Yesterday the peloton decided that a rider from the breakaway could win the stage. The peloton decided that the break itself was allowed to contain eight riders, no more.
Greg van Avermaet, 3 minutes 17 seconds behind in the general classification, was graciously permitted to be among them. That he was, however, meant that the peloton would allow the group enough of a gap only for one of them to win the stage, not one so large that the Belgian, riding his gaudy gold bike and wearing a plasticy gold helmet, could threaten the overall lead of the race. The peloton decided that Adam Yates would be staying in yellow, and that was that.
The peloton itself would ride, but not race.
At what point, and how, the peloton made all of these decisions is unknown, but we know it made them because 28 riders finished the stage on the same time, just shy of three minutes behind the winner. Actually, 29 if you include Julian Alaphilippe, who had the temerity to pinch back a single second of the twenty he had taken from him the day before. 28 or 29, it would be a remarkable coincidence for so many to perform so similarly.
This notion of the peloton being sentient and all-powerful is an interesting one. It’s one which David Millar, currently commentating on the Tour in Great Britain for ITV, is a big believer in. Millar regularly speaks about the peloton with a romantic reverence for the behavioural bonds which determine the flow - the speed, direction and ultimately the outcomes - of a bike race.
It’s interesting, for one thing, because it imagines the peloton as a singular organism. It implies an absence of leadership, borne out by a collective, cooperative, egalitarian decision-making process. A bit hippy-dippy, perhaps, but it speaks to the idea we have of cycling being better, more civilised than other sports.
It’s also, well, not nonsense, exactly, but not nearly that simple, or that pleasant.
The temporary cessation of hostilities within the bunch, such as we saw on stage six, is a product of ruthless individual self-interest, or the self-interest of teams. The determinants of the collective’s behaviour have more in common with realist theories of relations, and an understanding of mutually assured destruction, than they do the Summer of Love and “why don’t we all just get along?”
There is never equality in the peloton. There is always a clear hierarchy whereby those at the top of it - i.e. the strongest squads and their leaders - hold all the power and make all of the calls. For those weaker members of the herd it’s a case of fall in line or be destroyed. They’ll all be destroyed anyway sooner or later, but better the latter than the former, no?
What happened at the Tour yesterday, which ended with Alexey Lutsenko taking his first Tour de France victory, started with a decision made not by “the peloton” but by two teams, three at a push, to postpone the bigger battle between themselves for another day. That battle will come though. Don’t you worry about that.