Whether it’s career progression, marriage, world politics or indeed other sports, competitive cycling offers analogies that help our understanding in ways that allow us to chart a way forward. Cooking your wife dinner when she’s had her hair done and you’ve been at work, well that’s like taking two turns at the front. Rope-a-dope is like pretending you’re hurting so you won’t be marked. Not upsetting your immediate boss is like hiding in the peloton, before you’re promoted above him.
Whenever I put a hand on one of my sons’ shoulders, to impart some wisdom about women, or bullies, or school, I say, “Son, it’s like in a bike race…” and proceed to make his life better. Knowing I can improve the lives of fathers and sons, all over the world, with my knowledge of racing as it applies to Covid-19, I am coming out of retirement from bike blogging, to chart a course for humanity in these trying times.
Let’s face it, this pandemic is a stage race, like the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia. It has early stages down on the flats. It has domestiques being sacrificed for their teams. Where in cycling, eyes are fixed on maximum heart rates, in this race all eyes are on those ICU beds, on keeping them busy and just having one or two spare. Like any great tour, it will be won and lost in the alps (we’re approaching the foothills right now), and when it is over, the prize will be money, that’s all. There will be no glory, just money. For their actions, the winners will feel like Lance Amstrong or Marco Pantani: having more money, but feeling deeply ashamed for the dastardly choices they had to make on the way.
Just as we do at the end of a bike race, we’ll look back and say we’ve each “left a lung on the road”, and much of our dignity too.
But not even those among us with a perverse taste for bike racing, who have seen fellow club members die of heart attacks or go under the wheels of a truck, are ready for the grim similarity between bicycle racing and Covid_19. We know what it’s like to metaphorically “die” in a bike race, when we can’t get enough oxygen into our lungs. We don’t know what it’s like to be unable to ever regain our breath, not by backing off on the pedals a little, or a lot, or lying down, or even having oxygen pumped into our lungs. We know going into this challenge, that any of us could be the ones dropping back through the team cars. We just have to remind ourselves, if that happens, that we did our best for our teams, and that our teams have our funeral costs covered. They’ll be mass graves, admittedly, but at least they won’t cost our kids money.
So with that grizzly introduction out of the way, let’s look back at the stages thus far, before our race heads to the alps.
Shortly after organisers in China called the world to participate in what should have just been a club race in Wuhan, the Iranians showed up on unicycles. “Unicycles?” you ask. Yes! They’re monotheists. Unicycles are dictated by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei.
The first true cycling nation to show their hand in Tour de Covid-19, was Italy, but not knowing the course, they took off from the line like an Under-16s team in a club handicap. Not all of the peloton had even clipped into their pedals when Italy were out of the town and all over the road, with gaps in their pace-lines and their heart-rate monitors all pointing North of 200bpm. They “dug a hole for themselves”, as we say in bike racing, so deep that when the peloton swamped them, none could even hold onto the back.
It was a similar story with other legendary bicycling nations, France and Spain. Pride saw them going too hard, too early, and running out of ICU beds.
Media attention turned then to the new superpowers of cycling, Britain and the US, who, urged on by their sponsors, started “performing”, that is, taking turns on the front. While neither have put themselves out of contention, the way Italy has, for example, they’ve certainly been working their domestiques hard and should expect many to die in the alps.
Astute observers are talking now about nations hiding at the back of the peloton, keeping plenty in reserve for the unknown challenges that lie ahead. In a race where the winner is the first to achieve immunity—you want to get everyone infected and straight back to work, without overwhelming Intensive Care Units with patients that otherwise might have been saved—some are saying Denmark and Australia are resting their riders too much. What use is there in getting all your domestiques through the Pyrenees, if it means loosing so much time for your top ceded riders that they cannot contend the race titles?
The rear-guard tactics of these nations will put them in good stead for moral victories, that’s true, but what use will those be if they are economically weakened? They’ll be nations of bubble-boys, alive but inside, still scared of a virus that the rest of the world has all dealt with. At that point, who knows, they could be annexed by China or Sweden.
One suspects it all might play out like the mens road race at the 2012 London Olympics. While the world were watching favourites, the UK and the US, the team from Kazakhstan were stealthily helping their main hope, Alexander Vinokourov, onto the back of other teams’ efforts. No one knows what became of all those Kazakhstan domestiques, if they all died on the road. But we do know what nation’s flag flew the highest: that of a nation no one was watching.
I hope you found that informative. Even more useful is this brief video, showing precisely how it could kill you, and/or someone close to you. It is a truly cruel disease, calling all of us to stay home, stay our distance, cough into our elbows, wash our hands, and all those things our team cars are telling us we need to do.