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Stage 11: The triumph of the social over the individual

14/10/2020

Démare has done it again. Just imagine how much prior preparation this succession of stage wins represents. After all, assembling a group of riders of the right physique, physiology and interchangeability to constitute a sprint train at a reasonable budget, keeping them fit and well, drilled but also alert, free of illness and accidents, is an impressive sporting and organisational undertaking. It represents the triumph of those early 20th century time-and-motion studies that revolutionised offices and factories, or at least made them for more reliable, more repeatable – more boring, the most anti-sporting quality of all. But boredom itself can be admirable, for a handful of stages every three weeks. Groupama-FDJ and Arnaud Démare have achieved it by bringing an entire team devoted solely to the service of the most in-form sprinter here.

Which is why, for many, the days in the hills, like tomorrow’s astonishingly hard stage through the Appennine hills of Romagna where Marco Pantani used to train, represent the essence of cycling. Whatever else happens tomorrow, the GC is going to be shaken up. On the sprint stages, the climbers simply exploit the slight vacuum created by bigger, more powerful riders capable of far greater speeds on the flat, and the day comes and goes without affecting the top of the General Classification. And then, come the mountains, the wiry little climbers forget to return the favour.

In any case, if road racing is ultimately about man’s mastery over nature, the gradients, the weather and the altitude – setting aside rockslides and ravines – are contingencies imposed on the racing by the universe, and the flat stages – four or five in the break, conversation in the bunch, then, later one, the chase, the catch, the sprint – are formulaic necessities required only to get the peloton to the foot of the mountains.

After all, isn’t sport about mastery of all three dimensions, width, breadth, and height?

(the last of the breakaway riders, Sander Armée, holds of the peloton inside the final 25 km)

But perhaps we should see things differently.

Outside crystals and salt flats, smooth horizontal surfaces are rare in nature. Meticulously engineered road surfaces should be objects of wonder. And the invisible resistance of the air is nature, degree zero, at its purest and most inevitable. The sprint train, like the pursuit quartet, is the product of communication, coordination, of feeding strategies, millimetres between rear and front wheels, aerodynamic studies involving all the technical sponsors – bike, clothing, helmet.

It is the triumph of man in his social context, cooperating with his peers on shared projects, over the disconnected individual. Four times now Arnaud Démare has raised his hands in triumph: raised them, not stretched them out horizontally. The theory goes that it is an adult evocation of the infant’s upward reach for its mother, which is why, perhaps, we also reach for the stars.

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