Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: Le Tour

Le Mans to Chateauroux, crossing the Montrichard Bridge

Le Tour de France is the metaphor Bradon Smith offers in our series of New metaphors for sustainability. Bradon is  a research associate in the Geography department at the Open University, and is also the AHRC research fellow on climate change for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

The bicycle is a wonderfully efficient and ecological mode of transport; and the dynamics of professional cycling are a model for the cooperation that real sustainability will require.

This week saw the climax of the Tour de France. Four hundred thousand people gathered on the mountain roads leading up to Alpe d'Huez to watch that one stage alone. Cycling works as a spectator sport partly because of the intense physical effort, but also because of the layers of tactics and teamwork: strength and stamina aren't enough to win the Tour.

No rider could win the Tour without their team. Teamwork, co-operation and the team's different skills are required to win even a stage. Many of the members of a team (the domestiques) ride not for their own chances of glory, but for the benefit of another member of their team: setting the pace for their leading rider, carrying water for them, sheltering them from headwinds, and so on. These sacrifices are central to a team's success.

Nor can any rider win any stage - some are more suited to mountains, others to flat stages. The rider who can achieve the fastest speeds (a sprinter) is unlikely to win the Tour, which requires a better all-round rider. Some teams are dedicated to the success of a single rider, others spread their efforts more widely. A team has to play to the strengths of its members.

Despite the intense competition, and personal rivalries, there is a fundamental trust within the peloton. Hurtling along the road at 40mph, wheels within inches of one another, each rider must trust that the others will hold their line.

And this trust has built a unique ethic: the peloton follows a set of unwritten rules. It is not done, for example, to profit from other riders' crashes - the peloton will wait instead. And the team of the leading rider is expected to do the most work, setting the pace for the whole peloton.

Technological developments have dramatically affected cycling: bikes are lighter and more aerodynamic, and the riders are all equipped with radios for constant communication with their teams. Fans are divided over whether these changes are detrimental. But these developments have not drastically altered the basic ethic of the peloton.

But there is another side to cycling. Teams are reliant on their corporate sponsors, and team tactics are also built around giving the most TV exposure to their sponsors' logos. Deals are done between riders of competing teams: 'you can have this win, if you help me tomorrow'. And - the big ones - doping blights the sport and fans speculate about deals and corruption at a high level. It isn't really clear how these problems will be eradicated; but in a sport shot through with the ethos of teamwork and cooperation, they strike right at its heart.

There is a temptation to 'cheat' with sustainability too: to greenwash and make tokenistic changes, but never integrate it fully into our lives and societies. But the cooperation that is central to professional cycling is also central to sustainability; as in a cycling team, one specialism will not be enough; and like in the peloton, we need to trust that others will also make the effort.

Photo: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

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