Abandoning The Broken Peloton

Three things make my heart beat faster with anticipation: News from the cycling world, brilliantly useful critiques about higher education, and compositional artistry from scholars I respect. And leave it to the fabulous Kate Bowles to bring all three together for me after four days off the grid. My bloated inbox, job applications/inquiries, reports, and mounting list of reading all be damned! I must respond.

First of all, you need to read Service as Service, her post from August 2, 2015 since this post is the beginning of a longer response.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “abandoned” since I watched Fabian Cancellera and Tejay van Garderen “abandon” the tour. They are not the only riders who had to leave via the broom wagon, but they are the ones whose absence haunted me the most this year during Le Tour de France. Cancellera saddened me because he’s such a classy skilled rider and his 2010 wins of Paris Roubaix  and the Tour of Flanders were exciting and beautiful watch. I was especially impressed with how he handled accusations about his victories. Rumor had it that he had a special bike with a motor to increase his speed. It was the technology not his ability that got the rumor mill spinning. He tested negative for doping, so his bike must be dirty.

At the time, it seemed like a nice way to divert the negative press about doping. Allegations were rampant, denials were cocky, and everyone was suspicious of a rider who takes off at the front. In short, if you were winning, you must be cheating.

VeloNation Press  in 2010 quotes Cancellera and gives some context to how he felt about the accusations:

The Swiss rider said that the story is laughable. Almost. “In fact, it’s pretty funny but it is such a big story that it’s no longer the case. It’s a sad story and really outrageous. Don’t worry, my accomplishments are the result of hard work,” said Cancellara.

Whether the motor was his legs or some ingenious hidden motor in his bike frame has been debated ad nauseum by fans and the press. Every bike mechanic I know laughed at the accusations and I agree with them. We need Fabian’s Magic Bike and we’ll win, we joked. But really, it’s his hard work that gives him the fitness and grace to ride a bike that way. He’s an interesting rider because he has not enjoyed the team support that some of his rivals have yet he’s incredibly popular with fans. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I started watching cycling news regularly, so I was devastated to see his name listed as an “abandoned rider.”

This also made me question why they use the word “abandoned” and I have not looked up the history of this term in cycling. If you know it, I’d love to learn. When I looked up the term abandoned, in the dictionary, they give us three definitions:

: to leave and never return to (someone who needs protection or help)

: to leave and never return to (something)

: to leave (a place) because of danger

If we take a look at video as posted on Kate’s blog, we get 47 seconds of sadness from van Garderen. Watching somebody abandon his dreams while he was in a position to compete for a podium position was/is awful to witness. During the live broadcast, they showed the entire scene from him getting off the bike to him getting into the car. It was a moment of voyeurism mixed with horror that made me get up from the television. I couldn’t watch. They almost had to tear the bike off of him and you could tell he was crying. It was too much for me to watch. To witness.

As an American cycling fan, I see van Garderen as a post-Lance Armstrong era potential hero. Watching a broadcast of the tour and only hearing Armstrong’s name three times is shocking and sad for the sport of cycling in the US. Doping is not a cycling-specific phenomenon but Armstrong’s denials then confessions has not helped the sport progress in recent years. The moment he sat down in Oprah Winfrey’s chair, sponsors fled from cycling en mass. This has been most tragic for privateers, women, and young racers.

Unlike Cancellera, van Garderen is young. Check out his list of accomplishments on Wikipedia; it’s impressive. He can still come back and have a few years of competing. His career is on the rise; he’s a kid with promise. Cancellera, however, is long in the tooth, and his best years may be behind him. He may or not retire in 2016, and that’s why his abandonment was so heartbreaking. As a fan, you just want to see him win or be in the yellow jersey one more time. You want to see him time trial one more time. And that may not happen, and as a fan, you have to accept that one more time may not happen. That’s sport.

And these things haunt me. I think about how that abandonment must feel, what it’s like to see the Tour from a bed as you recover. Just bring up Joseba Beloki in my presence and I feel ill. His career ending crash is so awful for him and his team. Here you have a team who works together for an entire year just for three weeks, one crack of melting pavement and it’s over. One injury and there is no one more time. No time.

For non-cycling fans, let me explain a bit. Every team has a Grand Classification (GC) rider, or somebody who can compete to win the major tours. Teams are split up by members who have certain roles in the race. Some sprint, some time trial, but most are assistants to the potential winner, the GC. Everyone sacrifices for the GC. Should that GC person get injured or abandon the race, they’re taking on the weight and the disappointment of their entire team, nation, family, sponsors, and community. It’s especially hard for the domestiques who will never see individual glory, kiss a podium girl on the top step, or wear a jersey. They do a lot of the hard work during the race yet they never get much, if any, credit. The GC gets the spotlight and the domestiques helped him to get to that top step.

In a team competition that looks very much like an individual sport, the abandonment revises the entire job of everyone on the team.  All of the domestiques who have trained to protect Cancellera should he get the yellow jersey after the time trial. All of the domestiques who trained to help block the wind as van Garderen climbed up mountains. They too abandon the race in a sense because their GC teammate is gone. They continue on, but the peloton is different for them now.

Any racer worth a salt always congratulates the work of the team, especially the domestiques (note this is a French word for “servant”). Only one winner wears the jersey but the whole team wins or loses. They all have their role in the peloton as being part of the team. From the servants to the stars, everyone who is good enough to make it to that level has a role in the peloton. Teams work with other teams and there is a lot of trust and brotherhood in the peloton. You get the sense, as a spectator, that everyone is looking out for one another even in the most brutal races. You’re part of something. A peloton.

The commentators speak of the peloton almost as a person (at least in English). It’s a beautiful entity to see when it works together, and it’s a major part of teamwork in cycling. The finish line is a small part of the actual race.

What I enjoy witnessing is how fierce competitors will say, “Chapeau” to the person that won. To the person that challenged them to their limits. Inspired them. Pushed their limits. Crushed their team.

According to the BBC Magazine “Chapeau” is :

…frequently used by cyclists to indicate respect for another’s achievements. By saying “chapeau”, which literally means “hat”, the rider is doffing his cap to a colleague for a good day’s riding.

That’s why the use of “a broken peloton” when talking about labor in higher education is brilliant.

Chapeau, Kate, what a wonderful image to blend time, respect, and labor:

We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us.

Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down. Even professional cycling costs the labour of the domestique.

Yes, and I think that’s the honest truth of it. We’re a broken peloton.

Before I can take on adjunct labor, higher education’s broken peloton, and the wonderful reading that Kate and others have proposed, I have to write about Nicole Cooke. Of all the stories in cycling, Cooke’s story is inspiring and pretty awful. While reading Kate’s post, I thought of Cooke.

On the one hand, what is written about her attitude chaps me as sexism. (She’s a bossy competitive woman, and the like). While on the other hand, I find her rage quite productive and honest. Um, hello, you don’t win a gold medal and world championship by being soft and kinda whimpy.

Nicole Cooke’s “Great Haul of China” in 2008 with her gold medal in Beijing is not as impressive as her stance on doping. When she retired, she said some brilliant critiques about how some cheaters were now profiting off of their stories in the form of memoirs. Here’s what she said about Lance Armstrong: 

And when Lance Armstrong ‘cries’ on Oprah later this week and she passes him the tissue, spare a thought for all those genuine people who walked away with no rewards – just shattered dreams,” she added. “Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances.”

And this from the same link about Tyler Hamilton’s memoir:

Please don’t reward people like Hamilton with money. That is the last thing he needs. Donate his literary prize and earnings to charity. There are many places infinitely more deserving than the filthy hands of Hamilton.

Ouch, but double-damn, she’s spot on. In essence, the cheaters are winning again by selling their stories. Cooke is the only cyclist I’ve seen tell like it is from a woman’s perspective:

I have been robbed by drugs cheats, but am fortunate, I am here with more in my basket and more jerseys than I dreamed off as a 12-year-old girl. But for many people who do ride clean, some are going through horrific financial turmoil.

And there’s a connection here that I promise I will try to bring together about adjunct labor, to companies trying to profit off of students, and the maddening role that educational technology is playing in destroying anything that even looks like a peloton.

Here’s the thing. For now. Here’s the thing:

I thought about the word abandon in another context a bit last week as I finished applying for several jobs. I have one file marked “Snowball In Hell” (these are jobs I know I won’t get), one stack is “Morals Be Damned” (think money not happiness for at least three-five years), and the other file is “Beach Boys” (as in Wouldn’t It Be Nice). These file names make me feel better, but really all of it just made me so completely sick of writing about myself, my accomplishments, and all that jazz.

I shared my exhaustion-and-I’m -glad-I’m-not-an-adjunct sigh over dinner with my friends. I was asked, “Why don’t you abandon a career in higher education and do something else?”

You know, like it’s that easy. I honestly didn’t know what to say other than, “I can’t see myself anywhere else. I love teachers, students, and learning.”

Kate writes again about the peloton, and I’ve edited this section:

When work itself becomes scarce, when whole professions vanish into the sinkholes of technology and automation, then the power to limit expectations of service shift decisively…

…because there is no guiding intelligence holding back the whole academic peleton from hurtling forwards at a pace that only a very few can sustain.

And that section was an answer for me that I didn’t have over dinner. I suppose I don’t abandon a career in higher education because I’m concerned about those sinkholes, automation, labor, and the pace that Kate has brought to our attention. Cycling, after all is a tour and a destination, and the clock causes the wins and losses.

And maybe I am so naive and stupidly optimistic, but I think these three questions below help me see why I can’t abandon the peloton.

How can we make things better? Why does it have to be this way? What can I do to help?

So I’ll take these questions, do some reading, think a bit, and then I’ll write some more. And then I’m going to ride my bike and think. This is by no means a full fledged blog post with a main point. It’s just my way saying Chapeau to Kate. And others who write about this issue. Who care. Who care to see a different peloton where the GC is on par with the domestique. A different time.

For now, I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mine from the great French cyclist, Jacques Anquetil, on his feelings about winning a race by twelve sections.

He replied: It was eleven more than necessary. 

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Abandoning The Broken Peloton

  1. awilliams53 says:

    Regarding working somewhere else than higher education, Woody Allen (not a role model, BTW) quotes the old joke, ‘“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.” — Working in higher education is the same. We need the eggs. Good luck with the job search.


    • LOL–Very true about the eggs–and there’s a useful analogy about serving up the same slop when eggs are so versatile. Plus a Woody Allen joke is a win:) Thanks being a regular reader and contributor.


  2. francesbell says:

    Thanks so much Alyson – stunning piece of writing. There are no easy answers and I am loving posts like this and Kate’s that MAKE ME THINK and DON’T GIVE ME ANSWERS:)
    I so love your enabling approach to your teaching colleagues – refreshing in my book and so different from the ‘claiming’ approach I have sometimes experienced where teachers are viewed through a deficit model.
    I don’t know much about cycling (though I do have a funny story to share with you about how me and dh accidentally ended up on TdF stage route near Abbeville last month – nightmare) but your post made me think about the winner/supporter relationships in cycling/academia – still ruminating.
    Lastly, I think education can be about so much more than winning.
    Chapeau, Alyson, my friend.


    • You know, Frances, I think you just helped sort out why I didn’t blog or share OL for a very long time. I think I assumed I had to have answers. The more that I read of bloggers that I love, I realized that they made me think and question. I think that’s the point and my experiences in The Happenings helped me see the value of sharing an unfinished thought. And boy oh boy is that post unfinished–so much so that I considered deleting it this morning. Ugh, I thought, what the hell was my point and why bother including all of that information about myself? Your tweet helped me see that I need to leave that rough draft out there.
      My colleagues in WA and I have talked quite about this deficit model that we use with teachers and students. Much of my own neurotic self doubts stem from my experience with the deficit model, and I’d like to change that for teachers and students. It’s not easy in a culture where you hear so much about what teachers don’t do and what students don’t have. I try for that “enabling approach” so thank you for seeing it in this massive mess of paragraphs!
      Wow that you can “accidentally end up on a TdF stage” and also Yuck–I can see how that’s a horrible unplanned experience. Can’t wait to hear it:)
      I hadn’t quite gotten there with the “winner/supporter” and winning but I like what you saw. I was starting for something connected to the pressure of the clock and then my lunch break ended and I had meeting to attend.

      Chapeau to you, Frances, for being such a close-knit friend to my work;)


  3. francesbell says:

    I think I might need to blog the ‘accidentally got on the TDF route’ family/friends have laughed over it. Joyously accepting my chapeau;)
    I am loving that you are in a space of uncertainty – so productive – so like the uncertainty of #fedwiki

    Liked by 1 person

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