The Psychological Meaning of the Tour de France
20 September 2020 saw the end to this year's postponed Tour de France
Psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal explores why the Tour de France offers such strong symbolism for our own journey through life
Well, for cycling fans, that was a thrilling finish to the 2020 Tour de France. A 21-year-old Slovenian rider, Tadej Pogačar, unexpectedly storming to victory on the penultimate day, after an awesome super-human time trial finish on a climb!
As I watched, I hazily remembered my experience of riding a 175km stage of the Tour de France many years ago, secretly fantasising that I had the potency and legs of Pogačar.
In truth, rather than the explosive power of Pogačar I remember going into a trance-like state as I climbed the Aubisque, a 2000-metre wild monster in the Hautes Pyrénées, which went on for 17km, hanging on for dear life. I can remember being surrounded by an eerie pin-drop silence as riders went deep into themselves, simply spinning the pedals as the mountains kicked up. I remember hallucinating as the climb went on. Many cyclists have lost their minds on this climb. Octave Lapize famously said of the organisers when they introduced this mountain stage, “Vous êtes assasins!”.
Memorably, Van Est, otherwise known as The Locomotive and Executioner crashed descending the Aubisque in 1951. His life had already been punctuated by poverty and tragedy, being the second youngest of 16 children. He had served jail time for smuggling tobacco to support his family. Before riding the Aubisque he had never even seen a mountain. He fell 70 metres into a ravine and was pulled out by his team metres who created a rope by tying together 40 inner tubes together. Van Est was inexperienced and reckless on the mountains. He recalled:
“I wanted to go left, but the bike went straight on. Nowadays there is a wall (on the same corner) but not in 1951. I was lucky because I unwound the pedal straps just before I started to descend. When I fell, I kicked away my pedal straps, and held my head in my hands. In a few seconds I saw my whole life flash in front of me. My fall was broken by some young trees, and caught onto one of those trees.”
He landed on a slim ledge, with a 600 metre drop on each side. Afterwards, he become famous for cashing in on his near-death experience, by advertising a watch – “Seventy metres deep I dropped, my heart stood still but my Pontiac never stopped.”
Where the Tour de France and psychotherapy meet
Van Est, the Locomotive, the Executioner, appeals to us, because he lived out, in the most dramatic style, some of the forces we all contend with in psychotherapy and life, and he lived to tell the tale. Van Est was always on the edge, wrestling for survival. In psychotherapy we often experience creative and destructive forces; the life instinct and the death instinct. As Van Est hurtled off his bike, he was defenceless, yet, miraculously, he was able to protect his head, and grab on to the young tree to break his fall. He did not break any bones. Van Est flirted with death and destruction, but the life force within him saved him. Perhaps this is the why the Tour de France has such a hold on some of us? Just like life, we never know what is going to happen next.
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 of effort.
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 attack. This volatility reflects the human experience, where nothing either good or bad, but a mixture of both.
The Tour witnessed the top rider of the top team, Egan Bernal, race favourite from team Ineos, "crack". He has the world’s resources and technology 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 of 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.
Reality is a brutal teacher. So often in life, our ego, the "race leader", gets a battering. We no longer get to wear the yellow jersey. But life carries on, inexorably. Something comes in to 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.
What does the Tour de France capture about life?
The Jungian analyst, Edward Whitmont, argued in his book The Symbolic Quest, that much of human life is really not about concrete things, but their meaning. We are symbolic 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 the journey will not be smooth, not 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. 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 are rare 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. The Hautes Pyrénées, 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 honour 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 realises 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 Elysées. 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 is a verified welldoing.org psychotherapist in Central London and online