international analysis and commentary

Cooperation on the road to victory: what the Tour de France tells us about great power competition

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As the flag drops and the first attacks occur at the 111th Tour de France, the minds of most cycling fans will be on the looming rivalry between two-time defending champion Jonas Vingegaard and 2020/2021 winner Tadej Pogačar. A deeper look at the Tour, however, reveals important lessons about the world of great power competition.

Rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali passing each other a water bottle, at the 1952 Tour de France, uphill the Col du Galibier

 

Lesson 1: You can—and sometimes must—cooperate with rivals on the way to victory

Biden administration officials have argued that the United States must balance cooperation with China on issues such as climate change with the need to compete against China in defense and security. Republicans have criticized this approach, arguing that cooperation is a distraction from what should be the US’ focus: victory.

The breakaway (a group of riders ahead of the main group of riders, or peloton, on a given stage) provides useful insights on this question. In most breakaways, each rider wants to win that particular stage of the Tour – doing so is important for their own contract but also is important for their team’s sponsors. The only way for a small group of riders to stay away from a larger peloton, however, is for each rider to contribute to the work by taking timed efforts on the front of the group, taking the wind so that the others in the group can rest in the slipstream. While each rider in the breakaway would like to cheat a little and save energy for the finish, he knows that if he does so, the breakaway is unlikely to succeed and may even break down completely. Riders keep track of each other’s time on the front and the group’s speed to judge whether others are making a fair effort. Why would the riders in a breakaway continue to put in the work if one racer – one of their rivals for the stage victory – is taking a free ride?

 

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The lesson for great power competition is that cooperation with an adversary may be necessary to achieve victory: without successful cooperation on climate change, the US may face economic and security challenges that dwarf those it currently faces from China. The Tour’s lesson is not, however, that cooperation is valuable for its own sake. Professional cyclists get in the breakaway to win and they are ruthless in how they react to their rivals’ behavior. To be successful, cooperative efforts must be transparent, verifiable and the parties must be willing to walk away if the other side is cheating.

 

Lesson 2: Winning is a team effort

The Biden administration has argued that alliances are one of the United States’ greatest strengths. Critics, such as former president and Republican candidate Donald Trump, have argued that US allies are too costly and provide few, if any benefits to the US.

While only one rider can win the yellow jersey as overall winner at the end of the Tour de France, a strong team is a prerequisite to success. A yellow jersey contender’s team is necessary to control the race relative to rivals. This means that the team does not allow rivals for the yellow jersey to get into breakaways early in a stage. A yellow jersey contender’s team also often sets a high pace on the uphill sections to deter rivals from attacking. A yellow jersey contender’s team is also important if the leader has a crash or a flat tire, as they help him return to the peloton, having expended as little effort as possible. Finally, members of a contender’s team make sure the leader has water and food when he needs it, so that he does not have to carry extra weight or waste energy dropping back to get supplies from the team car. The potential leader could, in theory, do all of these things, but he relies on strong allies so that he can save his energy for when it is really necessary.

The Tour’s lesson for great power competition is that allies are essential to victory. The United States has a real advantage over China in the number and power of its allies. US treaty allies in Asia spent a combined $142.6 bn on defense in 2023, which is just under two-thirds of China’s spending. In addition to capabilities, these allies control important geostrategic locations as part of the first island chain. There are two caveats that the Tour de France offers on allies as well. First, having allies and teammates is not costless. Potential Tour de France contenders have to build a roster around a strong team, and this means they would have to sacrifice some salary gains to get the best teammates.

 

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It is also not uncommon for Tour contenders to allow teammates to take the glory of winning a stage in the Tour or help them win races outside of the Tour as payback for their sacrifices and hard work during July. Second, while Tour de France contenders are sometimes friends with their teammates, the relationship is hardly sentimental. Teammates who cannot consistently fulfill their role are not selected for their Tour and their contract is not renewed. As such, in the Tour allies are not valued for their own sake, but for their contribution to victory.

 

Lesson 3: Winning requires rolling with the punches

Winning the Tour de France, like victory in a great power struggle, is a long haul. Potential yellow jersey winners have to train and race in the spring and early summer and then make it through the three-week tour, battling the elements, rivals, crashes, and illness. The Tour rarely goes smoothly for the leader, and it often throws major roadblocks in the way of those in the quest for the yellow jersey. Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour after a crash that broke his nose and led to bronchitis. Chris Froome’s 2016 quest for victory was interrupted by a crash that left him running up the famed Mount Ventoux climb, having left behind a ruined bicycle. In the leadup to this year’s Tour, Jonas Vingegaard has had to recover from an April crash that left him with broken ribs and a punctured lung.

 

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The lesson from the Tour de France for great power competition is that champions endure setbacks while remaining focused on the ultimate prize. The Biden administration came to office intending to focus on the looming competition with China. Its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was intended to allow it to focus on China, but the bungled withdrawal process proved to be a distraction. The US response to Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine can arguably seen as part of the US competition with China, especially given the latter’s “no limits” partnership with Russia, but at the end of the day the competition with China is more important. More recently, US focus on Israel’s response in Gaza to the October 2023 Hamas attack on its territory run the risk of a further distraction from what should be the focus: winning the great power competition with China.

 

The Consequences

While there are important lessons the Tour de France offers to practitioners of great power competition, there are very important differences as well, especially in terms of the consequences. First, if a rider in the Tour makes a strategic mistake on any given day – say, starting a sprint too early – the most common outcome is a failure to win or to achieve the day’s objective. In the world of great power competition, a strategic mistake can mean loss of life on a massive scale. Second, the question of who wins or loses the Tour de France really only affects the riders involved, the teams, and the most hardcore of fans.

In contrast, the question of whether China or the United States wins the current great power competition will have consequences for people around the globe for generations to come.