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Riding With Nietzsche

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Bike racing in France has a long history with intellectualism, or perhaps pseudo-intellectualism. Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon, after all, earned the nickname Le Professeur in the 1980s simply because he sported oval-shaped, wire-rimed glasses, an oddity in what was traditionally a working-class sport. But a new generation of cyclists is changing such stereotypes. Tour de France runner-up Romain Bardet managed to finish his masters degree, while others like Jeremy Roy or Lilian Calmejane have also juggled professional sports and a college education. Add to that list newcomer Guillaume Martin, who received a masters in philosophy from the University of Paris-Nanterre in 2015 before turning professional with the Belgian team, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, in 2016. After finishing his first Tour de France and scoring no less that five victories toward the end of this season, the Frenchman appears to be on his way to a successful cycling career. A student of 19th-century German philosopher Frederick Nietzche, Martin continues to reflect and write. During the Tour de France he was an active contributor to the French daily Le Monde, and a book of his reflections of modern-day sport is scheduled for publication in 2018.

Words by James Startt | Images by Yuzuru Sunada and Startt

PELOTON Magazine: Guillaume, you really seem to have come into your own in your second year of racing, completing your first Tour de France and grabbing five victories at the end of the season.

Guillaume Martin: Yes, my progression has really been steady and I’ve attained the goals I set out for myself at the beginning of the year. At the beginning of the season I wanted to complete my first grand tour, which I did, and then I wanted to win my first race at the professional level, which I did after the Tour de France. First I won a stage at the Tour du Limousin. Then I won a stage and the overall in the Tour du Gévaudan Languedoc-Roussillon as well as a stage and the overall in the Tour of Tuscany. That’s five victories in the last month or so, more than I really could have expected.

PELOTON: Guillaume, you have had an interesting path into cycling. Your mother is an actress and theater producer and your father an Aikido instructor. How did you get involved in bike racing?

Martin: Well, I always liked sports and had a competitive spirit. Although I was born in Paris, I grew up in the country and would race my bike around the courtyard of our farm. I started by timing myself and racing against myself. Then I would race against my father when we would ride to the bakery or something. At first he would let me win, but over time it got harder for him. That said, my father raced when he was younger and wasn’t far from turning professional himself, so I think he passed on the passion. After he stopped racing he had moved completely away from the sport as he got into Aikido and became an instructor. But he got back into cycling a bit with me.

My parents left Paris when I was very young with the dream of taking their passions out into the country. So they bought this old 16th century manor house in Normandy that was basically in ruins and rebuilt it over the years. They even built a small theater there so that my mother could do some small productions, and my father built a dojo for his Aikido classes. For me, the courtyard was my playground.

PELOTON: In addition to racing, you are one of most prominent members of a new generation of cyclists that has pursued university studies to a high level. In your case, you received a masters in philosophy. Was it hard for you to juggle your studies and racing as you moved up through the ranks?

Martin: No, not really. I always really enjoyed my studies and always enjoyed pursuing my studies in parallel with my racing. Training and racing only takes up so much time and there is a lot of down time. For me there was time to continue my studies but, most importantly for myself and my own personal balance, it was important to do both. And that is still the case today. Even now that I have finished my studies, I still am reading and writing. This summer during the Tour, I did a series of chronicles for Le Monde [the international French daily], which interested an editor, so now I am working on a book, a sort of ironic fiction that relates my life as an athlete and the image that it has in society.

It’s interesting how cycling has changed in a traditional country like France. When I came over and first raced here in the late ’80s and early ’90s, nobody mixed cycling and studies—firstly because the sport attracted a much more working-class group of athletes, I guess, but people just did not mix the two. But that has changed in recent years with professional cyclists like yourself, Tour de France standout Romain Bardet or others, all continuing your studies to a high level….

Martin: It’s true that compared to a few decades ago, the image that people have of sports has really changed. In addition, the French academic system has more and more programs that bring the two together, and sports are more and more respected. Today the population of cyclists in France reflects all categories of society in the country. That said, I think that the French population is still a bit surprised when they find a cyclist capable of thinking and speaking intelligently, since the sport was for so long associated with the lower classes. And that is one of the motivations for me behind my chronicles or my book, to change that perception.

Guillaume Martin on his way to winning a stage in the Tour de l’Avenir in 2015, only weeks after receiving a masters degree in philosophy. (Photo: Startt)

PELOTON: You wrote your masters thesis on Frederick Nietzsche. What intrigued you about this iconoclast German philosopher?

Martin: Well, firstly, I really loved philosophy in high school and I found Nietzsche really inspiring. First off, he was so different from so many others because his writing was very loose. Unlike so many philosophers, he didn’t take himself too seriously in his writing. I just loved his “Ecce Homo” because it covered so many things: diet, the weather, you name it! Unlike so many philosophers he just didn’t seem to take himself so seriously.

PELOTON: The title of your thesis was “Applying Nietzsche in Modern Day Sports.” It is an original concept, certainly, because Nietzsche was a product of the 19th century when the conception of modern sports was, at best, in its infancy.

Martin: Well, part of my thesis was a provocative interpretation of sport and society and I maintained that the philosophy of Nietzsche allowed us to speak about sports in a more accurate way than that of Pierre de Coubertin. Too often we associate modern sports with the Olympic movement and its founder Pierre de Coubertin, with its accent on sporting values such as fair play, equality and the importance of participating. But what I live and experience as a cyclist is not that. It’s about the desire to win, the desire to push yourself to your limits and beyond, et cetera. And such values are embodied more in Nietzche than Pierre de Coubertin. For me, Nietzche is the real father of modern sport. Nietzsche, of course, has often been misinterpreted in history, but I focused several aspects like the desire to push one’s limits, which really comes from Nietzsche. Obviously there are adversaries in sports but, in general, they are simply a part of the means to an end, because our adversaries help us push ourselves further. Victory is the result of our ability to push ourselves. And winning is always a bigger objective than beating our adversaries. My interpretation of Nietzche’s philosophy in sports is not about the domination of others, but rather pushing one’s personal limits.

PELOTON: And what about Nietzche’s Übermensch, a term that is often-but not entirely accurately-translated into English as superman. Does this term or concept have its place in professional sports today?

Martin: I would say yes, but it all depends in the way it is interpreted. Obviously the idea can correspond to professional sports or to professional cycling in that the elite cyclist is a sort of surhuman, or superman, in their ability to push and pass their limits. But as I outlined in my thesis, you have to be very careful in they way you interpret Nietzche. His whole concept of the Übermensch is so linked to the subtility of the German language, and there is really no equivalent for it in English or French. Words like superhuman are only very poor equivalents and really not accurate at all. Superman in modern culture is often linked to a human that has somehow been augmented or modified artificially. In sports it would be too easy to link such an idea to doping, which is not at all my interpretation of Übermensch. Übermensch is beyond human! I would say that the Übermensch is a step forward in humanity, not from the perspective of the human species, but in terms of the individual perspective. The Übermensch is a man that becomes what he is, overpassing what he is. For me the idea is more about being fully human—and again it is closely linked with our ability to push ourselves beyond our own limits—that is relevant in my opinion. An Übermensch is a sort of ideal representation of humanity in some regard, an exceptional human, but not something that is beyond humanity.

PELOTON: Guillaume, you rode your first Tour de France this year. During the Tour, you brought four books with you, wrote a chronicle for Le Monde and another for the French regional newspaper Ouest France. How did you find time for all of that while riding in the Tour?

Martin: Well, to be honest, I didn’t write the daily chronicle in Ouest France but spoke to a journalist every day, who then transcribed our conversation regarding my impressions of the day. And for the Le Monde pieces, I was able to prepare several before the Tour even started and then modified them as need be during the race. For me, reading and writing was a good way to find some balance during the race, to keep things in perspective. Don’t forget that in an average stage of the Tour de France, there is a lot of downtime, you know, once the breakaway has taken off, and before things really heat up in the final. We have time to think about other things.

Martin on his way to a strong third place during stage 8 of the 2017 Tour de France. (Photo: Sunada)

PELOTON: And you managed to have a very respectable Tour, finishing third on the first climbing stage to Les Rousses behind another young standout Lilian Calmejane. Was it hard for you, or were you surprised at how well you recovered during the three weeks?

Martin: First off, if anyone says that the Tour is not hard, I wouldn’t believe it. Any bike race is difficult but the Tour in particular, because it is just so long. In my case, the first week was okay and I was surprised by my condition in the second week, where I was still able to take pleasure in the racing. But the third week was really hard and things got complicated as I really struggled to simply finish. Regardless, it was an incredible experience and I managed to recover quickly. Already the Sunday after the Tour I raced in Normandy and was at the front, and things continued to go well later in August.

PELOTON: You have been a professional now for two years and you’ve had a chance to discover a lot of different races. Which ones stand out for you or inspire you the most?

Martin: Well, for sure, after discovering the Tour this summer, that is a race I want to come back to and do well in. And then there are the Ardennes classics, which are just amazing, and they are races with a real history.