Every July, France hosts one of the world’s greatest sports spectacles, Le Tour de France, and it offers something for almost all sporting and social appetites. For fans of individual sports there is the points leader and the king of the mountains. For fans of team sports there is the famous yellow jersey and the overall team competition. For entrepreneurs there are races within the race, constant innovation, and rewards for superior specialists. For progressives there is the equality of the peloton, the sacrifice of the domestiques, and the meager financial rewards for all but the elites.
The Wonders of Spontaneous Order
Unlike international soccer, cycling has not gained a lot of popularity or understanding (whichever comes first) in the United States, so here is a little in the way of explanation. The peloton is the big group of cyclists that is comprised of all teams and most of the riders at any given time. What looks like a random pack with lots of colors is usually well organized, and a wonderful example of spontaneous order – no one planned it. Every rider knows their individual role, but not the designs of the other riders. And each individual’s role depends on their team’s goals for the day, the moment they are in, and breakdowns in their plan so far.
A great way to understand the peloton is from the front. There, viewers can see the teams that are setting the pace, and see their colors lined up in single file behind their leader. These are the the trains, and the team leader will never be the locomotive. He is being protected and enjoying the slipstream; conserving energy for the mountains and the overall victory in Paris. The organization of the peloton falls into disarray when winds shift, roads steepen, riders attack, or riders crash (usually in the middle or rear of the peloton, it’s safer in front). That is the uncertainty of the future, yet order always returns with a different network of collaborators at a future unplanned moment.
Of Specialization and the Division of Labor
Within each team there is the team leader, the climbers, the sprinters, the generalists, the time trialists, and the domestiques. And it is possible to switch roles on any given day depending on the team’s goals. Those are dictated by the day’s terrain – flat, mountains, or rolling hills, and injuries. The term GC rider is the team leader being protected in order to stay in contention for the for the general classification victory, meaning the overall win. To have a rider on the GC podium in Paris is a major team victory. The GC guys will never endanger themselves in sprint finishes. However they will contend for mountain stage wins as that is where precious time is won. The sprinters are never GC guys. Their thing is individual stage wins on days set up for sprinters.
Not all teams contend for the three week GC victory, but they all contend for daily stage wins. On mountain stages, the sprinters become domestiques or fall off the back. The generalists do it all, as the name implies. They are competitive sprinters, good climbers, and reliable in the peloton regardless of the terrain. Today’s premier generalist, and the overall rider that’s most fun to watch, is Peter Sagan of Slovakia. A young man with a vibrant sense of life.
Specialization and the division of labor offer great value in the sport of professional cycling in the same way they offer great value in the sport of human life on planet earth. They are the product of having a long-term vision, anticipating the future, and deferring immediate rewards. Not only does this attitude lead to success in the long and arduous competition that is the Tour de France; according to economics professor Saifedean Ammous, it also leads to cultural and artistic enrichment for entire societies.
The Allegory of the Peloton
Americans can easily relate to the idea of team leaders and specialists, but a domestique? Their role is to protect the team leader in the peloton, lead the sprinters toward the finish, and shepherd the specialists back to the peloton if they crash. The English translation is servant. But while they don’t make headlines, they don’t resemble servants either. Instead of building socialist utopias like the horses described in Animal Farm, they are more like the steel workers hired by capitalist Henry Rearden in Atlas Shrugged. They are the best at what they do, prideful of their skill and integrity, and compensated accordingly. Domestiques can also be upwardly mobile, servants to socialist utopias not so much.
If social justice activists could organize a peloton, the exploiters would be placed at the front and create the slipstream. Their victims would be pulled along so that everyone enjoys the same outcome, so long as the entire group behaves into eternity. Free market advocates would just leave it alone; it is the equivalent of a complex system working efficiently. Every participant is pursuing their own rational self-interest and they all function in harmonious rhythm. The peloton is a temporary phenomenon that serves the needs of its riders at the moment. It cannot be rigid, planned, or controlled because there will always be a break-away group of riders that symbolize new ideas and innovation. No authoritarian could ever anticipate this. A free market, like its allegorical peloton, is flexible and ever-changing.
To summarize, the peloton is a network of voluntary cooperation that can’t be improved. Its cyclists have a long-term vision that the group does not. Individually, they have traded immediate rewards for intense physical and mental training; the payoff being greater future rewards. This attitude is natural and necessary for the culture of cooperation that is the peloton, and in a larger sense, all peaceful and prosperous human endeavor. All riders have a vested interest the success of their fellow cyclists. This prevents crashes in the short run and inevitably leads to greater potential rewards for everyone in the long run. So enjoy the spectacle of Le Tour, appreciate the elegance of its various forms, and understand the bright future symbolized by its spontaneous order.