Riders on the storm: what the Tour de France tells us about global security
27 Jul 2018|

Warning: This post contains specialist language. For a glossary of terms, see here.

The Tour de France might be one of the best ways of understanding shifts in global security and the implications of those shifts. It gives insights into American leadership under President Donald Trump, into how US allies and partners are beginning to work together, and into how China is using a historic opportunity.

Someone wins the Tour every year, but it’s never an individual victory. To win, you need to be part of a team. Individual champions can win individual stages, but without the backing of other riders they fall back to the pack.

You can guess who I’m thinking of here: the flamboyant rider Trump and his new team, America First. Trump saw his old team, Team Ally—an international hodgepodge of like-minded riders of varying abilities—as costs, even though they’d had a dominant record on the Tour for years. In his mind, if not on the track, he’s the fastest rider on the Tour. His team was just holding him back. Trump inherited Team Ally when he got selected in 2016 over previous Tour winner Barack Obama, and he didn’t like it. So he founded his own team in time to start this year. Unfortunately, he’s its only rider.

He now pedals alone, occasionally throwing bidons at the wheels of his previous team members Angela Merkel, Theresa May and the reliable and pretty quick support rider Shinzo Abe. Even Malcolm Turnbull, a rock-solid rouleur in every race he’s ridden with Team Ally, who faithfully did the grunt work of bringing Trump water bottles and energy bars, doesn’t quite know what to make of his old mate’s change of heart. Emmanuel Macron rode some early stages with Trump, but they’ve not been seen together in recent days.

The fact that Team Ally keeps following him and helping him stay ahead of the peloton is just making Trump crankier. That they’re riding a lot of US bikes—some borrowed, some purchased—has provoked loud recriminations and demands for money that have played out in public on most nights of this year’s Tour.

Trump sees China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as formidable competitors and worthy adversaries. In his vanishingly few introspective moments, he may even worry that they’re faster than America First. He admires their rule-breaking and seems to want to copy it, but has been held back to date by the team lawyers. He loves the plucky North Korean grimpeur Kim Jong-un, despite knowing he gets his speed from the concealed mini nuclear engine buried deep in the bike frame—which he says he won’t use on some future Tour, in the 2030s maybe.

Trump hasn’t yet noticed that the European riders on Team Ally are forming their own breakaway group and having late-night after-stage chats over doughnuts with Turnbull, Abe and Team India’s Narendra Modi.

In previous Tours, Team China has had a pretty lonely ride. Under lead rider Hu Jintao, the team was known as a strong competitor mainly interested in corporate sponsorships, with fourth-place stage positions and no podiums. In recent years, the flood of money that Xi has used to re-equip other teams’ riders and help out with their lavish hotel bills before and after the race has bought him a lot of help on the ride. Xi’s shift to rebrand it Team Xi with himself as the lead rider in perpetuity, along with his aggressive riding and no-holds-barred tactics, has also changed things. He’s offered to rebuild sections of road in time for next year’s Tour.

Some riders are starting to wear Xi’s colours in a loose acknowledgement of their work together. Xi knows they don’t love him, but he’s clear-headed in understanding that if he keeps splashing the cash he might just be on the podium in Paris wearing the maillot jaune. He’s thinking of a decade of Tour dominance. He knows people eventually learn to like winners.

Xi worries about holding his team back home together so that the money keeps flowing. He knows that continued corruption scandals there could bring him undone, and he’s also worried that Team Xi is getting known for its rough-house tactics with other riders, allegations of bike sabotage, payoffs and rumours of violence at home. Lance Armstrong is not far from his thoughts. None of that shows on the Tour.

With almost 30 years since its last Tour victory, Team Russia is in every stage to win, and if not, then to make damn sure its archrivals don’t. This has led to nasty claims and counterclaims of bike meddling and substance abuse. Team Russia tends to blame the victims and keep riding. Bashar al-Assad is helping as a domestique, and mercurial Hungarian Viktor Orbán and Greek rider Alexis Tsipras are providing informal back-up. But Putin’s courting of the charismatic and notoriously tough-riding Turk, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may cause trouble in the group. It’s already a case of too many individuals, not enough team.

As with every Tour, there’s human drama outside the leading group. The spectacular mid-week crashout off the Col de Portet by UK rider Boris Johnson caused a media frenzy. Holding his twisted bike, Johnson swore at helpful spectators and jeered at local farmers. His post-stage remarks didn’t clear much up. He claimed that his exit from the Tour was a planned manoeuvre that modelling showed would make him stronger in future races, while also accusing a European race official of teargassing the corner where he left the track.

It’s exciting to pick this year’s Tour winner from this pack of riders. It’s unlikely to be Trump, and it’s hard to see Putin on the podium (but if does get there, the Union Cycliste Internationale might launch an agonisingly slow, obstructed inquiry). Next year looks even harder for America First, whose corporate affairs look likely to be dogged by disputes with sponsors. Xi might win this Tour. To come out on top in future years, though, he’ll need a team, not a bunch of riders with split loyalties, held together by cash and favours. That’s a tough transition, and Xi will stay distracted by issues at home.

We also shouldn’t forget the strengths that have made Team Ally so dominant for decades—strengths that are still there in training, fitness, equipment and teamwork. So, the smart money’s already looking at the chances of a revitalised Team Ally winning next year’s Tour after they develop a new strategy that doesn’t rely so heavily on a single champion rider. Rumour is they’ll keep their US bikes, but there’ll be no more ‘loaners’ without ready money put down.