Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tour de France and Class Antagonism

One of the most fascinating chapters in Dauncey and Hare's volume (The Tour de France 1903-2003) is Christopher Thompson's chapter on the Tour's political ideology during the inter-war years.

He explains that cyclists were often referred to "ouvriers de la pédale" (pedal laborers) or as "forçats de la route" (prison laborers of the road). Conditions for riders were so bad that French politicians, sympathetic to the plight of the working class, legislated against long distance road races and in favor of speed limits on racing cyclists.

What emerged from all this was a high level of animosity between exploited riders/workers and their bosses, the administrators of the race.

This lack of trust is mirrored in French society where, to this day, unions and the business owners' organization (Medef) constantly do battle. (During my last trip to France I met with a lawyer who represents employees in labor disputes. Suffice it to say that the animosity still runs deep.)

And the demarcation between employees and employers still has relevance in today's Tour. Cyclists have been reluctant to accept doping rules imposed on them by Tour organizers. And cyclists who make deals with cycling's administrators are punished by their fellow "workers." A case in point is Filippo Simeoni who confessed to doping with Dr. Ferrari (who also had links to Lance Armstrong). During a stage of the 2004 Tour, Simeoni joined a breakaway and, although he posed no threat to Armstrong in the overall standings, Armstrong joined the breakaway in order to punish Simeoni (the peloton would never let a breakaway that included the race leader succeed).

Major League Baseball has had a similar antagonistic relationship with team owners, explaining why in both sports (cycling and baseball), drug testing has been so slow to take root.

4 comments:

scott said...

I'm sure you're right, but beyond simple analogy, how do foreign riders in the Tour reflect French class antagonisms? You cite an American and an Italian... are there better examples?

Derek said...

Whether the riders dope or not, they will always do anything they can to create a competitive advantage over other riders. They battle on the road and for endorsements. There seems to be no place to draw a line as to what is a legal performance enhancer and what is doping. If someone can answer that...kudos

Corry Cropper said...

You're right, Scott, I give examples of riders that aren't French, but the cyclist culture that continues today was largely shaped in the inter-war period and reflects the class antagonisms of that era. So Armstrong, without knowing it, adapted to a hierarchical power structure that grew out of the French (and European) class struggles of the 20s and 30s.

scott said...

Fair enough.