culture. They were born fans.
They collect mussettes, used water bottles, autographs or anything else that relates to the sport they love. They know the cyclists, their names and bios like kids growing up in Welland, Ontario, might know the Toronto Maple Leafs line-up for the NHL season. The race is a yearly event that becomes the center of their August festivities as the summer winds down and school or work loom. For us, it is one day in a long season where we have the opportunity to etch a significant mark on the season as it enters its final months.
The course is challenging. When it is raced aggressively, the peloton splinters on the final laps. When the race is controlled, the three short climbs that become increasingly wearing do less damage to the peloton and the race usually finishes in a sprint.
Last year, a break of ten jumped away in the first kilometers. Due to the size and strength of the break, the race was persistently hard as teams chased and exploded in pursuit, unable to close the gap until the final few laps. The peloton wore thin quickly and at the finish less than a third remained to race for the victory.
This year was the inverse: Four riders rode away without much fight from the peloton as we settled into a slow, but steady, pursuit behind. For several laps the fans booed as we rode with seeming ease — but probably faster than most of them could ever ride a bike — chatting and settling in for a long day. The four riders of the front had little chance against a potent peloton whereas ten can be hard to manage when given a margin.
Like a song slowly rising in tempo to a crescendo, without the audience aware of persistent development, the peloton rode toward the finish. With each passing lap the speed rose, the peloton went from a bubble to a thin serpentine line, and the crowd’s emotion evolved with our speed. And slowly, the fans changed their focus from their picnics and beer tent festivities to the race; from standing alongside the barriers and clapping to leaning up against them and screaming encouragement.
Like a dull knife pushed against soft skin the pain slowly increases before we begin to suffer under the weight of the race. The rage in the peloton is felt through the course. The effervescence of our movements animates the MC’s voice, which is broadcast over loudspeakers that line the 20-kilometer circuit. The race is in flight and the course becomes alive.
With only a few races in the last months, my season now seems to be beginning for a second time and it felt good to be back, racing, flowing with the peloton, feeling its power and its speed, and testing fitness that I had only been able to gauge against my training partners or alone on the climbs around Girona.
My sensations in training were confirmed by the numbers on my powermeter and now, in the race, they were confirmed again as I was able to ascend with ease and handle the distance.
As we raced across the line and rode to the buses the spectators grasped for our empty water bottles and asked for autographs as we funneled out of the gated circuit and towards the showers. Under a warm shower the grime built up from the race was washed away. The bikes were packed up, the cars loaded down with bags, and the circuit vacated in the same way a movie theater empties as soon as the credits begin to roll. Nobody sticks around to chat as the race for home begins.
At the airport, still sweating from the effort and buzzing from the emotion, I looked through the magazine racks and book shelves, killing time and looking for something that might catch my interest.
What caught my eye was a photo on the cover of a book of my childhood idol, Laurent Fignon, his arms raised in victory as he crossed the finish line in the yellow jersey: His autobiography. Over a decade ago, I watched him race in France. I was one of the small kids racing to get a bottle and autograph. His performance inspired me in a way only an innocent child can dream. I bought the book to read about his true life, the one beyond the finish line.
From the photos of women riding city bikes in airport ads, to the massive crowds at the races, to the cycling books on the shop shelves, to the conversations over beers at the bar, the bicycle is an integral part of French culture. The French love cycling in a way most foreigners can’t understand. The sacrifice of the courageous is what invokes their passion.
Victory is secondary.
Michael Barry is a member of Team Columbia-HTC, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.