Socrates on a bike

Guillaume Martin, Socrate à Vélo, Grasset, 2020

Guillaume Martin is a champion. He was France’s best finisher in last year’s Tour de France, coming in 11th after being in 12th position the previous year. He played a decisive role within the French team in the 2020 Road World Championships in Monza, leading to Julian Alaphilippe’s historic acceleration in the last climb and leading him to wear the rainbow jersey for the first time ever in his career. But Guillaume Martin also holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and he brings us  Socrate à Vélo, written in very conventional language, whose main topic broaches the relationship between body and mind, philosophy and sport.

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Guillaume Martin does have some intellectual pride, and he is none too pleased when others call his bluff by pretending to take an interest in his ideas, when in fact what they really want is to get closer to a high-profile champion within the Cofidis team. He sees himself as much a philosopher as a cyclist.

His Master’s dissertation was entitled: “Le sport moderne : une mise en application de la philosophie nietzschéenne ?” (Modern sport: an application of Nietzschean philosophy?). He recognises the fact that Nietzsche did not devise modern sport but rather that it fell within a chronological proximity between the philosopher (1844-1900) and the rebirth of sport in the 19th century (cf. creation of the Football Association in 1863, the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and the first Tour de France in 1903). And, as Guillaume Martin underlines, the glorification of struggle, the individual and victory are all very Nietzchean themes. In this regard, he opposes the values of Olympism as expressed by Pierre de Coubertin. According to Martin, there is a certain contemporary hypocrisy in speaking of sport that brings people together when in fact competition divides, or of amateurism when abilities are not enough, and sport is in fact a profession requiring a tremendous amount of work. With Pierre de Coubertin, it was not entirely a question of returning to the original form of Olympism, and the body remained subjected to the mind; rather than the Greek kalos kagathos, the model was the Latin mens sana in corpore sano. Ultimately, Guillaume Martin declares himself closer to having embraced individualism than the false altruism currently in vogue, paradoxically, at a time of an exacerbated “celebrity culture”. But he is not a blind Nietzchean, and does not deny the risks represented indiscriminately by the concepts of “will to power” and “superhuman” applied to sport, when in fact one should talk about excelling oneself and not dominating others. For Guillaume Martin, the superhuman athlete is not a mutant with artificial performances (doping?), he or she is quite simply the champion who has magnified natural abilities.

Just like proverbial schoolboys at the back of the class, there’s never a dull moment reading Guillaume Martin’s philosophy lessons. Einstein, the manager of a German team on the lookout for new keys to success, wanted to replace some of his team assistants with philosophers. Following in the footsteps of the Greek team that appeared from nowhere, headed by its leaders Socrates and Plato who irresistibly dominated the peloton, the motto is that of integrating philosophers into the team. One of the new recruits had hitherto seen his sports practice limited to walking every day, at the same time and along the same path. His name was…Kant. Admittedly “a bit rigid and teacher-like in appearance”, he had a promising talent as climber, and was likely to be in his element on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, if only he could extricate himself from his good old town of Königsberg.

Among the other “vélosophes” or “cyclosophers”, as Guillaume Martin calls them, there should be Schopenhauer in the peloton, not grimacing but nevertheless suffering on the slopes of the Galibier pass and finally renouncing the struggle due to his nihilism. There is also Hegel, who regretted his cosy chair as Professor at the University of Berlin and of course Nietzsche, who trained on the heights of Nice or Sils-Segl Maria in Switzerland. Despite his physical power and talent – he had in fact proven himself capable of dropping the puny Pascal in the passes of the Pyrenees, after having expatiated with him about the death of God when he was at his level – Nietzsche refused to be part of the German team and to subdue his individuality to the group. As for Karl Marx, although quickly out of breath he was was ready to join in the collective struggle…

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We sometimes think that doing studies can also help one to be a better sportsperson, more intelligent, better organised and even calculating, in the positive sense of the term, in order to win competitions. As for me, as yet I have not managed to come close to the Top Ten in the overall classification of the Tour de France and I hope that the philosophy lessons provided by this book will help me to achieve this. If not, I’ll settle for climbing the Col d’Aubisque, from Laruns, in under two hours. When I’m in the final switchbacks on 9% inclines after an 18-kilometre ascent, Guillaume Martin will already have reached the Col du Tourmalet. I believe then that he will also have most certainly progressed mentally, as did the strolling Peripatetics of Athens, in preparation for the next publication, which I impatiently await. But in reality, Guillaume Martin will have taken such a lead quite simply because he is a champion, and furthermore, as he describes in such an original manner, the experiment of cyclist-philosophers failed because a sporting discipline cannot be transformed into science.

Essentially, I never really understood sport or philosophy, or at least not until late in the day. The latter is not an ex-ante process, it is not linked exclusively to an activity or a career. It helps with self-discovery, finding one’s deepest being. It is a constant process that is intimately linked to life. But tell me something, Guillaume Martin, is climbing passes not the best way to discover the philosopher’s stone, all the same? Primum vivere deinde philosophari, (live first, then philosophize) as some of us learned in Latin class. We first of all need to advance, just like the bicycle needs to move forward in order to keep its balance.

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