When I bought A Significant Other by Matt Rendell at the great local bookstore The Amazing Alonzo, I thought it was going to be a blow by blow account of daily life in the 2003 Tour de France from the point of view of a domestique (hence the title). I was only about 1/3 correct because this book not only covers some of the more tense and triumphant moments of the 2003 Tour but also delves into the history of the Tour in great detail and explains the role of the domestique or servant throughout that history.
Lance Armstrong won the 2003 Tour but it takes a team to win. The Tour portion of the book is from the perspective of teammate Victor Hugo Pena, a domestique for the team leader. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking to read about Pena who was a big name in his native Columbia but in the world class arena of the Tour, he is just a servant. However, he was able to gain the leader’s yellow jersey for three days because of his great prologue effort and his team’s impressive team time trial performance that finally catapulted him into the maillot jaune. So his tour started with a rush of being the leader, being the first Colombian to wear the leader’s yellow jersey but ended with helping Lance win. Quite the string of accomplishments but it must be hard knowing that you will NEVER win the Tour. Even though Pena was instrumental with Lance achieving greatness, Pena will never be remembered as one of the greats.
Rendell also explains the history of the Tour de France from its inception as a means to sell more newspapers but ended up as a uniting force for France and then a catalyst for uniting many nation into the sport of cycling. Extremely interesting details and for me, this really served as a primer for any further Tour research that I might do.
Finally and almost breathtakingly, Rendell greatly expands on the Tour as a catalyst for uniting nations and uses it as an opportunity to talk about how the core exploits the periphery relating to world-systems theory. Much like a developed nation exploits the cheap labor or resources of a developing nation a leader of a cycling team exploits the efforts of the domestiques. Consider the amount of effort to ride first in a pack, it’s a lot. Consider the amount of effort to ride or draft behind someone, it’s far less. The domestique will let the leader draft until the domestique physically can’t lead anymore. The domestique will will place the leader in a position to win. Rendell compares it to a master Renaissance artist who has a legion of apprentices. The apprentices paint the outlines, the background, the cartoons of the characters so that the artist can finish the detail with his genius. Finally, Rendell uses Pena as an example of how the cycling world draws talent from new to cycling countries for the benefit of established cycling countries. Truly amazing to use cycling as a foil to consider capitalism, nation development and international relations.
This book is truly great sports writing on a few different levels and I highly recommend it.