A few nights ago, I was watching the day’s rebroadcast of the Tour de France with my wife, and as the peloton made its way through beautiful rolling hills and verdant green fields of the French countryside, the announcer shocked me by exclaiming, “That was the Lady of La Salette sanctuary we just flew past. Built between 1852 and 1879 . . . it’s the second Catholic pilgrimage in France after Lourdes. . . . The Virgin Mary was said to appeared there in the guise of a crying woman on September 19, 1846.”
Firstly, I had never heard of Our Lady of La Salette, so I looked it up.
Secondly, was I just informed of important Church history and Mariology from a sporting broadcast?
Yes! Yes, I was, and so was every other person that watched Le Tour that day. I started to tear up, took my wife’s hand, and told her, “That’s yet another reason I love this sport. The connection between professional cycling and Catholicism.”
It is safe to say, all of us have experienced hardships or struggled this year due to COVID-19. For many Catholics, that has meant time away from Mass and the sacraments. When the one thing that feeds your soul directly, the source and summit of the faith, is taken from you, where do you turn?
Thankfully, Mass has returned to my diocese. So, beyond the sacramental, we also look for normality and comfort in our routines. One of those routines for me was watching the Tour.
A little history may be needed here. Since 1903, the Tour de France has taken place every July, except for those years encompassing World Wars I and II, for obvious reasons. There was talk this year that the Tour may be cancelled because of the pandemic, but Europe’s recovery has allowed it to begin with a late August start, and it will go well into September.
This was very strange to me when I heard it. How could the Tour start in August? The traditional month is July, and cyclists don’t appreciate straying from the tradition, in much the same way that Catholics don’t like having to experience the liturgy only through live-streaming.
Yet, in times of hardship, we pivot.
So, back to that forty-one-year-old man crying before the TV as the race passed La Salette. Why was I so moved? Because I realized that the Tour de France, in one way, fulfilled me. It quenched a desire to be connected to the tradition of the sport, to admire hard work and perseverance, and to feel a part of a community. These are all things that a cyclist and cycling fans understand, and things a Catholic will as well as we work toward heaven. Ideals have been strained during the pandemic. Could professional cycling be a tool for evangelization and a salve for a saddened society? Let me explain why I believe so.
I’m blessed to be able to work as a documentary filmmaker. In 2009, I was commissioned on a project at the Tour de France for a bicycling company, and it meant following a professional team for the extent of the race. At the time, I had no insight into cycling whatsoever. Every day, on the way to the start of the race, we’d pass numerous little villages where the “centre-ville” was the church. Then, in the middle of nowhere (upon nowhere) of farm land, we would repeatedly find stand-alone crucifixes, where the farmers would pray.
Essentially, my first point of contact to real professional racing came through these observations and how they informed my understanding of the universal Church. If you watch a broadcast of the Tour today, you’ll see that the race passes by those very churches and monasteries, convents and crucifixes still there, silent witnesses to the Tour route, as they have been for over 100 years. The announcers may be giving a play by play of the action, but more interestingly, they are giving viewers a history lesson in the inherently Catholic fabric of France.
Additionally, there are many times when the riders who cross the finish line make the sign of the cross. I’ve noticed that Nairo Quintana, from Columbia, is one athlete who never misses that opportunity. Eurosport, the BBC, and NBC Sports all talking about the Virgin Mary, and riders making a visible sign of the faith: How is that not a form of evangelization to the masses—whether intentional or unintentional—of the Catholic culture and its eternal promise?
To dig more deeply into the connection between cycling and the Church, we can look at Pope Pius XII. In 1949, he declared La Madonna del Ghisallo as the patroness of cyclists. A hill named after her is part of the Giro of Lombardia race, and now hosts a chapel dedicated to fallen cyclist. I have a tattoo of the Madonna on my leg, surrounded by a Campagnolo bicycle chain and the words “La Madonna Ti Protegga” (“Our Lady Protect You”).
Before the actions of Pope Pius, Gino Bartali was an Italian champion of the Tour de France in 1938. Mussolini wanted him to dedicate his win to the fascist regime, but Gino refused. Instead, he later used his deep Catholic faith and his cycling to help save Jews fleeing persecution. This came about because, as a professional cyclist, he was allowed to keep training during wartime Italy. At the behest of Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, Gino would hide photographs and fake IDs in his bike frame, then smuggle them into towns that would aid in creating documents to help people escape the Nazis.
Pope Francis once said, “The church is like a bicycle. It stays upright as long as it keeps moving.” In fact, the Pope has used bicycle metaphors several times, referring to the act of self-giving that the professional cyclist lives by:
Many cyclists have been examples, in sport and in life, for their integrity and consistency, giving of their best in cycling. In their careers they have known how to combine strength of mind and determination to achieve victory, but also solidarity and joy of living in bearing witness to having discovered the potential of the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and the beauty of living in communion with others and with creation.
I am now on an amateur cycling team, and I can attest to these words. It doesn’t work when one is going at it alone. It is in in that self-giving, through hard work for the good of the other (the teammate), that I personally see Christ working through cycling.
It must be said that another aspect of professional cycling that Catholics are far too familiar with is scandal. This is a topic for another day, perhaps, but we can see in the doping incidents of the past a reflection of the Church’s struggle with sex scandals. I for one didn’t give up on cycling because of the scandals—or the Church. Bishop Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church explains that better than I can.
During this time of pandemic and the scourge of COVID-19, please don’t let isolation and negativity get you down. Find things that can bring you joy and bring you closer to God. For me, I get that by watching the Tour de France, knowing that I’m sharing that experience with my brothers and sisters from around the world.
More importantly, I partake in the Eucharist at Mass, praying that we will all win that race that St. Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 9:25: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”