I started watching the Tour de France for the first time ever last year. I have a possibly unhealthy competitive streak shared by my siblings, and two years ago I talked my best friend into training for a triathlon with me. We had a blast, and I learned that bicycle riding is not as easy as I remember it being as a kid, and there is far more technique involved in staying upright as an adult klutz. I decided to watch the pros to learn about drafting and mountain climbing and making turns at death-defying speeds. I spent about two days researching the lingo as I watched: peloton, breakaways, yellow jerseys and polka dot jerseys were all foreign concepts to me. Every day I learned more and more about the team strategies and determined that the Art of War was perhaps the most appropriate primer for better understanding of grand tour competitions.
There are hundreds of dramatic moments in an epic race like the Tour de France. As a compatriot competitive spirit, some of my favorite moments are the breakaways. One man will start pedaling away from the peloton (the main group of riders; the word also roughly translates into “big stick”) and a few brave souls will join in. These guys will ride ahead of the peloton for as long as they can, and a very few will actually stay ahead through the finish line. Usually, though, the peloton lets them gain a lead of about 2 or 3 minutes until close to the end. At 25k to go, the peloton goes into chase mode and brings the strays back into the fold; it’s like the Borg on bicycles, and it’s fascinating to watch. I sit there, legs flexing along with the riders’ pedal strokes, half cheering for the escape artists to go all the way, half cheering for the peloton to catch up. If you ever watch the last 30 minutes of a stage race, you’ll be hooked, too.
Last night I was watching the Stage 4 coverage on Versus, and they had this beautiful camera shot of the breakaway. Three brave riders against the “big stick” holding bravely onto their shrinking lead. Then the camera pulls back and refocuses; about a half of a mile behind the breakaway was the peloton looming closer and closer. I could almost feel the dread these three men must have felt when they peeked over their shoulder. It was inevitable that the peloton would swallow them – soon. As creepy as I may have made the peloton sound, they have a brilliant purpose. Most of the riders stay with the group because they share the workload; together they can maintain speeds a breakaway group can’t maintain without a LOT of pain. The riders have a drafting system like geese flying in formation; the lead rider does most of the work while his teammates ride easier behind him. They each take a turn at the front, and each team is protecting their best hope for a win, propelling him to the front of the line or helping him catch up with the group if he had to stop for a problem. That process is just as fascinating to watch as a breakaway; there are riders on each team who will never win a race because their entire purpose is to get their best rider to the front. Even though the breakaway group employs the same system of drafting, and they are fairly effective, they do a lot more hard work than the peloton will.
There are hundreds of life metaphors there, but the one that struck me as I watched that particular camera shot was that we are always stronger as a group. Just like the peloton, the body of Christ allows for us to draft when we need a break and requires that we do our share of the work. I was attempting a breakaway for the last few years, and it was about as succesful as most of the Tour de France breakaways. It ended with me completely wiped out and desperately needing help more than ever, and, like a Tour breakaway, it was a misery of my own choosing. Of course there were a lot of reasons – grief and depression are isolating emotions – but it wasn’t necessary. I was letting myself drown when all I had to do was ask for help. There is great strength in connection; we humans were created for connections. If you find yourself in a horrible, lonely place, you have to make yourself reach out – talk to at least one person, even if you have to call your entire contact list before you get a live person. Leave a comment here or on some other site so that someone can reach out to you. Trust me, they won’t hate you, and you are not a failure for needing other people. You are actually a more successful human if you can ask for and accept the help that you need. Build yourself a team that will help pull you along, and someday you’ll find yourself in a position to pull another teammate back to the fold. Just think of the peloton and rethink “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.”