The bike as a way out

This blog covers pro cycling, but so do many websites. Races travel across farm tracks, through towns. I want to help place the sport into the context of political, geographical and social forces that surround it. Bike races don’t take place in a bubble. So as part of a series about life in Europe called “Out of Competition”, here’s the third installment…

Writing about Paris-Roubaix and the search for cobbles back in the 1960s, I mentioned Jean Stablinski in passing. The son of Polish immigrants who had travelled to work in the coal mines of Northern France, Stablinski joined his parents in the mines when he was a boy. Too small and weak to work fully, children were given smaller tasks and much smaller pay packets.

Stablinski’s career options

Stablinski himself earned enough money to buy a bike after winning various accordion music and dancing competitions and used the bike to win races and turn pro. Cycling was not just a sport, it was a way out of the mines, a chance to escape grim working conditions and low pay. Sociologists call it “social promotion”.

Stablinksi is but an example. For years cycling represented a means to escape the mines, the fields and the factories. Raymond Poulidor took to cycling to liven up a dull rural life, but could only train at night when his day as a teenager working the farmland was over. Even in the modern era the likes of Sean Kelly had left school by the age of 13 to work on his family’s farm, moving into bricklaying as soon as he reached the more legal working age of 16 years.

All these paths promise nothing but hard work, cycling included. Indeed, swapping the factory for the bike was not an easy option. You’d get bone-shaking roads, wind, rain and illness. Life expectancy was equally short, ex-miners and ex-riders would often die in their fifties. The only difference was that sport allowed you, in the words of Terry Malloy, to become “a contender”. Maybe, just maybe, you could not only turn pro but you could win some good races and gain your financial independence.

Any French-speakers out there would do well to read Roger Vailland’s 325,000 francs, an easy to read novel – award-winning nonetheless – about a racing cyclist who gives up his racing ambitions to work in a plastics factory, swapping the possibility of prize money for the certainty of a pay packet in his quest to assembly enough money as a deposit to start a roadside café. The routine, toil and dangers of the factory is a mirror to the cycling that Busard, the main character, has to decide between.

It’s not for nothing that cyclists were known as forçats de la route, roughly “convicts forced to work on the roads”. The bike as a way out was a big motivation for many riders. Not everyone faced such grim choices, Eddy Merckx, for example, came from a family of middle-class shopkeepers, Gino Bartali had a similar start in life.

But today cycling is not a sport chosen by poor immigrants and those wanting a way out. This link is broken, in Western Europe at least.

Today many people take up cycling as a leisure activity, in countries where participation is growing at its fastest like the US and UK, a newcomer to the sport is more likely to be a graphic designer or a lawyer than a factory worker or a farmer.

Today’s pro cyclists may still aim for million euro contracts and glory but should they fail, the alternatives are not so bad.

This is part of a series on European life called “out of competition” where I try to show a few things that go beyond bike racing. For more items see the following:

Out of Competition
Part I: another other side to Belgium
Part II: Is Belgium splitting apart?
Part III: The Bike as a Way Out
Part IV: The Walloon Cockerel
Part V: Belgian Government Collapses
Part VI: Young, Gifted and Credit Blacklisted
Part VII: Belgian elections
Part VIII: The summer of Spain
Part IX: Preparing for the break-up of Belgium
Part X: Those flags you see in Italian races