Sometimes, we learn most when things go haywire. An unsettling, illuminating incident took place during the ascent of Mt. Ventoux amid the grueling 2016 Tour de France. It revealed a clash at the extreme margins of play that helps us to better understand play.
Here is the story: With a kilometer left to go in the race—that stretch where more than a hundred miles of racing can neck down to a decisive centimeter or two at the finish line—a bizarre crash called the results into question.
Two unusual circumstances set up Stage 12 of the race for disaster. The first involved geography and the weather. Mt. Ventoux, a bald, isolated Alp, is subject to high winds—winds famous enough to receive the name, the mistral. (“Venteux,” a similar spelling, means “windy” in French.) The night before—July 13—forecasters predicted peak gusts of between 60 and 70 mph during the next day’s race. And worse, they forecast a cross-tail wind most dangerous for bikers. A lone rider of Tour de France caliber could conceivably soldier on if he faced a steady headwind. But gusty, sidelong winds blew these skeletal riders and their wispy bikes around considerably, as they tried to lean and steer against the buffeting. Then add two more factors: these cyclists ride in aerodynamic clumps, wheel to wheel in pelotons and smaller breakaways. And they ride fast—faster uphill than recreational riders can roll down a modest slope. In windy conditions, with speeds high and control low, cyclists always jostle. In brisker winds, they collide occasionally. And in high winds, they sometimes hit the pavement in colossal, raw tangles. To avoid the almost certain pile-ups, race officials moved the Stage 12 finish line about four miles downhill, where a forest provided the course some cover.
The second problem was more than two centuries in the making. The date of this Stage, July 14, is significant in France. It’s Bastille Day—a glorious anniversary recalling the storming of a notorious prison, a fortress where the Louis XVI regime imprison citizens without trial. For two centuries, Le quatorze juillet marked a formal national celebration; now, it’s more exuberant than reverent—a kind of July Fourth with a little Super Bowl thrown into the mix. At Mt. Ventoux, a happy crowd gathered at the peak. But the change in plans obliged them to walk down to a new finish line, and while there, with many waving flags and some in outlandish costume, they bunched up by the tens of thousands, yelling encouragement. That change put the riders in “an invidious position” as one race commentator put it. Too many spectators spilled onto the pavement and narrowed the course almost to impassability. Bikes, gear-wagons, ambulances, and motorized camera-platforms picked their way through.
After the crowd blocked the course, the Australian cyclist, Richie Porte, plowed into a stopped motorcycle; two other riders piled on top of them. In the chaos, the Tour’s leader, Chris Froome, abandoned his damaged bike and, wearing slippery bike shoes, ran ahead on foot. Video cameras recorded the disorderly scene. Race officials determined to end the day’s race at the site of the crash, recording racers’ official times from that point. Most racers conceded the equity of the solution, but they fumed at failed crowd-control and bad fan behavior. Porte, for example, spoke directly to spectators “you don’t need to be running beside the riders; you don’t need to be pushing riders, hitting riders.” Another rider called the crowd’s mood “crazy.”
Play is hard to define, but contrasting phenomenons that are not play or that lie nearby play can help us see play more clearly.
The American sociologist Thomas Henricks, one of the keenest theorists of play actively writing today, helps sort this out. In his study Play Reconsidered, Henricks distinguishes the spirit of play from the emotional tenor that rises on those occasions that people gather to commemorate and celebrate. (He calls the soaring feelings of this crowd-spirit “communitas.”) Festivals and carnivals express this feeling of communitas, sometimes exuberantly and boisterously, as participants become revelers. On this Bastille Day on Mt. Ventoux, the local vintages had fueled the kind of revelry that had the Tour de France competitors shaking their heads in disbelief. Revelry, mostly without structure, is different from play—an ongoing, emerging phenomena that inherently trends toward cooperation and rule-making.
Assuming for a moment that play could be viewed on a continuum on a single scale, revelry (which is given to outburst and even riot) would locate at the extreme left. Players may hoot and holler, but they pull together for the sake of continuing the game. Revelers, on the other hand, break down the fences and storm the field. Revelry could not contrast more starkly than with the demands of professional cycling. Preparation for the world-famous event entails detailed and meticulous teamwork, strategic calculation, and long and arduous training. The competition promises extreme physical expenditure, and it holds out the prospect of high financial stakes and enduring fame. Players enjoy a game, but professional cyclers wear themselves to the bone. Professionalization in sport bucks three key attributes of play: its voluntary spirit, fun, and spontaneity. So if the Tour de France could be conceived as play, it is, however, play stretched to its farthest limit at the right end of the scale.