Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are European Cycling Fans Anti Globalization?

When you watch cycling, notice the flags fans fly along the route. There are occasional flags of Britain, Germany, or France, but it is by far more common to see a regional flag. The flags of Brittany, Flanders, Basque country, etc. dominate.

Why is this? Is it simply a matter of cheering for the home-town cyclists, or does it do the reasons run deeper than this? Cyclists do not perform in big stadiums (where fans are obligated to go worship their heroes), they instead travel to the fans and thereby valorize them and their regions. Is this why regional flags are so prominent? Or is it because cycling fans tend to be rural and their identity is more tied to the land and less to their nation and its capital? Can cycling (and their fans) be seen as expressing resistance to globalization in the same way as soccer hooligans?



Sven Wilson said...

I can understand wanting to be a cyclist, but being a fan of cycling has got to be the least rewarding, least comprehensible activity in all of fandom--travel multiple miles to stand out in the cold for hours for a 2.5 second glimpse of your favorites ride by and when they do, the odds of anything interesing happening are almost nill. When you start with that kind of screwed up psychology, who can explain what color their flag is?

Robert J. Hudson said...

In the case of the Tour de France, to cite the most obvious example, the cyclists coming through town is an event of major importance. You're right: the town/region is on display. The presence of regional flags is completely understandable.

Now, to the second part of the question, are all flag-carrying flags the same ones who helped Jose Bove dismantle a McDonald's in Millau? Probably not; but, the Tour is a fine way to showcase a region and the flag serves a purpose similar to Roquefort, Armagnac, and Beaujolais--that of preserving a culture amidst globalization: diversity in unity.

Corry Cropper said...

Serge Laget, a French Journalist interviewed in the documentary "Hell on Wheels" claims that cycling is the only sport that "ennobles" the spectator: it is free, and the athletes come to your doorstep. Instead of going to worship at the shrine/stadium, instead of paying to be the few that can watch the contest, the athletes come to you and to everyone else along the route. Does this make cycling the ebay of sports?

Of course, most Europeans watch the race on TV or listen on the radio, then go out to get the free stuff from the caravan that precedes the riders; they watch the riders go past (on a steep climb, this can take a half an hour) then catch the end back on TV. All while consuming massive amounts of alcohol.

So maybe the flag is designed to unite drinkers who speak the same language and enjoy the same regional beverage.

To Bob's point: the interesting thing about the regional flags is that they are not just on display when the cyclists go through that region: I saw basque flags flying during the Paris=Roubaix race a couple weeks ago. Watch the Tour and you'll see flags from Brittany when they're in the Alps... even though there may only be one or two minor cyclists from Brittany who made the Tour. Cycling fans seem to attach far more importance to regional identity than fans of other sports (Soccer = city or nation; swimming = nation; rugby = city/nation; basketball = city; etc. cycling = region).

Ophir Sefiha said...

Great topic. Seems the preponderance of regional flags is a confluence of a number of issues, most of which were already pointed out. I'll just add a few thoughts.

Cycling really took off in more rural areas as it allowed folks to travel much greater distances w/ relative ease. In cities, folks had many more transportation options so the bike was not as liberating as it was in more rural areas.

It also seems from my experiences (Corry and other historians could comment far better than i on this) that folks in France and Belgium, in general, identify more w/ their region and all the ethnic and cultural beliefs that accompany these allegiances. This is why fan clubs are so prominent in cycling. No matter how good a rider is, if they've won at least one race they are almost guaranteed to have a 'supporters club' based in their region.

As well, don't we all just want to be part of something larger than ourselves? The identity of one's region, however tenuous your own connection, is a way to feel like you are part of something. This is esp true in Belgium. Random folks will stand at the side of the road with their own wheelset on the off, off, off chance that a rider will flat at that location and they can give them a wheel. No joke. People just want to be part of cycling any way they can. Isn't that why we pay to wear sports gear w/ city names on it?

SM Sprenger said...

"Or is it because cycling fans tend to be rural and their identity is more tied to the land and less to their nation and its capital?"

Not sure how it works for Germany, Belgium, etc. but this may be a false contradiction as it applies to France and its regions: nation-builders in the late 19th-century used regionalism as a tool to promote a French national identity. The 3rd Republic moved away from the earlier Jacobin strategy of crushing the regions and focused on regional pride as an intermediary pathway to the larger whole. It seems paradoxical or contradictory but the EU is doing precisely the same thing today through the idea of "Europe of Regions".

As the Tour de France was invented at the same time that the Republic was promoting a nation-of-regions (wasn't the Tour premised at some level on the period's bestselling schoolbook *Le Tour de France par deux enfants*?), this flag-waving may just be a residual effect of one of French cycling's early structural features.

Obviously today's regionalists are also using regional identity as a self-conscious marketing strategy in a global marketplace. They know that Tour's media coverage will focus the globe's attention on their region as a kind of "brand" of excellent tourism, wine, cheese, etc. This ultimately brings in tourists and generates sales for local products across the globe. It's good business in Europe to be (or seem) anti-global.

Corry Cropper said...

G. Robb suggests that the Tour is also, at least partially, based on the old "Tours de France" completed by artisans who would travel France learning their trade.

Whatever the origins, the Tour certainly made Parisians aware of the rest of France (the regions) in ways it had not known it before. The Tour also serves as a mechanism to unify France's diversity since it takes in the whole of the country in one three week period and "brings" it back to Paris. Then Parisians can comfortably forget about the rest of France for another year.