Thoughts on wolf packs, cycling teams and symbiotic relationships or what happens when you add a couple of alpha wolves to an established pack
By Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler
We have been listening to those voices that come from the mouths of Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert lately. The man from Norway and the man from Belgium have been letting their teammates understand in various ways, mostly in interviews with the press, that while they don the red and black of Team BMC as new teammates, they still want their rightful place on the team bus. One scenario is to imagine them as two lonely wolves that have come upon a weakened pack or one that begs for leadership. Once the big races start in earnest, Thor and Philippe’s desire is to be on the leeward side of Team BMC teammates as their domestiques suffer the injustice of riding tempo and blocking the cold spring wind. Most are happy to oblige as they have seen Thor pound his chest in Australia during the world championships and Philippe ride away from them in the Ardennes classics. If your name is Cadel or Van Avermaet or Hincapie you may have to bite your lip as you may believe that you have earned due fealty in specific situations and by past accomplishments.
We Heroes bring you a couple of gems from Thor, Philippe and the occasional surrogate as they navigate the press and communicate to their new teammates. Consider them gentle growls around the quarry they have previously slain:
“I saw he signed for two more years, it’s nice, I’m sure we will have a good team with him in the classics, and I think everybody also knows his job in the team.”
Phillipe Gilbert on Greg Van Avermaet’s place on the team
“He knows this race inside and out. He knows the game, makes the right choices along the way and is always where he should sit in the main field. Besides, Hincapie enjoys great respect, which makes it difficult to push away a rider. In Paris-Roubaix, it is he who controls the team on the road, while Thor can use his energy in the crucial places.”
Atle Kvålsvoll, Thor’s personal trainer, on George Hincapie’s role on the team
“With the riders I think it’s a stronger team and it’s a bigger team with more people and staff, really professional and well-organized, they have a plan about every person – not only the leaders on the team, but every rider, every staff member. Whether it’s the mechanic or the bus driver, everybody knows what to do, everybody is relaxed and I think that’s an important thing.”
Thor Hushovd remarks on Team BMC
To achieve such fealty when you walk into wolf pack is no easy task, so the Heroes applaud both men. Speak softly and pound your chest later. Nevertheless, there are a couple of style points of note we must address. While Philippe mostly talks about the future, Thor talks about the past and the future simultaneously. His communication is of course motivated toward his new teammates but it does not end there. No, Thor is loudly and repeatedly talking about and to his former team boss, Jonathan Vaughters, and issues related to letting a super-domestique, Johan Van Summeren, go for the win at the 2011 Paris-Roubaix. To sum up an autumn and winter of messages: Thor does not think that Vaughters understands the world we live in. In Thor’s world, hierarchical status points are earned and should be respected as it makes the “wolf pack” function with limited distraction. Besides, can you imagine how beautiful and tranquil it would have been to see the Arc-en-Ciel enter the Roubaix velodrome? Thor does!
To put it another way, Thor is libertarian in his view. He does not castigate the 1% for the gold they have paid for in blood and talent. Vaughters, we can only assume, has another view, holistic in vision, and of course we know that he is the leader of the Occupy the Peloton Movement for riding clean but he is also the former domestique that is now the boss and this fact colors his views in almost every direction. He is the Beta wolf who desperately believes that every member can succeed and attain victory for the betterment of the entire pack. He despises legacies dominated by the establishment of vertical power structures, namely those created by lengthy palmares. It is safe to say his life as a professional at US Postal saw the dark side of such hierarchical thinking.
The Heroes being Heroes want to throw one more wrinkle into this mix. Back to the wolf pack. We may have made an error in this popular analogy.
A wolf pack is basically a nuclear family and wolves will rarely adopt new wolves into the pack. When they do it is a lengthy process that includes weeks of exploratory, non-fatal attacks or training camps. Wolves howl to rally the pack or peloton. Wolves rarely remain with a pack for more than two years. Triggers for dispersal include sexual maturity, competition for food and sex, and disappointing results. But sometimes a wolf wants to be the boss. In Idaho we deal with wolves all the time. Daily. Recently a pack that was together for quite a long time – for a wolf pack – ran into some trouble. Many of the pack’s members could be
race leaders pack leaders in their own right. One day, a young, decidedly tough wolf named Tyler decided that he had had enough. He was tired of playing second fiddle to the so called patron or alpha. Now, this patron had won a lot of prey over the years (7 years I think it was) for his pack. He had overcome a major illness before becoming the patron, so naturally he was the darling of this particular wolf pack. Tyler could see the writing on the den wall. But he couldn’t read it because he was a wolf. Nevertheless, he knew he was never going to get a chance to win races prey and mate with the pretty podium girls wolves. He left US Postal his pack in search of a pack he could call his own. We never heard what happened to the young wolf — just whispers, or howls rather, that he headed to Switzerland.
Paintings by the Great Frans Snyders and Fantastic Potters Palmer