In a small wooden cabin deep in the Luxembourg Ardennes, a man lived alone. He led a simple life, always wore the same clothes and avoided human contact. His telephone went unanswered, and the journalists who tracked him down were turned away. Sometimes, in July, if the route came close enough, he would come out of his hideaway to stand beside the road and watch the Tour de France. Once or twice, some eagle-eyed journalist recognised the man with the scruffy clothes and long beard. “Charly Gaul!” they would cry.
Known as the Angel of the Mountains, Charly Gaul was once a household name. He won the Tour de France once and the Giro twice. He was a unique rider, supremely gifted at climbing, with a special propensity for riding in cold, wet conditions. Some of his most famous mountain victories were achieved in the foulest weather. His pedalling style was smooth and swift, and he could set a heartbreaking pace on a mountain climb, for kilometre after kilometre. “Mozart on two wheels”, was how Antoine Blondin described his metronomic rhythm.
Gaul was popular with the fans – he had boyish good looks – but not so popular with his fellow riders. He had a small group of loyal domestiques and support crew, but many others found him distant, rude, selfish and egotistical. At times, the peloton seemed to be actively riding against him. He was coarse – earlier in his life he’d worked as a butcher at an abattoir – and taciturn. He was admired for his style, but only on the bike.
After a prolonged slide into retirement in 1965, Gaul ran a café for six months, then disappeared from public view. Later, Gaul described his life as a hermit: “I bought myself a little portable television and I connected it to the battery of my car to watch the Tour de France. When the battery ran down, I called the man at the garage. I had travelled plenty enough. I told myself ‘You’re happy here, at peace.’ There was nothing but the trees and the water. I passed my days planting vegetables. Deer used to come and eat at the end of my garden. How do I explain what I did? Well, it’s difficult to go back into normal society. Today, of course, I laugh about it, but that period was essential: without it, I wouldn’t have been able to tackle the final slope, that of old age.”
Charly Gaul, I think it’s safe to say, was an introvert. Not that he would have thought of himself in those terms. The science of personality types is relatively new and I suspect the Luxembourg Cycling Federation of the 1950s wouldn’t have had a phalanx of psychologists attached to its team. Today the language of introversion and extraversion is common. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation is likely to have been subjected to a cringe-inducing personality test. The annoying thing about such tests – Myers-Briggs is the most prevalent – is that they’re so accurate. You can be as cynical as you like, and violently declaim the morality of reducing people to types, but when your test results come back you’re likely to be astonished by how much the description matches you. Myers-Briggs tests ask dozens of questions to drive out a personality type, of which the introversion/extraversion scale is only one of four parameters.
1 would love to help its readers delve into their own intricate psychologies, but there simply isn’t space or time. So we can shortcut by asking one simple question: when you’re around other people, do you feel your battery being recharged or drained? An introvert like Charly Gaul would feel drained by social contact, and recharged by being alone. And this would be true all through his life, not only in the reclusive years.
(It’s worth noting here that academia is highly critical of the Myers-Briggs methodology for the way it has interpreted Carl Jung’s work. Nevertheless Myers-Briggs has been adopted by major corporations around the world, and when are major corporations ever wrong?)
Recently the introverts have started making a noise. Well, they’ve written books, which is an introvert’s way of making noise. The most interesting is Quiet by Susan Cain, which champions the qualities of the introvert. Cain bemoans the way that corporate America, and therefore the rest of the world, values and promotes extraversion. All the facets of modern corporate life that we know and love – teams, workshops, meetings, open plan offices – all work better for extraverts than introverts.
Teams – now there’s a problematic word. Anyone new to cycling has to get their head around the fact that road racing is a team sport with individual winners. And the training a professional cyclist does can mean several hours spent alone on a bike, isolated in the wilderness, self-sufficient, silent and stoic. Perfect for the loner who likes to reflect on life as he turns the pedals.
When I started researching this article, I had a theory that serious road cyclists are loners, weirdos, misanthropes. I count myself in this group, so it’s meant endearingly. Now I’m not so sure. Cain’s book seeks to normalise introversion, or at least to begin redressing the balance, and dispel some stereotypes along the way.
“The word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope. Introverts can be these things but most are perfectly friendly. One of the most humane phrases in the English language – ‘Only connect!’ – was written by the distinctly introverted E.M. Forster in a novel exploring the question of how to achieve ‘human love at its height’.”
Compared to extroverts, introverts work slower and with greater concentration, they focus on one job at a time, and they listen more than they talk. They are comfortable with solitude, and the lure of money and fame does not work as powerfully on them. Naturally, every profession has its share of both types, and cycling is no different, though it’s perhaps easier to think of the extraverts than the introverts.
Retired professional 46 points to Mark Cavendish as an example of the former: “Cavendish loves being around his team-mates, is social, and speaks his mind. He is vocal but he also leads by example — he works extremely hard, puts pressure on himself to perform and expects the same of his team. He also immediately thanks his team-mates whether he wins or loses and is respectful and generous with his team.”
In cycling, as the old saying goes, the legs do the talking. So leading by example – in other words ripping other people’s legs off – becomes paramount. This, Barry continues, is how a quieter leader can thrive: “If a rider who is an introvert leads by example, is disciplined, self-motivated, friendly, calm, and respectful he will galvanise a team. If he expects of himself what he does of his team-mates, than that will motivate the riders and it will show. That said, on a team, communication is key, so if an introvert doesn’t communicate his thoughts properly, it will negatively effect the riders and ambience.”
A research study by the University of California, Berkeley found that the personality type most suited to team sports like basketball and football was an extraverted person who uses rational rather than emotional decision-making and evaluates different strategies before acting. Sport values a fact-based and rational decision-making process far more than the world of business, where feeling is considered important.
Individual sports, such as swimming and running, suit introverts, the study found. No great surprise there. Introverts tend to be self-sufficient, happy to operate alone, and draw their energy from within. The study notes that introvert athletes work best with outgoing, positive coaches. When things aren’t going to plan, an introvert needs a coach who is going to cheer them up and re-energise them.
Now we start to see how cycling operates. A team leader can be either introvert or extravert, but he must lead by example and communicate. A team coach, however, is more likely to succeed if they are an extravert capable of rallying the troops. Think Marc Madiot banging on the car door behind Thibaut Pinot. Many of the most successful coaches in today’s peloton were riders who built their reputation on being great team helpers – Brian Holm, Steven de Jongh, Sean Yates. For them, team comes first. Conversely, few very successful riders have made very successful coaches. Can you think of any Tour de France winners who have gone on to successfully manage a top-level team?
Team leaders are driven, focused only on success. Their whole lives are pointing in one direction. Whether it’s 41 relocating from Glasgow to Paris and leaving behind all his friends and family, Chris Froome riding across the Kenyan scrubland with his brakes on, or Charly Gaul working at night in an abattoir to pay for his first racing bike, the most successful riders in our sport are uncompromising. They have to be. Team is important for them, but only because it supports their ambition.
One of the biggest stars of the current peloton, Nairo Quintana, is often described as humble, or quiet, or softly spoken. He may be all of those things, but he is also tough, self-sufficient and analytical. He has his own agenda, and doesn’t get distracted by bigger reputations or by the rhetoric of other riders.
Quintana is a classic introvert. When asked in 2014 whether he was ready to lead a team, he replied: “Absolutely.” No shyness or middle ground there. He knew to win a Grand Tour he had to lead.
His team works for him because they have faith in his abilities. He leads by example, and he sets out what he expects from them. He might be a quiet man, but in cycling terms, he’s a born leader.
The life of a professional racing cyclist is a strangely dislocated one. They roam Europe in loose packs, always in airport lounges or the back of a team bus, rarely home for long enough to do their washing. There are the thousands of hours spent in hotel rooms, the bubble of social media, the relentless scrutiny from all quarters. But whether a pro is an extravert who loves joking around with his team, or an introvert who keeps his headphones plugged in, he has to get out and ride his bike.
This is why we feel a connection to the professionals. We ride, they ride. We have lonely, painful, heroic experiences on the bike. So do they. The epic training rides of the pros are more evocative, more romantic than the races. Spending five hours on a bike, even with a friend to keep you company, is always a reflective experience.
I’ll give the last word to the Big Yin, Billy Connolly. Growing up in Glasgow, Connolly was a keen club cyclist in the days when cycling was a working class pastime. Dockers and factory workers would escape from the city on a Sunday morning on long, boisterous club runs. A few years later, 41 joined them. Connolly coined a phrase that perfectly captures the nature of cyclists, and is much better than any corporate personality profile. Cyclists, he said, are sociable loners.
This originally appeared in issue 58 of 1, published in September 2015.