When I first started following the Tour, one of the many things that surprised me about pro racing and racers was their emotions. Compared to what I seemed to be seeing with American pro sports, pro bike racers were far more emotional. They cried more. And they hugged much more. That pro racing was so far away, seen only occasionally, and often without knowing the entire context, probably made the differences between European pro bike racing and American ball and stick sports seem more profound.
It was one of many fascinating contrasts I saw. Compared to American pro athletes, pro bike racers were small, their equipment almost fragile compared to what I was used to seeing. Cycling shoes seemed dainty compared to the cleated shoes of baseball and football players. Bikes were easily wrecked in crashes—compared to a baseball bat or football helmet, both of which wreck people. And the racers were lean compared to beefy; though the American pro athletes of my youth were far skinnier, on average to pro football, baseball, and basketball players today. Racers were still small, and perhaps their wool jerseys and leather hairnet helmets and shaved legs accentuated the differences.
The small, fragile, dainty impression disappeared once kilometer zero was passed. Racing seemed brutal; it still does. But the brutality of the action with the fragility of…racers and their machines were also fascinating.
So, too, was the crying, the hugging, and kissing. The crying. Yes, mostly tears of joy. But compared to a world where there’s no crying in baseball (allegedly), the tears seemed free flowing. And, to Europeans, at least as far as I could tell watching from a huge remove, it hardly seemed surprising or on
The kissing seemed formal, almost ritualized. There were congratulatory kisses and podium kisses. There were times when it felt like the person doing the kissing was showing power, other times showing appreciation, other times, friendship, or love. Still don’t understand it. And glad the podium ‘girls’ disappeared.
But the hugging. There always seemed to be plenty. And now with the Tour bigger than ever, and cameras everywhere, and always recording, there is even more.
So much hugging. Hugging after finishes. Hugging in the team bus. Hugging for winning. Hugging for almost winning. Hugging for surviving. I’ve been watching the documentary series The Least Expected Day about the Movistar team. They hug all the time.
Still, Deceuninck-Quickstep’s Mark Cavendish is in another league. When he wins, he hugs the soigneurs, he hugs other riders coming by, he waits to hug as many teammates as possible before moving on to clean up for interviews and the podium presentation, where he hugs more soigneurs, directors, competitors. And if he misses them after the finish line, after the podium presentation, hours later, even in the midst of an interview, he’ll stop everything to get in another hug. Even when he just barely makes the time cut, he’s crying and hugging.
Watching Cav’, it seems that this is part of his leadership style—he goes out of his way to make sure everyone feels appreciated and special and that they’re part of his win. It also is another surprising contrast in bike racing. Field sprinting seems to be one of the most aggressive, dangerous, and ego-driven parts of the sport. Yet Cav’ is, at least to the cameras, sensitive, emotional, and intimate, full of frustrations and insecurities, and knowing he needs all the help he can get.
The hugging might also feel more present to an observer thanks to the physical remove that most people practiced due to Covid. I went to a trade show a few days before everything shut down, and the few people who were glad-handing were quick to spritz their hands with sanitizer moments later, and trying to figure out the elbow-bump. After more than a year of little physical contact with non-related humans, the hugging feels like a celebration of life in a way it didn’t before.
So, in the spirit of Le prix de la combativité, the prize for the most combative, where the rider who is most aggressive one stage gets to wear a dossard rouge, Mark Cavendish deserves the le prix de hugativity. Seems like a fitting award for 2021.
JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France, which is available both as an eBook and audiobook. Experience this singular masterclass either as an eBook from Kobo , iTunes, Lulu, or Nook. Or Audiobook. There’s nothing like the Tour de France. There’s no book like Tour Fever.