The Materiality of the Peloton
Today the 99th annual Tour de France begins its second of three weeks that traverse 2173 miles of France and its neighbors. A pro cycling race is not quite the same experience as everyday cycling, but both are distinctive material experiences shaped by an interesting fusion of aesthetics, spatiality, motion, place, sound, body, and commodities, and they might just provide us an example of how to think about archaeological materiality in broad and ambitious terms.
One approach to analyzing the Tour de France or cycling in general would be to assess all its effects. For instance, at an economic level alone the impact of cycling is enormous: In the UK, for instance, 3.7 million bikes were sold in 2010 alone alongside 853 million Pounds of accessories (i.e., 1.3 billion dollars). The National Bicycle Dealer’s Association estimated that in 2011 the American cycling industry was worth $11 billion and included the sale of 15.7 million bikes. Like all professional sport, the Tour de France is fundamentally an advertisement for the companies that sponsor professional cycling teams (e.g., the British TV station Team Sky leads the team competition as of today), the communities that host stages of the race (e.g., the ski town of La Planche des Belles Filles on July 7th), and a broad range of branded cycling commodities (e.g., staple American bike shop brands Specialized, Trek, Giant, and Cannondale all are ridden by Tour teams, and every possible accessory from sunglasses to shoes to helmets are relentlessly branded and marketed). Many of these team brands do not have all that much cachet (let alone name recognition) in the US outside cycling circles—after all, how many Americans have strong feelings about Rabobank, Saxo Bank/Tinkoff Bank, or Francais des Jeux? The most visible American team this year is Garmin-Sharp, but certainly the universe of companies manufacturing cycling accessories for the Tour recognize that the US is one of their most important markets.
Nevertheless, the fascinating material experience of a bike race in particular and cycling in general are often overlooked. A cycling peloton (i.e., the group of cyclists) has a very distinctive material presence combining sight, sound, and physical sensation. A peloton is a panoply of colors in large part because every rider is a moving billboard, much like race cars, so a passing peloton is a striking rainbow whizzing by at 25 miles an hour or more. Races like the Tour de France are of course tourism advertisements as well, so they pass through absurdly beautiful landscapes like the sunflower fields in France or the Tour of Britain’s London stage that heighten the aesthetics of the peloton and play especially well on television.
Archaeologists rarely address the relationship between sound and materiality, but the peloton rainbow has a very distinctive acoustics of rapidly spinning wheels and gears (followed by the trailing caravan of support vehicles) that reverberates uniquely in different spaces (e.g., races in cities sound much different than those in open spaces), and a massive peloton sounds different than a long single line. Along with that color and sound comes a powerful physical feeling of wind in the wake of a peloton passing, yet even one rapid bike creates a surprisingly strong gust of breeze. And of course part of the material spectacle of cycling is the pure sensation of speed that is especially impressive for a motionless person standing at roadside.
Start and finish lines are peopled by a vast caravan of colorful support vehicles that carry bikes and a host of support personnel, and those spaces offer one of the few places fans can actually see a bike and rider for more than a few instants. In the Tour, for example, fans can camp out for days to literally see a peloton pass by within less than a minute, though a caravan of vehicles pass by ahead of the riders circulating freebies for patient fans. Cyclists spend vast hours in the saddle each day, and along the way they eat an enormous amount of food and drink gallons of fluid, leaving behind a wake of food wrappers, empty bottles, and assorted debitage that gets snapped up by fans. These roadside spots and the start and finish lines become social spaces as fans mill about awaiting the bike race itself, and in many races the start and finish lines become places to purchase a universe of branded goods.
One material thing emphasized by these start and finish line areas is the bodies of cyclists themselves, which are for the most part not really discernible in a peloton (see Brian Gilley’s analysis of cyclists’ bodily subjectivity). Like all professional athletes, cyclists are genetic anomalies, and lifetimes of riding maximize their strength-to-weight ratio by providing them with strikingly thin bodies and relatively big thighs that are further crafted based on whether an individual cyclist is a specialized climber, sprinter, or all-around rider. This is all especially clear when cyclists are moving about in the same space as normally proportioned fans. The miracle of bib shorts and bike clothes can compress many typical bodies into something loosely approximating a professional cyclist’s body, but short of genetic manipulation most of us can never approach the physical form that is typical in the pro peleton. Nevertheless, even a recreational rider will probably get a little lean, and they almost certainly will develop a distinctive cyclist’s tan beginning at mid-thigh to sock line, extending from short-sleeves to wrist (i.e., between jersey and gloves), and leaving a bright temple and cheek halo around sunglass frames.
The aesthetics of a pro peloton are mirrored in many local bike shops lined with an ever-expanding universe of visually striking jerseys, and nearly any club ride or weekend ride will include many of the same jerseys found in the pro peloton. What the local bike shop will also confirm is that cycling is accessory-rich: Beyond the universe of pedals, rims, and parts that can update or improve any given bike, a well-equipped bike can include bike computers, lights, bags, bottles, and an astounding breadth of clothes. And anybody whose only bike-purchasing experience was in a department store will be stunned to find a universe of bikes for nearly every conceivable kind of riding and body type, with time trial bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, “hybrid” bikes for commuting, and a host of other bikes distinguished by frame materials, size, and myriad details.
The pro cycling peloton is not a piece of traditional archaeological data, but then relatively few pieces of contemporary material culture conform to facile definitions of archaeological materiality. Rethinking how the experience of cycling encompasses sound, vision, space, motion, and something beyond bike frames and narrowly defined things provides one more mechanism to help us re-think how to look at materiality in broader terms in the past.