Watching the early developments of the Tour de Yorkshire last weekend was a wonderful opportunity to see the best road cyclists up close and personal in God’s own county. However, the sad withdrawal of both Cav and Froome Dog set me pondering on the nature of leaders and of teamwork in our favourite sport.
Some team sports have a very socialist approach to the way that the team works. In curling (oh yes, we’re starting high!) each of the players take a turn to throw a stone and to sweep them for others, Tennis and badminton forces both partners to take their turn at serving whatever their relative strengths. I presume that doubles squash is the same, but it just looks like madness to me – a great way to lose an eye. For rowers, the stroke may set the tempo, but the whole team works in perfect unison, trying to reduce any discord from the harmony of their efforts.
In the “traditional” team sports, such as football, rugby and cricket, roles and responsibilities are more diverse and specialised – the contrast between watching the Little Master elegantly score another hundred and seeing Mitchell Johnson thundering in reminds us all of this.
The world of football has crystallised the difference between the roles even more starkly. The team works together to get the ball to the feet of a Messi, Ronaldo or Rooney (hmmm) in the right place at the right time, for it is they who are the artists, the match winners, the fine line between sweet victory and bitter defeat. Only they are not: without the work of the dependable left back, his blocks, tackles and clearances, the strikers’ star turns would often be unrewarded. The team wins and loses together.
In rugby, the fly half is often the star and match winner. For the RWC winning England side of 2003 I remember a quote from Jason Leonard (I think): “we knew that we just had to get Jonny into range, just get him there and we knew he would bring the cup home.” Now Jonny is a very special case in point, but up and down the country on a Saturday afternoon, gnarled props and second rows will smash lumps off each other just to protect their maestro, their match winner.
The parallel with cycling is clear. Whether it is a trail of grimpeurs shepherding their GC contenders through the mountains, or my favourite sight in cycling: a well oiled lead-out train launching the sprinters for a lung bursting few hundred metres at the end of the race, the bodily self sacrifice is to protect an individual is immense.
But in one important way it is not the same: for there is no team name on this cup. The GC and the sprint are won by one man. They are individual prizes. The prize money goes to the winner (although we were reminded in 2012 of the convention for the champion to “tip” his team!), and his name is written in the record books for all time. It is not England, Wasps or Juventus; it is Merckx, Indurain and Wiggins.
And for that reason alone, I have to believe that teamwork in cycling is the ultimate form of sacrifice; utter commitment of the team men to carrying an individual to his triumph.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man would blow his lungs and legs completely out for his friend…