Breaking Away- Some Thoughts on Domination
Dominance. It's an ambiguous and loaded term at the best of times. It carries ubiquitous exigency, whether that be in a Russell Group lecture hall with a superannuated Marxist at the debate's wheel, or on the lusciously lined sofa of Loose Women (not necessarily mutually exclusive), or caterwauled from the pues of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, or, indeed, plopped into a young writer's cycling opinion column. In competition, however, domination appears to take on an entirely different guise. In 2021 dominance is, by definition, an emulatory mandate for any would-be athlete, and, when a keen commentator puts his pound in the cliché pot and calls a new victor a 'legend', a 'great' or the commoditised 'next best thing', they are only perpetuating the idea that utter dominance in sport is an unadulterated good thing. We are no different in the cycling world. Peter Sagan, with all his wheelied bravado, practically had the Tour's Green Jersey named after him for a short period, and late 1990's Americans, fresh from the football field, could be seen to dub a three week race around France the 'Tour de Lance'; so a strong a hold did the Texan have over any other man. Despite our champions having obtained domination status via bite force exerted hardest onto auto-attached bottle corks, or have been most adroit at intravenous injections, or - one would hope nowadays - trained hardest to get to the top, their dominion over competitors has largely been venerated and then lamented as their dominance subsides in later life. So are we collectively shepherding an all too strong wave of winner influence into cycling? Or do we perhaps loathe the criterium fat cats who take all the spoils? And under what conditions do these strangleholds leave a chafe in the chamois?
The notion of dominance, no matter how averse you happen to be to it, is here to stay. There's certainly a substantial amount of literature on the topic; Vilfredo Pareto's famous Pareto distribution, often simplified down as the 80-20 rule, in that 80% of all obtainable success (wealth and wins) is held in the hands of at most 20% of a particular population, is a cornerstone of power-law probability.
The drop into irrelevance- Pareto's final descent of the day. © Muhali
It's part and parcel of anthropological activity; a game of winners and losers played out on freshly cut football terra firma, next generation Californian hardware or hot Pyrenean tarmac. British outfit Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) are perhaps the most dominant force our sport has ever seen. When Brailsford's boys in black and blue showed up to professional cycling's balkanised fissiparous circus, all track-suited and booted a little over a decade ago, a majority of the late noughties cognoscenti thought that what they were witnessing was a verbose Brit with a semi-talented roster and a Jaguar fleet in tow, and not the systematized super squad that would come to devastate all rivals. Not only were Dave's stars an acutely evolved pack of race winning headline grabbers, but it would certainly not be hyperbolic to say the techniques used by Sky (Ineos) have revolutionised us. A post race turbo warm down, completed under the cover of a shaded canopy, the zipping up of all-in-one skin suits to prioritise New School aerodynamics over primitive Europhile two-piece styles, and chewy carb loaded rice cakes, consumed before an acceleration; the concoctions of evil masterminds behind the fogged windows of a black-panelled Death Star, are all now compulsory prerequisites stitched into the lining of any Maillot Jaune hopeful. Obvious comparisons of team led domination can be drawn with the blue train of US Postal, a retinue around Armstrong who were equally, albeit pharmacologically, pioneering.
Should the UCI now make dominance a banned substance? © Tim De Waele/Getty Images
Looking back a little further to the heydays of Mapei, who fostered Classics talents Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbrouke. A sui generis pairing that took mid to late nineties one day riding by the collar, culminating in them mobbing the top spots at the 1996 Paris Roubaix in a show of complete dominance. The team born out of Mapei under Patrick Lefevere's leadership (Belgian giants Quickstep) have also made the early season exploits their own. Other win hoggers of note include Eddy Merkx, whose cycling hegemony I can scarcely avoid, Spanish giant Miguel Indurain and Movistar's own Annemiek Van Vleuten. The above mentioned dominators were, and remain to be, apotheosized for rampaging through the accolades and making a self-interested palimpsest out of cycling history; putting on a production of Bike Racing at New York's Carnegie Hall and casting themselves as the heart throb headliners. Here we arrive at a very specific and relevant crossroads. It seems that, without wanting to stir up any additional apolitical Euroscepticism, those on the continent love it when one of their own crashes over continuous finish lines, basking as they do so, in the emoluments of dominance. Yet when it's somebody from outside their circle doing the dominating, a Briton or an American for example who upturn the snowglobe, they cannot help but scandalise their victories and, both physically and metaphorically, throw urine over their achievements. They'd much prefer Ineos and US Postal winners to spew any foul ketogenic diet plans or formulaic climbing tactics on a Geraint Thomas bacchanalian pub crawl, rather than continue to loom large on the scene.
The overarching lust for domination is also a very potent cultural tool. From the present-day preponderances of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Facebooks's Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla's Elon Musk, to their triumvirate Roman equivalents; Pomey, Crassus and Ceasar, the harsh inevitability of overrule is thrust nose first into any viewers face. Our take on this domination may well be temperamentally set out for us from birth. Those on the Left, at large, feel that life is a zero sum game, and concentration of power in the hands of a tiny minority leads to monopolisation and a lack of effective corporate feedback loops. Those on the Right, at large, feel that life is winner takes all, and view the creation of a multinational organisation to serve the consensual demands of a hungry mass as a Smithian liberal triumph. These points, though valid, barely relate to cycling. Unfortunately, nobody in the know is predicting a Roglic-led Jumbo Visma attack on the Tuileries Palace anytime in the near future.
The Internationale unites the bicycle race. Socialist sprinter Sam Bennett fights dominance in green. © Getty Images
The emanation of this dominance plays a key role in our perspective of it. Last week I confabulated at great length on the upsurge of young talent currently in the peloton. And it would seem that accomplishment and resultant prosperity from a coasting cruiser; the victory of boys against men, the merriment of the cute little ones, tends to get their incontinence pants in a twist.
And what are we to do about all this dominance? We've administered, for a certain number of years, a societal Purple Heart to problems of puerile tycoonism. Amphetamine and Depressant, leaving us at once - indifferent. For every plutocratic attestation, like Dr Seuss's The Lorax or Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, fetishisation of the insanely dominant, perhaps most famously in the form of Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, offering tit for dominance's tat, leaves us in concurrently envious and reverent of Sky and Chris Froome. After all, the future likelihood is that we shall forever utilise the very tools used by these leviathans to dominate, as a larger and larger population consume cycle racing (regardless of who's nudging the bunch), purchase harefooted electric liftback Sedans and interminably contracted iPhones and reach for the speedy hand of Amazon Prime, all in the intervening period of a good old Facebook sesh.