Thursday, August 8, 2013

Baroudeurs, le Métier, and Professional Obligations

Anthony Charteau announced his retirement recently, stating, "I love my sport but...the style of racing, generally, is leaving less and less space for riders like me, the baroudeurs."

Since I had no idea what that word means, Mr. Charteau, I couldn't initially say whether I agreed.  Baroudeur.  I visited The Inner Ring's lexicon of cycling and discovered that baroudeur is a "courageous rider compensating moderate ability by combative riding."

Oh, I know all about that.

From passista to flahute to grimpeur, old Europe had a classification system for its riders as Linnaeus did for biology.  Another analogy here is the supposed 50 words for snow of the Inuits.

The lexicon grows from passion and interest, idea being you only take the time to invent words and to classify things that really, really interest you.

I could get into the lit crit bullpucky about this whole thing--Saussure's linguistic system and Derrida dropping--but then I'd rather not, just as I'd rather not get too into these Old World notions of cyclists.

I'd rather simply bring up an example of it concerning Michael Barry's mostly forgotten memoir, Le Métier.

When US Postal and Sky domestique Michael Barry released his book, French-speakers assumed Barry's title was poorly chosen--literally it was fine, but the connotations were not.  Le métier means, literally, "work," but as it is used in professional cycling, it implies willingness to dope--as Guamont said about his notorious Cofidis team of the 90s: "tu dois savoir que chez nous, tout le monde fait le métier" (You should know that here everyone does their job).

Later, of course, it turned out Barry had been doping; he had been "doing his job." His self-chosen title--le métier--was, well, appropriate.

The thing flipped.

Instead of an ignorant but innocent poseur who'd chosen his title poorly, Barry turned out to be the ultimate professional, brash enough to proclaim his doping in the title of his memoirs.  In retrospect, he can point to the title of his book and say, "I confessed to doping right there.  You just were too ignorant to understand."

And we didn't.  Those few in the know did.

Barry defines the term as the very essence of cycling: "the traditions, experience and knowledge."  To do one's job has the implication of doing one's duty, following the right path.  The twisted responsibilities of domestiques in cycling's doped era included the use of performance enhancing drugs, and of keeping that secret safe from the viewing public.

There's an argument here that, far from cheating, doping was in that era the height of professionalism.  One risked one's life and honor to do one's duty, le métier


Of course, the duty was to teammates, family, and to the peleton--it was not at all to the sport's fans.  The Lance era was an era of separation between what we fans were told and what happened.  Our money ultimate reached the pockets of riders and sponsors and TV executives, but we fans weren't asking for honesty, and those on the other side, the ones who held up the spectacle of the sport, with few exceptions, felt obligated to do their duty and continue the deception.  

This separation of spectacle from spectator goes back to cycling's beginnings: it's documented in Rough Ride and Dog and a Hat, in Tomorrow We Ride, in Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape, and in Major Taylor's story.


We amateurs find ourselves in between these worlds--one a fabrication, the other an experience and a bond between competitors and teammates.  Cycling is the furthest thing from our duty--for many, it's what we do to escape responsibility.  We have our own code of responsibility, of respecting the local patrons, of not being a fred, of giving back to the community, and of competing honestly and cleanly.

This contrast is probably the best way to understand the difference between professional and amateur cycling.  It's also a reason to be grateful, and to respect those professionals who make it through that world, doing their duty--to us and their conscience, as well as to their teams.  None of us amateurs  feels real pressure to dope--and if we do, it's a sign that we're warped idiots.  Professionals whose livelihood depends on results, they have a job and an obligation.


Things may have changed above ground, in the space where fans roam, but in the dark hotel rooms and pharmacies below, the obligation remains.  The job, and the professional baroudeurs contemplating the substitution of aggression for ability, remains.

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