Cycling Landscapes: Story and Memory/Narratives of Place...

"The history of my people and the history of this land are one and the same. Nobody can remember us without remembering this land. We are forever connected." Anonymous, Taos Pueblo

In part one of Cycling Landscapes I examined the meaning of place through the words of cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. In part two I will continue and expand upon this line of thought by considering the role of narrative and memory in the identity of place; how people interact, and how events play out upon a landscape, leaving impressions upon both individual and collective memories. Part two, as did part one, will focus on the sport of cycling in Europe, though the assumptions presented could translate comparably in other places, in other situations.

Since "narrative" will play a prominent role in this study, defining that word is crucial. So, what is meant by narrative? Simply (and broadly) put, a narrative according to Wikipedia, is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. Narrative and story are often used interchangeably, and both suggest human involvement at various levels - the viewing of events, interpretation of events, storytelling or, the relating of events to others, and the act of listening on the part of the others. Narratives can become quite elaborate in their many stages.

In the distant past (or even more recently in other instances) prior to the advent of writing systems throughout the world's cultures and societies, narratives of any significance would have been conveyed by the singular means of storytelling. Important events would have been consigned to memory and would become a part of group tradition and history through verbal retelling. Elders who were able to retell the stories were revered, their worth in promoting group identity and cohesion, widely recognized. Storytelling by verbal means continues to play a similar role today, though the methods of conveying significant incidents have multiplied. Artistic representations, written word, photographs, and video have each eclipsed the more ancient method. But the method used to convey information is not what is important in this study; instead what is important to recognize is that the information being conveyed is a form of narrative, and that narrative creates an image in the consciousness of individuals and groups, tying together people, events and place.

Europe is an old land, a land where past and future live side by side, one part quietly and steeped in tradition, the other loudly, rushing toward a future of inevitable change. Memories are deeply embedded, they seep from cold stone walls, are carried across hot plains by mistral winds, spiral up mountain slopes, across naked ridges and back into deep valleys, infusing meaning where ever they touch. To say that landscapes carry the weight of human history is no small thing. One would be hard-pressed to look out over a vast World War II cemetery, row upon row of crosses extending into the distance, and not feel sobered, not react to the meaning implied by the view.

One of the immutable tenets of any landscape is that they contain meaning, the visible elements form a narrative, and combined, tell a story. The story may not be a complete one, in fact it may be quite short or confined, depending on the subject. But, just as likely the story can involve a complex interplay of visible elements and human culture. All landscapes, even those seemingly devoid of human influence tell a story. First there is a geophysical story of how the landscape was created and evolved over millennia; then there is the biological story, that of the flora and fauna. Next, add in the human element, not only the multitude of ways humans impact and shape their environments, but also the individual and group views of their surroundings; individuals will interpret a landscape based upon personal experience and cultural influences. For example any group of individuals will interpret the exact same landscape in a multitude of ways; a desert can be barren or vibrant, it can be plain and boring, or full of life, it can be forbidding and scary, challenging, intriguing, etc, depending on the perspective of who is viewing or describing it.

Landscapes are never static, they are constantly in flux; even the shifting light over the course of a day creates change. Things hidden become visible, before reverting once again to the shadows. Elements such as wind and rain cause physical changes in a multitude of ways. All this provides background for the human experiences and drama that take place over the passage of time. These two - landscape and human experience - combine to form stories. The landscape is an active stage on which actors (people) interact with one another, as well as with their surroundings.

It is not without precedent to compare landscapes to the stage of a theatre - they are settings where events transpire, scenes are played out. Unlike a play, though, the scenes are the unscripted ones of life, subject to shifts of chance, whim, opposition. The audience never knows how the story will end; there is mystery inherent in how the story progresses. This sense of mystery enhances the connection between action and setting. "Through landscape the temporal dimension of narrative becomes visible, and space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history." (Potteiger, pg 7)

Cillian Kelly of recently made the connection between theatre and cycling when he wrote: "The theatre in which road racing is acted out is one of cycling's major selling points. The crisp spring air of a Lombardian coastline, the brutal muck-drenched bergs of Belgium, the snow covered hairpins of a Swiss Alpine climb..." Most sports, maybe all, develop bonds between events and locations; the more poignant those events are, the greater their significance appears in the eyes and minds of the people, the stronger that bond becomes, and the more hallowed and revered is the location.

Followers of the sport of cycling soon discover just how intrinsic the connection between past and present (and ultimately future), and location is. Cycling is amongst the most tradition-bound of sports/activities. Its champions and heroes continue to inhabit the roads along which they raced, sweated and bled, well beyond their retirement. The same roads which saw attacks leading to victory, or collapse leading to defeat for one generation of riders, become proving grounds for the next. Comparison between past achievement and present potential is ongoing and never-ending. "Going on the road is a way of escaping, as well as making things happen." (Potteiger, pg 277) Events both small and insignificant, and great, happen along roads. History records many of these for future generations; memory must suffice for others. Armies move along roads, the military might of nations defending the homeland. Other times see other armies, ones composed of athletes, officials, support, and followers make battle along the same roads.

Though the narratives of cycling history recount the battles, the competition between individuals, and teams of riders, it is a rare (and incomplete) story that does not reference the setting, the stage along which the course of action progresses. The setting becomes an inviolable part of the narrative, inseparable from the people involved. With that thought I return to the quote at the head of this post, and its reference to an intrinsic connection between people and landscape. "The history of my people and the history of this land are one and the same. Nobody can remember us without remembering this land. We are forever connected." Dealing as it does with an entire culture and its connection to the land, it may be somewhat unfair to try and make the same link between a group of athletes and their arenas of competition but not, I think, unrealistic.

Think about some of the most memorable of battles from races - Sean Kelly and Moreno Argentin at the finale of the 1992 Milan-San Remo didn't occur in a vacuum; their descent along the Poggio is an all important component of the story. The epic 1986 Tour de France and its double-fisted slugfest between teammates Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault was written into cycling lore in many places across France that year, but at the Alpe d'Huez, the place author Jean-Paul Vespini said "delivers a verdict - absolute, impartial, and final", the fabled twenty-one hairpins took a different turn. The two race leaders rode up the mountainside together, clasping each others hands in apparent unity as they crossed the finish line at the same time, adding mystique not only to their own battle, but to the Alpe itself. Though included in only twenty-seven editions of the Tour, few other locales have achieved an equal status in the lore of the race, the competition between athletes.

In a recent reminiscence for Peloton magazine (November 2012, no. 15) the respected cycling documentarian, John Wilcockson weaves a tale, from his viewing of the Tour de France in 1963, that is equal parts competition and setting. In the telling, Jacques Anquetil and Federico Bahamontes battle for supremacy in the races last Alpine stage "where rain was falling and swirling clouds hid the 15,000 foot high 'White Mountain,' which on a clear day dominates every view in this part of the world." From the impossibly fast finales along the Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris, desolate, withering climbs such as that of Mont Ventoux, or the wind-battered plains of Brittany and Normandy, the locations through which the peloton passes during the Tour de France indelibly leave a mark on the memories of racer and spectator alike.

What is most notable about these descriptions of the landscape within accounts of a race are when the two serve as a reflection mirroring one to the other. In the same Peloton magazine article noted above Wilcockson, refering to the 1986 Tour battle between Lemond and Hinault ending atop the Col de Granon, says "many of the other riders arrived at that remote, rocky peak in a state of collapse from the lack of oxygen, the cold air and the grueling six hours..." The exhausted condition of the riders is a direct reflection of the harsh and unforgiving landscape through which they have just raced.

At the time any narrative plays out, in whatever arena the narrative takes place, there are a minimum of two categories of participants - active and, for lack of a better word, passive. The active participants are those whose role is directly tied to the progression of events, those who are engaged in the actual competition. Linked to this group are any number of support staff, individuals whose roles may shape the outcome due to their interaction with the actual competitors. The second group of participants are the spectators, specifically those who witness the events first-hand as they play out. Even though I have called them passive, one should not confuse their role with an inactive one; they may not (though history has shown that they sometimes may) be actively involved in determining an outcome but, their presence as witnesses to the events as they transpire give them a level of importance, especially in the shaping, and sharing, of the narrative. On occasion spectators may take on an active role, either inadvertently or intentionally, but doing so necessarily moves them out of the passive category and into the active one. Both these types involve components unique and personal to each individual, as well as components shared in common. Naturally, because the roles of competitor and spectator differ, shared components, even though experienced by both groups, impact each in distinct ways. Those shared components are made up of the whole of the environment along which the race passes; everything between the sun (or clouds) above, and the winding ribbon of black tarmac below. 

Cycling Landscapes will continue with a consideration of each of these "participant narratives" in turn, beginning with Narratives of the Competitor.

The first two parts to Cycling Landscapes were published at the Claremont Cyclist: Introduction, and part I, Cycling Landscapes: Yi-Fu Tuan.

Copyright 2013 Michael Wagner