The Beautiful Art of Cycling

Still photo of live Eurosport coverage

It only becomes art if it touches other people – Andreas Eschbach

(Blog post by Tom Carter)

Cycling is an inherently beautiful sport in many different ways. Its battles are waged not in stadiums or arenas but in some of the most scenic places on earth. Since the ultimate challenge of cycling is climbing, mountain settings are an essential element of the most iconic races. It is primarily a European sport, and few places rival the beauty of that continent’s rugged coastlines, quaint villages, verdant valleys, and craggy mountains: the Haute Alps, the Pyrenees, the Dolomites. 

Another element of cycling’s beauty is the elegance of the machine. When ridden with grace and strength, a bicycle becomes an extension of the rider’s legs. It’s as close as a human can come to self-powered flying while remaining earthbound. To watch a skilled cyclist power over a flat road or swoop down a winding descent is to witness poetry in motion.

Any great sporting event is Shakespearean; packed with excitement, drama, heroism, tragedy, and sacrifice. Cycling features each–along with an extraordinary level of suffering–on an epic level, due to its massive scale. Each race typically requires five or more hours of intense, strategically complex physical exertion. Stage races demand enduring this level of effort and concentration day after day for anywhere from five to 21 days. No other sport requires so much effort over so many consecutive days. The endurance and suffering required to complete, much less win, a race reveals the beauty of human determination that is at the core of the heartiest and toughest competitors. 

Most team sports have role players who sacrifice their own personal goals and glory for the good of their team. But the domestiques/gregarios and lead-out men/women of cycling take that selfless sacrifice to a level that exceeds all other sports. To put forth superhuman levels of effort for many hours, day after day for the potential glory of your teammate is an ask that no other sport makes. Every futbol or basketball player occasionally scores a goal or point. Or their contributions are noted statistically as assists, blocks, steals, tackles, or rebounds. Those kinds of statistics do not exist in cycling. Yet the support efforts do not go unnoticed. While only the frequent winners of the biggest races become sports celebrities, the supporters are heroes among their teammates and the true fans of the sport. 

The 2022 edition of the Tour de France will be remembered primarily as the year of the Danes. The first three stages were in Denmark, where Magnus Cort Neilson took the climber’s jersey and spent a day riding alone in polka-dotted glory through his native land, to the delight of his countrymen. Against all expectations, he managed to hold the jersey for several days after the race moved to France. He even went on to win a stage, which will be noted in his obituaries even if he retires from cycling tomorrow. 

Mikkel Berg worked tirelessly for his leader Tadej Pogacar, stepping in when the team’s true mountain domestiques had to drop out. Former world champion Mads Pedersen animated many day’s races until he finally won the 13th stage. Of course, Jonas Vingegaard, for the second consecutive year, stepped in when team leader Primoz Roglic crashed out, topping last year’s second place by winning the general classification battle for the whole Tour. 

But among Danish fans, perhaps their quintessential hero is Michael Mørkøv. His job is to lead out sprinters, in some ways the supreme sacrifice. For hundreds of kilometers, he protects the designated sprinter, keeping him out of the wind, dragging him over mountains. In the final kilometers he takes his man to the front of a chaotic, bullet-fast swarm of cyclists separated by millimeters. He turns himself inside out expending every remaining calorie in his body and then in the final meters…gets out of the way. This is all done in the hopes that his teammate will beat the other sprinters and raise his hands in glorious triumph crossing the finish line. Mørkøv personifies the Danish concept of Jante’s Law: any individual accomplishment is not valued as highly as serving the good of the community. As such, he was already a Danish treasure as the 2022 Tour began. And that was before he rode alone for over 170 km, knowing that he would not make the time cutoff. It was to be Mørkøv’s last day in the race, but he insisted on finishing the stage rather than retreating into the car. The sacrifices that cycling asks of its competitors represents a type of heroic beauty, the kind that can make grown men cry.

But there is also a more nuanced and emotive beauty that is unique to cycling: a kind of hyper-sportsmanship. The enduring image of the 2022 Tour will be two-time winner and seemingly invincible Tadej Pogačar clasping his vanquisher Jonas Vingegaard’s hand after Vingegaard waited for him to recover from a crash. There is a chivalric tradition that competitors do not take an advantage when the race leader is slowed by bad fortune. The value of a victory is diminished if it comes not because the winner was the best, but because a worthy competitor was sidelined by a crash or mechanical issue. But this rule is less sacrosanct when a contender hits the deck behind the leader. When Pogacar went down, he had already lost the leader’s yellow jersey. Vingegaard was now wearing it, and yet instinctively chose to honor Pogacar as a reigning champion and a worthy opponent. And in doing so paid respect not just to Pogacar but to the sport itself and, therefore, to all practitioners of the art of cycling.

What could be more sublimely beautiful?

 

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