You may have heard about the case of sabotage at the Tour de France this weekend, when the race was disrupted by someone who hurled hundreds of carpet tacks across the road. How the cyclists responded to the sabotage is instructive for the student of honor.
Essentially, what happened was this: the tacks caused havoc as the lead riders had to stop to switch out wheels or whole bikes. The most notable victim was defending champion Cadel Evans, who lost about two minutes. The lead British cyclist and one of Evans’ main rivals this year, Bradley Wiggins (on Team Sky), ordered his team to slow for Evans. He even managed, with considerable success, to direct the lead group (or peloton) of cyclists, composed of various teams, to wait for Evans as well. Evans eventually did catch up, and the standings after that stage were left mostly unchanged.
Here’s a quote from the Guardian on the event. It demonstrates that honor was very much at the forefront of Wiggins’ reasoning:
Cycling’s complex etiquette contains an unwritten rule that riders in contention for a race win should not be penalised for sheer misfortune. Wiggins, who suffered a puncture of his own, took immediate steps to control the peloton’s pace, ensuring that the group waited for Evans and allowing the other sufferers from punctures to catch up and ride in to the finish together.
“I just thought it was the honourable thing to do,” he said. “No one wants to benefit from someone else’s misfortune. There’s nothing to stop that sort of thing happening, whether it was aimed at someone in particular or not. It’s the sort of thing we have to put up with as cyclists. People sometimes take for granted how close they can get to us. If it happened at a football ground, there would be arrests.”
There was the sternness of an old-fashioned Tour patron in his rebuke to the young Frenchman Pierre Rolland, the only one to ride away from the peloton and seize the opportunity for a lone attack before being absorbed back into the bunch, where he was received with coolness.
“I thought that was a bit uncouth,” Wiggins said. “The gap was 17 minutes, we’d all been up a climb that was really tough, a lot of people had punctured and the race was over. Only he would know why he did it. It didn’t seem an honourable thing to do.” Rolland later claimed he had not known about the punctures.
Sunday’s story reminded me of a couple cases of “Tour honor” a decade or so ago: in 2001, Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong’s greatest rival, lost control and fell into a ditch. Armstrong slowed for him to catch up. The following year, Armstrong collided with a spectator and Ullrich returned the favor.
So what does this say about honor? One takeaway is that the type of honor being referenced here is a type that concerns competition. This is not the honor of selflessness, dutifulness, and integrity one associates with military officers and boy scouts. This is an instance rather of the sporting, “aristocratic” honor more suggestive of warrior-aristocratic-athletic tradition. Aristocratic honor is about a competition for prestige—the whole point is to sort out “who’s the better man.” Since competitive excellence cannot be discovered unless the competition is fair, honorable competitors on this variety of honor are constantly making an effort to deal fairly with their opponents and rivals, whom they see as respectable peers and as the source of the very prestige they covet.
Second, cases of honor at the Tour demonstrate that the fairness honor demands is self-imposed by the honor-group itself. I do not follow the sport, but it seems that most top cyclists break the sport’s anti-doping regulations. And yet they clearly are not “cheaters,” since, as the above stories demonstrate, most cyclists are willing to disadvantage themselves more rigorously, to maintain fairness, than what the rules require. Presumably, the thought is that everyone dopes, so it’s fair to dope. On the other hand, not everyone gets hit by spectators or suffers from sabotage and freak events. In that case, the athletes themselves must adjust to keep things fair. This makes perfect sense to me.