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The Tour de France: a theological guide

03 August 2018

There is much in competitive cycling — positive and negative — that resonates with Christianity, says David Munchin

ON SUNDAY, the Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas triumphed in the Tour de France, the most gruelling endurance event covered by the mass media. For the previous three weeks, 176 of the world’s elite cyclists tore roughly clockwise around the borders of France, covering 2069 miles. It was watched by 3.5 billion TV viewers in 190 countries, and two million fans made the pilgrimage to the (free-of-charge) roadside.

Twenty years ago, sleepless with an upset stomach, I watched the late-night coverage of serious-looking, Lycra-clad men engaged in the most repetitive activity possible, thinking that, if that didn’t send me to sleep, then nothing would. Today, in an attempt to inhabit every middle-age cliché possible, I am a fully committed MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra).

This caused me to think: were there any theological parallels or lessons to be drawn from the Tour?

THE first parallel that I drew was pilgrimage, inspired, in part, by leading a study day on this topic in St Albans Cathedral, to this day one of the great pilgrimage sites. Pilgrimage has, as its essence, endurance and the idea of “quest” paradigmatically in the heroic chivalric medieval Christian literature. This is secularised and mechanised in the pageant that is the Tour.

The second parallel is suffering. Cycling, with all due deference, is not the most skilful of sports: one pedal stroke is much like the next. But it is painful and long, and more than fitness is required: namely, the ability to endure suffering and to “dig deep” into one’s physical and mental resources.

One of the bestselling training programmes for cyclists is called “Sufferfest”, and each workout in my own training programme is given a “suffer score”. Cyclists pride themselves, more than on any other quality, on their ability to suffer. Luckily, very serious injuries and deaths are comparatively rare, but riders often finish stages having broken bones in crashes; some even start the next day with fractured collar bones or hands.

Lest this should be interpreted simply as a parallel to the undesirably masochistic elements of Christian spirituality, it should be noted that probably the most overlooked feature of cycling, to the casual viewer, is that it is a team sport, even if the winners are individuals. Most of the suffering is vicarious. The rider barely turning the pedals up the final climb is not usually a bad rider, but one who has utterly spent himself guiding his leader to the foot of that climb. Race commentators refer regularly to such actions as “sacrifice”.

Or the mostly unnoticed efforts are those of the domestiques (deacons?), who drop back 200 metres from the peloton (the main group or pack of riders) to the team cars, stuff 6kg of water bottles down their jerseys for the team (roughly the weight of a racing bike), and then accelerate to catch up with a peloton moving at 25mph. Team-work, of course, reflects the collaborative nature of Christian mission, and the Corinthian doctrine of the dispersal of the Spirit’s gifts throughout the body corporate.

Third, while the written rules of the Union Cycliste Internationale are byzantine in their complexity, there exists also an oral tradition of revered unwritten rules. The most obvious of these is that the overall winner “processes”, with champagne and teammates, into Paris without challenge. Similarly, there are other times when it is appropriate to “attack” the yellow jersey, and times when it is considered unsporting: for instance, early on in a stage if a rider has a mechanical problem, or takes a comfort break.

One of the reasons that these traditions are adhered to is not simply altruistic: riders’ contracts are short, and this year’s team-mates might well be next year’s rivals, and vice versa. So, the loyalty of the professional cyclist is ultimately to the peloton as a whole, even though he is working for his team’s success.

Sadly, this has a rather darker parallel to church life, in which loyalty to an institution can overrule more natural justice. Cyclists talk about the omerta that has allowed a deep-seated culture of doping to persist, blighting the sport. Suspicions continue to this day regarding some cyclists, although processes have been tightened up and made rigorous. Is there a parallel here to the distressing history of sexual abuse within the Church, and the seeming complicity of some within the hierarchy, seeking to guard the institution?

FOURTH, again on a less positive note, cycling, as much as — or perhaps more than — any sport, has had its difficulties over gender. Women cyclists, though equally talented and committed, are paid a fraction of what the men are paid. Attempts have been made to address this, most notably in the welcome announcement that the prize money for the men’s and women’s Tour of Britain will be equal — although that is the exception rather than the rule.

Fifth, cycling like many sports, in its heroes embodies emerging cultural tensions and social mores. The rivalry of the fans of the Italian champions Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, either side of the Second World War, reflected two contrasting visions of Italy as a nation: rural, Catholic, socially conservative, southern (Bartali) versus urban, hedonistic, liberal, northern (Coppi).

Finally, something for the pneumatologists. In 2017, the Italian rider Michele Scarponi was, sadly, killed after being hit by a truck on a training ride. He was famous for riding with his parakeet, Frankie, perched on his shoulder while training. This year’s Tirreno Adriatico race honoured his memory with a stage ending in his home town of Filottrano. A moving YouTube video shows Frankie momentarily flying alongside the peloton as homage and requiem for his fallen master.

The Revd Dr David Munchin is Team Rector in the Welwyn Team Ministry, in the diocese of St Albans.

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