Friday 1 July 2011

Strange superstitions of the Tour de France

Lance Armstrong is just one of the
many riders who observed various
superstitions while competing in the
Tour de France
There are around 400 professional cyclists eligible for UCI competitions at any one time and an average of five will injure themselves in any one week - in other words, any rider who gets through an entire year without any injury has been reasonably fortunate. For this reason, all sorts of superstitions have arisen, some personal to the riders and some pertaining to the entire race.

Italian riders, for example, believe that they'll suffer bad luck during the race if they pass salt to one another during team meals both before the race and while it's in progress. Some are content to pick up a salt shaker once it's been replaced in the middle of the table while others prefer not to take risks and insist on having their own shaker and will not pass it to anyone. Another tradition peculiar to the Italians is their belief that a rider must eat pasta precisely three hours before a race begins - not such a problem in the Tour, but some races begin at 6am or earlier.

The salt superstition stems from the old belief that spilled salt somehow causes the devil to appear and get up to the sorts of high jinks with which he is associated. Danish Michael Sandstød was above all that: when he spilled salt during a team dinner, he decided to show his fellow cyclists a thing or two and deliberately brushed the salt onto the floor which is an absolute no-no among the superstitious - the correct thing to do is to pick up some of the salt and throw it over your left shoulder so that it hits the devil in the eye (and he really hates that because it stings). The very next day, Sandstød suffered a terrible crash on a fast downhill and smashed his shoulder and eight ribs, one of which punctured a lung so he spent the next few days on a ventilator. He retired not long afterwards.

Coincidence? Well yeah. But...

Tyler Hamilton always said he wasn't superstitious but began to carry a bottle of holy water and a vial of salt with him after being given them by a friend. Gradually, he began to feel he couldn't race without them until one day when he forgot them during one stage of the Tour of Holland - he crashed badly and cracked his femurCarlos Sastre displayed perhaps the strangest superstition, winning Stage 13 with a baby's dummy in his mouth as an auspicious welcome to the world for his new daughter.

Many riders have their hair cut before a race. There are practical reasons for this, since short hair  allows sweat to evaporate more easily (even in the pre-helmet days), but over time it's become a sort of superstition in its own right so that nowadays even riders with shaved heads have a trim before going out. Others, meanwhile, refuse to shave for certain stages.  A very great many riders suffer from triskaidekaphobia, making them extremely reluctant to wear the number 13. Hence, it's common to see a rider allocated the number - such as Jakob Fuglsang, another Dane, this year - pin it in place upside-down or overlapping a second patch to make 1313, which apparently is acceptable. The great Jacques Anquetil, who became the first rider to win five Tours, was as fascinated by astronomy as he was by cycling but even an interest in science didn't prevent him from being superstitious. In 1964, a fortune teller publically predicted that he would die on the thirteenth day of the race - fortunately for his team, that was rest day; but Anquetil refused to leave his hotel room until he was eventually coaxed out by a team manager and taken for food. The stress was so great on him that he was still suffering exhaustion the next day and he quickly dropped to a low position.

Louison Bobet

Louison Bobet, who won three Tours in the 1950s, refused to wear any item made of artificial fibre - including the yellow jersey which had included synthetic material since 1947. Organisers had to persuade manufacturers Sofil to make a new one in natural fibres overnight. However, this was not a superstition: Bobet had suffered from terrible saddle sores, became obsessed with hygiene as a result and believed synthetic fibres to be unhealthy. Lance Armstrong had certain rituals surrounding clothing, too - such as one which saw him refuse to wear the yellow helmet, as traditionally worn with the yellow jersey, except for on the final stage. He also had to always start and finish a stage on the same bike, meaning that his team mechanics would have to rush to complete repairs on a damaged bike before the end of the stage.

Keep a careful eye on the riders and bikes in the Tour this year - this is made easier by the camera crews who also seem to have an interest in the various bits of voodoo the riders exhibit - and see what odd things you can see hanging around their necks, stuffed in their jersey pockets and fixed to their bikes.

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