It all began with the bread.
We sat down to dinner on the evening I arrived in France, and the future top professional on my right picked up his bit of baguette. I picked up mine. I crunched into it.
He didn’t. Instead, he went through an elaborate little ritual: carefully, he removed the soft inner core. He rolled it up. He put it on the side of the plate and began eating the crust.
I watched. He looked at me. “Faut faire le métier,” he said.
Those four words are the cornerstone of an entire cycling culture in France, and they have broad connotations. Un métier is a profession, so when you faire le métier, you are living the profession, doing the job, being professional. Faut faire le métier. You gotta do the job properly. Or, if you really want to go places, faire le métier à fond. Do the job full-on.
That’s when there is no bread-core issue, because you aren’t eating bread at all. Quite why you should eschew the yummy middle bit of your baguette escapes me, but I don’t think that’s why I didn’t go on to win Tour de France stages as my club mate did. What’s more, I don’t think he had the slightest idea why he was doing it either. He just knew he had to do it if he wanted to be a pro eventually, in the same way that he had to wear an anorak when he went out in the cold (don’t want to catch anything) and that he never, ever, ever trained in shorts without leg-warmers (you only race in shorts, don’t you?).
Being young and ingenuous, I didn’t ask him whether he lived by the old saw that you never slept with a woman within, ooh, five years or so of a major race. The wealth of received ideas that combine to make up le métier were christened “The Knowledge” by the group of English-speaking professional cyclists of the 1980s that included John Herety, Robert Millar and company.
Once, interviewing the pair in the 1990s, they began going through the catechism: always wear long-johns in winter (you might get cold and want to eat more); always have the heater on in the car (you might get cold and get a cold); never eat strawberries (the fruit of the Devil); always have a shower, not a bath, because baths reduce your muscle tone; never drink plain water, always put some cordial in it. And so on, and so on.
The problem, as Herety and Millar saw it, was this: if you didn’t stick to The Knowledge, you laid yourself open to accusations that this or that infringement had caused a problem of some kind (that cold you had, well, shouldn’t have had the air-con on, should you?). It was all handed down through the generations, from soigneur to rider to rider to soigneur, from professional to amateur, and so on down the food chains and the family trees that make up cycling.
Researching biographies of Tom Simpson and Fausto Coppi, it was clear that The Knowledge went back decades, to the days when soigneurs were like witchdoctors rather than merely helpers. The cures were exotic and far-fetched: ice rubs to harden up the crotch; moving the bed in the hotel room so it faced south; putting bricks under the bed end so the blood flowed out of the legs more easily; eating salt fish and royal jelly (not necessarily together). And not having sex, according to some – although Simpson and Coppi may have been exceptions to that rule.
Tongue in cheek, then, you could claim that the notion of aggregating marginal gains is nothing new. The Knowledge consisted of hundreds of marginal gains, the theory being that nothing could be left to chance; the practice being that if you left something to chance, it might go wrong. Season those tubulars for four years in the dark. Boil that chain for the six-day bike in motor oil for a week.
The difference between now and then, of course, is that the aggregation of marginal gains is scientifically based. In theory, you know what works, so you can dispense with the not having sex and the never having baths and have mood lighting in the bus and wear those wacky stockings.
But watch Team Sky at the dinner table if you ever get the chance. Someone in their ranks will be taking the core out of his baguette, I’ll be bound. Le métier will never die, although it may go underground.
Extract from Rouleur issue 17. William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian.