The Tour De France, Crashes, and Living

I once had the opportunity of riding a stage of the Tour De France, as an enthusiast. I still remember the beauty and awe of that monumental day, especially climbing the summits of Marie-Blanc and the Aubisque. Recently, I've wondered about what the TDF can teach us psychologically?

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During Lockdown, some of us have watched the Grand Boucle, the great spectacle of the Tour de France.  Why does it have such a hold on us? Perhaps its the relaxing feeling of watching wheels turnaround.  All those circles in motion?  And what does it represent psychologically?  

Another way of thinking of it is as the Tour De Psyche.  It's not simply a geographical odyssey, but one of the group and individual mind and its workings.  The structure of the Tour allows each rider to go on an inner journey into their mind, finding new places and experiences, unknown flaws and hidden reserves; and to find new ways of being in the group of their team, and the bigger group of the peloton.  All this is infinitely complex; just like living in a family and being part of wider society.  
The sight of a top team riding in perfect formation, moving through and off, as if one living organism, creating a web of power and energy, is the representation of a well-oiled psyche, with each part working with another.  However, such moments are short-lived in both the human psyche and the tour.  More often than not, there is a far bit of jostling, in-fighting, scheming, and aggression in both the tour and the human psyche and wider society.  In the tour riders are going smoothly one minute, and then touch wheels and crash the next.  Human consciousness and turning the pedals both require huge amounts efforts.  

The tour is a curious mix of love and hate, supreme aggression and selfless co-operation.  One minute riders are working together in unison, giving each other shelter and support, and the next they go on a ruthless attach.  This volatility reflects the human experience, where nothing either good or bad, but a mixture of both.  
As Melanie Klein, the psychoanalyst noted, small children think of people in fragmented ways, as either good or bad (she called this the paranoid schizoid position).  As they matured, they came to realise that the same person was both good and bad (she called this the depressive position).  The Tour invites us to contemplate the depressive position, as we realise that our cycling heroes, are not quite what we've projected on them.  
As we get a more realistic view, we struggle to integrate the stories in the papers explaining how the doctor wrote them an extra prescription to help them along.  Like infants, we cling to the paranoid schizoid position, trying to keep this out of mind, and it is always an achievement to achieve the more realistic depressive position.  There is nowhere to hide in Tour and we see riders being both kind and ruthless, from minute to minute.

This week has seen the top rider of the top team, Egan Bernal, race favourite from team Ineos, "crack". He has the worlds resources and technologically behind, him, but the mountains crushed him, pitilessly.   What collapsed inside his mind and body?  The test of reality, the TDF, humbled his ambitions and his grand team.  Like all us, life crashes into our dreams, illusions, and pretensions, and sometimes we just have to keep turning the pedals, wishing away the probing cameras, and wishing the earth would swallow us up.   

To keep these daily humiliations at bay, historically, many teams often soaked themselves in drugs.  Not just the riders, but even the massage therapist! The role of these drugs wasn't just performance enhancing, it was to prevent having to feel the pain that life, that the race, meted out, minute by minute.  Mr Bernal, and his ego, and the ego of his team, was knocked off its perch.  All of the race simulations carried out at race HQ could not prepare him for the reality of the actual race!  

Reality is a brutal teacher.  So often in life, our ego, the "race leader" gets a battering.  The king is dead.  But life carries on, inexorably.  Something comes into fill the void.  In the case of the Bernal, another rider from his team may be crowned as the new king, another team will take the limelight, everything will be reshuffled.   The psyche adapts to reality, to the wounding caused by reality.  In the TDF Mr Bernal doesn't die a literal death, but a symbolic death of his podium dreams, which we can all relate to.  The role of the loser, the runner ups, is just as important, if they are truly in service to the race itself.  
That way a rider can reconcile himself with reality, and understand his place in it.  Mr Lance Armstrong, was unable to do this.  His earlier life difficulties, meant that he could never really be in service to the race, only to himself.  He was taking EPO aged 16, well before his cancer and TDF, as he fell in with a group of older triatheletes, and this pattern continued through his life.  He had to win at all costs, to escape the feelings of smallness and inferiority.  Eventually, however, even he was found out, and the race caught up with him, ultimately stripping him off all his victories.  Again, the race/life, spares no one.  A once great race winner, feted on every magazine cover in world, is erased from the history records.

The Jungian analyst, Edward Whitmont, wrote a book called the Symbolic Quest, which argued that much of human life is really not about concrete things, but their meaning.  We are symobolic creatures, using language and image to make sense of the world around us.  The TDF represents just this impulse, albeit in a particular, modern, largely western, highly masculine idiom.  A group of men leave home (the grand depart) and we know that not all of them will make it back home.  Just like life, we don't know who will puncture, crash, fall sick or even die, as they leave the start line.  What we do know, however, is that they journey will not be smooth, like the well laid french tarmac, for very long. 

Symbolically the TDF is interesting because just like life, bad things happen due to the riders own failings, and then bad things happen through no fault of their own.  TDF/ Life doesn't distinguish between inner and out causes, we still have to get back on our bikes, however unfair. For instance, a rider may come down due to other riders riding dangerously, or through a catastrophic bike failure.  But there is no remedy for this, it is left to the rider to decide how to respond; do they continue with the race, or do they withdraw?  The clock keeps ticking.  Unless the are unable to continue due to serious injury, the riders almost always elect to continue, and simply absorb the "bad luck" they experience as part of their fate as Tour riders.  
Every now and then riders may see extreme danger ahead, such a wet mountain top descent, and boycott the stage, in order to avoid catastrophe.  However, such moments and Tour riders are a stoic group.  The personal and collective pressures they must experience to ride on must be huge.  In life, we may find ourselves in a similar predicament, and we may need to make a choice whether we continue to turn the pedals or dismount and hang up our cleats.

The Tour will be full of hazards, rough pave, and sheer mountain drops.  There will be few if any days without painful and unavoidable crashes.  There will be broken collar bones aplenty.  Blood oozing from road rash, when riders lose their skin as they hit the ground.  Concussions as riders are shovelled back onto their bikes after a fall. There will be humans and animals wandering obliviously into the line of racing cyclists.  There will be unseen traffic bollards, manhole covers, and road furniture.  There will be accusations of doping, cheating, and lies.  There will fines, penalties, and tantrums.  Sprinters will head butt one another.  The carefully laid out plans of the Directeur Sportives who set out the team strategy, will hit the buffers as the riders bump into the cruel test of reality.  The Haute Pyrenees, with their unending gradients, at a lung busting 10 percent, going on as far as the eye can see, is perhaps the ultimate, humbling, and humiliating reality that will sort out the race winner from the rest of the peloton.  

But the race is highly symbolic.  There is a point in the race a week in, where the adrenaline wears off, and the riders are tired, and realise how far they still have to go. They ask each other, where are we now?  "I don't know, maybe Angers"....which is a way of saying we are in non-descript part in the middle of France.  Rather like mid-life, the riders realise they are past half-way, they are past their peak physically, they are bored, missing home, and yet they know they have to dig deep to summon their innermost reserves, even though everything is expended, in order to get through the mountains, and to complete the second half of life/ the race. The sirens are wailing, the temptation to drink a jug of EPO, or spend the day under a duvet, escaping the interminable race, becomes ever harder to resist.  In the second half, the riders seek meaning.  

There are acts of honor and kindness.  The race leader is respected and protected, and if he loses his chain, or has a mechanical mishap, his competitors will not attack him. They do not wish to anger the cycling gods! The race leader becomes more and more dependent and connected to those around him.  He realizes more than ever he is not a self-made man!  He needs his self sacrificing super domestiques to protect him from the wind, the mountain, his own arrogance, and the unrelenting prodding and attacking from other teams.  He is surrounded, by specialists, the grimpeurs, the rouleurs, the sprinters, but they are all in service to him, and ultimately, the race itself, the grand spectacle, which transcends them all.  

On the penultimate day, they drink champagne on their bikes, as they prepare for their home coming to the Champs Elysees.  The riders are at a literal homecoming, but they are also coming home to themselves, with a deeper understanding of their own psyches, and those of the riders who have traveled alongside them.  That is why their is such a close bond between riders when they are out of the competitive situation - they have had the courage to share and endure a profound challenge together - and they are enlivened by the inner experiences and memories.

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.