How pro riders relax is staple fodder for cycling journalists. What a rider is capable of on a bike is why we want to talk to them in the first place, but it doesn’t really tell you much about them, or set them apart as individuals. Riders’ ambitions, particularly those of young pros, don’t vary much. You want to win a race or two? Great. Which ones? A Grand Tour stage. Maybe a classic. Sure, okay.
In contrast, what they do with all that time on the sofa, how they “decompress”, can reveal a great deal. Whether by making them seem ordinary and relatable, or even more extraordinary and out of reach than we already believed them to be, based on their physical talents. Either way it’s all good.
When I hear that Mikkel Honoré, Deceuninck Quick Step’s 22 year-old Dane, had chosen to take with him on holiday last year a work by ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, there’s little doubt about which of those categories he falls into.
“I finished the book just after the Giro,” Honoré confirms. “I had a short holiday and I just needed to completely relax from all the stress around the Grand Tour.”
Aristotle is best known for originating his systematic concept of logic, the objective of which “was to come up with a universal process of reasoning that would allow man to learn every conceivable thing about reality.” It hardly sounds like a basic beach read you might pick up at the airport, does it?
To make it even more of a challenge Honoré tackled the book not in Danish, or even English, but his girlfriend’s native Italian.
“To start with it was mainly to improve my Italian,” he says. “I asked her family if they had some books that I could borrow to help me. My mother-in-law studied Greek history.”
His main takeaway from the text was how little people have fundamentally changed in the more than two millennia since Aristotle wrote it: “The minds are still the same. We are still thinking the same things.”
And for Honoré, the universalities clearly cross more than chronology. Having left Denmark at only 17 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional cyclist in Belgium, he also lived in Italy for two years and now calls Switzerland his home. His chosen profession is a melange of multiple nationalities, who spend the seasons racing across continents. It’s no wonder he sees people as essentially the same, regardless of where they’re from.
He is, I suggest, the living, breathing embodiment of cosmopolitanism; the idea, which also originated in Greek philosophy, that all human beings are, or ought to be, citizens of one community.
Unprompted he brings up Brexit, expressing disappointment that Britain has decided to walk away from what is essentially the greatest peace project the world has ever known.
“From all the wars in the past we have always learned that we are better united. We are many small countries in Europe and we are all better together,” he says.
Honoré posits that geography and history may account for the lack of emotional and intellectual ties to Europe: “You’re the old big Empire and you are not completely attached to any European country.”
From Brexit we move onto the rise of populist nationalism worldwide – “the reason populism is gaining is because we have problems that all these politicians want to take advantage of” – social media and the Cambridge Analytica scandal – “you can get so easily infiltrated nowadays from companies, from campaigns” – and the climate crisis and Greta Thunberg – “a lot of people hate her; a lot of people love her. Maybe she does it in a extreme way but what she does is for a good cause.”
Honoré’s current bedtime reading is Edward Snowden’s autobiography, Permanent Record.
I wonder, given how concerned he is with global issues, whether cycling doesn’t sometimes feel a tad trivial by comparison, or if he ever struggles with motivation on the bike?
“Never,” he says. “Of course you have times going up and down. No matter what you do. And that’s what I think when I have hard times. No matter what you do, you will always have difficult times.”
Did he ever question that this was what he wanted to do with his life?
“Honestly not,” he replies. “I never even doubted it. I always had this idea of myself [as a cyclist]. I wanted to be a professional cyclist because my grandfather was a cyclist for a few years, but stopped very early. He died in 2004 from an ictus [a seizure] since when I wanted to show the world. I will race for my grandfather.”
I can guess the answer to my final question, about his ambitions within the sport, but I ask it anyway.
“A stage in a Grand Tour, that’s the first biggest goal for me,” he says. “The dream would be winning some Ardennes classic, or the World Championships. Not many cyclists would say that’s not their dream.”
They wouldn’t but then, as Aristotle himself wrote “excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”