A 3,400-Mile Bicycle Race With 1 Contestant

On June 26, as the Tour de France got underway in Brittany, the upscale cycling-apparel brand Rapha posted a promotional video across its social-media channels — a minute-long clip that looked nothing like the bombastic sizzle reels typically unveiled for the world’s biggest bicycle race. It starred Lachlan Morton, a lanky, laconic Australian cyclist, who used it to outline an audacious stunt. “I think a solo mission of completing a grand tour — the same route, with transfers — would be a really cool challenge,” he says in the clip, which was recorded in October 2020, while Morton was pedaling toward a 111th-place finish in the Giro d’Italia.

In the montage that follows, we see home-video footage of Morton, now 29, riding cycles as a child, an adolescent, a teenager and a young professional, while bursts of text explain the rules of his “solo mission,” branded “the alt tour”: 21 stages; 20 transfers; 5,500 kilometers; 65,000 meters of climbing; 23 days to beat the peloton to Paris — no teammates, no team bus, no support, no team hotel, no mechanic.

What this all meant was that Morton, without transportation to ferry him from one stage of the race to the next, would be riding his bike much, much farther than the eight teammates of his who are competing in this year’s actual Tour de France — more than 2,000 kilometers farther by the time he made it to the big finish in Paris. (That’s nearly the equivalent of traversing California and Oregon from north to south.) Along the way, he would be responsible for his own food and repairing his own flat tires and sleeping outdoors, separated from the elements by the thin fabric of a bivy sack carried on the back of his bicycle. His hardships and his triumphs would be documented by Rapha, which mined his suffering for Instagram content and, presumably, for more promotional videos.

The commercial aspect of Morton’s ride actually echoed the original Tour just as much as his return to the days of solo racing did. In 1903, faced with declining readership and robust competition, the French newspaper L’Auto created the Tour — a prolonged spectacle of grotesque dimensions — as a means of boosting its circulation. The race’s brutality proved irresistible to spectators. It was road cycling’s first stage race, featuring stretches more than 400 kilometers in length, and it was contested not only by professional cyclists but also by carpenters, blacksmiths, teachers. (This year, the longest stage is just under 250 kilometers.) In the pages of L’Auto — whose circulation more than doubled during that first race — the drama was captured in photos of contenders like Léon Georget, who so exhausted himself that he passed out at the edge of a road after stopping to repair his bicycle.

The same kind of struggle was evident to those following Morton’s travails via Rapha’s Instagram feed. One week into the alt tour, he had gone from nursing blisters to fending off trench foot. His performance in the Alps was hampered by the weight of his camping gear, and his tires had gone flat so many times that he eventually had to tie a knot in an inner tube to continue.

Against the backdrop of a map of France, the rider appeared as a pink dot, shuffling slowly across the landscape.

It is, of course, more than the promise of pain and glory that makes the Tour de France, and Morton’s alternative version of it, so compelling. Many bike races are difficult enough to push riders into a state of zombielike misery, but none besides the Tour have transcended the sport itself across 108 editions. One reason for this, according to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, has to do with the Tour’s role in reconstituting the “the material unity” of his country each summer. The race takes place in the world, not in a stadium, and its competitors become, however briefly, part of each community they pass through, slowly tying the land together into a national whole. “It has been said that the Frenchman is not much of a geographer,” Barthes wrote in 1960. “His geography is not that of books, it is that of the Tour; each year, by means of the Tour, he knows the length of his coasts and the height of his mountains.”

Through Morton, I rediscovered the length of those coasts and the height of those mountains, years after doping scandals turned me off the sport of cycling. At the alt-tour website, his geographical progress could be tracked in real time. The experience was improbably mesmerizing: Against the backdrop of a map of France, the rider appeared as a pink dot, shuffling slowly across the landscape. Some ways behind him was a black dot representing the advancing Tour de France peloton, which Morton managed to outrun — a novel experience for the journeyman rider. (Normally, he would be riding in service of a team leader considered a contender to win the Tour, tasked with sheltering him from the wind or fetching him water bottles.) He reached his tour’s halfway point with a lead of about 850 kilometers over his pursuers — a buffer needed in the second half of his ride, amid steep mountains and the loss of 800 kilometers in transfers. And in the end, he did indeed reach Paris, days before the peloton.

The race takes place in the world, not in a stadium.

What made the alt tour feel special, though, has little to do with whether the black dot would overtake the pink. More enjoyable by far was the vicarious thrill of experiencing an epic journey that had been flattened into the two-dimensional space of a screen, but not compressed — the whole journey was there, spooling out in real time. With no television cameras or commentators to narrativize the relationship between those two small dots, the lone rider and the full event, the vague terrain between them was cultivated instead by the imagination. What grew in that space, aside from branding opportunities, was precisely what our pandemic year has made us crave and fear in equal measure: adventure. Proof of this could be found at Rapha’s Instagram feed, where some “dot watchers” became part of the story: After days spent following his progress across the map, they saw it pass through their villages or towns, where they hopped on their bikes and joined him for an hour or two. Morton briefly became a member of their community, and they briefly became part of the unique advertisement unfolding on social media.

On July 5, that account featured Lucy Le Lievre’s stunning photographs of Morton ascending Mont Ventoux, one of the Tour’s most iconic climbs. On his way to the summit, where fog mingled with clouds, his dot stopped for a while at the memorial to the British racer Tommy Simpson, who died from a lethal mix of amphetamines, alcohol and sweltering heat while contesting the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour; Simpson was, according to The Daily Mail, “so doped that he did not know he had reached the limit of endurance.” Decades later, he remains a potent symbol of what the Tour de France asks of its competitors. Morton’s ride was a useful reminder that greatness needn’t require going beyond our limits; it may be enough to do something big on your own terms.

Joshua Hunt is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a former Tokyo correspondent for Reuters. He is working on a book about the global trade in counterfeit fashion and luxury goods.

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