Saturday, April 12, 2008
Over a million men on both sides of the Great War were killed here in the mud and stench of poison gas, the metallic flavor of high explosives (did they use cordite then, too?), plagued by foot rot, rats, dysentery, shell-shock, bad tactical leadership, and national leaders who didn't really have an idea about why they were fighting, only that they probably ought to be doing it, so they did.
At least one pre-war winner of Paris-Roubaix, Octave Lapize, died in an aerial dogfight, not terribly far from the site of the race.
These men won't be cheering today. The race is, in part, a memorial to them. It's a monument to human suffering, to human efforts that sometimes may appear senseless. Their sacrifice is the ultimate, it is unquestionable. It would be sacrilege to say that the racers have much in common with them; they do not. But in any epic struggle of will between men, there are some common threads. The more epic the struggle, the more that the non-essential aspects of civilization are stripped away, the more down to human basics it gets. There we see the similarities.
Hinault hated the race, rode it, won, and lost the feeling in his fingertips after this race, but never complained about it. Dulce et decorum est...
A lot of the epic suffering we talk about relates to the winners, who stayed upright.
Just as in the trenches in the nearby battlefields, however, the cameras rarely show the great mass of men, up to their ankles in muck, slipping, sliding, falling. There is an existential question in that: if a man falls and there is no camera capturing his suffering, does anybody notice it? Does it even exist? Wilfred Owen tells us that no stones are so red, as the stones kissed by the blood of the English dead. But he was there; in fact, he was killed there. He wrote that poem to tell us - perhaps somewhat sarcastically - that we don't know a damn thing about what suffering and sacrifice really is, and that we can't know. If we don't see all the suffering, if we don't know the full depths of it, is it real?
The answer, of course, is incontrovertibly yes, in spite of the fact that we know not a whit about what Owen went through - he and his comrades defy augury. Soldiers on the Somme and elsewhere in Flanders formed a tight (and socially troublesome) brotherhood during and after the war, it was a bond formed in the forge of common suffering, and the politicians in the great powers failed to understand this, much to their own detriment. Learn your World War I history, you'll be struck by how grievous the suffering of the soldiers was, but how oblivious to the suffering in the trenches the civilians really were. Yet the soldiers knew, and they caused the authorities real trouble then and later on; look up the French mutinies, the benefits marches in the United States, the pacifist movement and Siegfried Sassoon in Britain, or consider the post-War unrest in Germany and its ultimate end. Their knowledge was genuine, their suffering real, and ignored, missed by the casual spectators at home, who probably would have rioted had they known about how outrageous conditions really were. But they simply didn't know; they couldn't know.
So too racers in the world's toughest roadrace. We cannot know what they go through. Yet they know. When a racer goes down in pain on ridiculously rough, slippery cobbles, the other racers who manage to stay upright notice it. They made it, they came through. They look down at their fallen comrades as they pass, 'better you than me, mate,' and keep pedaling. But the knowledge is there. A little further on in the race, they hit a wet cobbled turn, the knowledge must mark them, and maybe slow them; maybe makes their refusal to hit the brakes that much more impressive. After the race, aching, tired, it sinks in. Maybe it's years later before they realize the significance of finishing, contending, or winning. Sometimes they tell the media what an awful race it is. Yet they come back for it, year after year. They must feel a bond to their team, the other racers, the race, the road. The gloire.
Ahh, yes, there it is. Joy in merely having survived. A happy warrior whose suffering is almost past. He came through just fine, thanks. No problems, mate. Time to finish up, hit the showers, and get on with life. Maybe next week we'll be on smooth roads in the Netherlands, maybe it won't rain, maybe I won't be taken out apparently at random by a loose brick in the road, flying debris, or my fellow racers. It's good to be alive.
But do any of us who haven't raced it really know about this? Do any of us understand? I don't think we do. Racers, like other modern athletes, sometimes talk about their events as 'going to war.' They think of good domestiques as 'footsoldiers.' In one way, the comparison is facile. With rare exceptions, nobody really wants to kill anybody else in a race. But in another respect, it's a fair comparison; a good peek at this race tells you it is a torture test, it is as hard as a roadrace can be made. It strips away all the non-essentials, it is just plain suffering. In a microcosm, it is a play war. Men are good at war and play war, it seems.
A comparison to real veterans' attitudes, as I've seen them, is worthwhile here, to try and get a sense of the mechanism of shared suffering, shared knowledge, and the futility of an outsider trying to penetrate into the arcane books in a library of suffering that is rarely entered by outsiders.
Nobody really knows what a war veteran has gone through, not even another veteran, because you can't know what the other guy goes through, even if you were standing next to him, you weren't in his shoes. The closest you can get is to have suffered yourself. Then it's at least possible to offer respect to another veteran. There is some shared knowledge of the depths, some degree of shared suffering that you both understand. You can't communicate it to others; there is no grammar to do so. Communication fails; you either know suffering, or you do not, and if you know a particular type of suffering, you are an authority on it, in your own modest way. Nobody has cornered the market on your kind of suffering, but you're a journeyman, as are the others who have made the same study of it.
A veteran offers another veteran the best sort of respect - the hard-earned and not-freely-given type. To one veteran, another veteran's respect is worth more than the appreciated but fleeting 'Thin red line of 'eroes' respect granted by those who just don't know.
You want to see what respect really is? Watch how veterans treat a fellow who has received the Medal of Honor. Do you know that MOH recipients do not have to initiate a salute, but that a higher ranking servicemember, even a general, will salute a junior enlisted soldier who wears the Medal? Do you know that a 90 year-old veteran will still be accorded the same respect and awe, by all who serve, and pretty much anybody who once served who is still in possession of their faculties? Do you know what an MOH recipient does within the military after receiving the MOH? Pretty much anything he damn well wants, as long as it's not breaking the law; and I've heard stories of WWII vets who received the Medal who behaved very badly indeed (a man does heroic things; this does not make him a hero, he is still a man). Yet the Military Police or Shore Patrol still treated him with kid gloves. He was forever marked, and respected.
This is a footwashing ritual, a sign of respect so profound, that it shows a willingness to briefly overturn the entire social hierarchy of the military, in order to honor and show respect for the dues that one man paid. That is reverence; that is true, enduring respect; not lip service but something tangible to those who understand. It is how a duty and tradition-bound segment of our culture shows piety in the face of those who are a living expression of its ethos, those who have, however briefly, stood on the pinnacle.
In our much lesser cycling version of epic suffering, one that merely crosses many battlefields, we see the same pattern played out in a dim imitation of that kind of respect for real achievement.
As a fan, I love Paris Roubaix; I think it is *the* race. I can say this, I can know and tell you that it is the race whose winners I most respect, because it is obviously a challenge that is a order of magnitude beyond that posed by any other race. But in the end, I know basically nothing about what the racers go through. Hinault still doesn't feel anything in his fingertips 25 years later? Damn. That's impressive, but the worst numb fingers I ever had went away after a couple months. I just don't know the truth about what he sacrificed that day. I've sprained and bruised and cut a knee; but how did Museeuw feel when the cobbles nearly took his career, leg and life? Only Museeuw holds the key to the vault holding that gnostic wisdom. George Hincapie, a perennial P-R contender, went down two years ago with a snapped steerer, getting hurt pretty bad in the process. All he could manage to say about it, was "It was a bummer." Do you really think it would be just a bummer, to have a mechanical and bust up a collarbone, in the race you have been chasing, dreaming about, dying to win, in contention for but never quite winning, your entire career? The fact is words can't convey what he felt. So he doesn't bother trying. You wouldn't know, and he can't say.
Those who have raced it, those who have raced Paris-Roubaix know the full truth.
Among pro racers, the brick that one gets for winning Paris Roubaix is accorded the ultimate respect. Those who have won it are known forever afterwards as Paris-Roubaix winners no matter what else they have won; even if they won the TdF, they will be described as "TdF and Paris-Roubaix winner ____," though that is an increasingly rare double in an age of specialization. Champions with many palmares and many trophies in their bookcase have been known to say that the brick is the only one that really matters to them.
The ultimate respect, after all, is not what strangers to your trade accord you. It is the respect that your colleagues, The Knowing Ones, show you. While so many fans adore Tour de France winners, the fact that so many racers bow down before Paris-Roubaix winners tells you what you need to know about this race. It is *the* race. Whatever reverence we fans show it, is probably not deep or significant enough to do it justice. We don't know, and they can't tell us. That's just how it is, so we fans will give what we can. The racers though... tomorrow, someone will earn their respect. Forever.
The weather forecast is for 49 degrees, 60% chance of rain at start time. It will be wet and cold. It will be epic, and may produce the mud puddles, blackened faces, horrible crashes the race is known for, along with a hardman who wins it in epic fashion, and is forever after known for what he did on that cold day, in the mud, in the rain, in the wind, and on the cobbles.
Je le respecte.