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From philosophy author to Dauphine podium: Guillaume Martin Q&A

17 Aug 2020

Cofidis' Guillaume Martin took a deserved third overall at the Criterium du Dauphine standing him in good stead for the Tour de France later this month.

However, the Frenchman is much more than just a bike racer as Trevor Ward discovered recently

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Pauline Ballet/Cofidis

Cyclist: You’re at a training camp in the French Alps before the start of the season on 1st August. How different is it from normal because of Covid-19?

Guillaume Martin: Before camp we were tested for Covid. We have to wear masks when we go to the restaurant. But the biggest difference is that we are only five riders and three members of staff. Usually we have more people.

There is another small group, including Elia Viviani and the sprinters, training in Livigno in Italy, and some riders are training from home. The team wants us to be in a bubble until we start racing.

Cyc: What effect do you think the delayed, shorter season will have on the racing?

GM: I think, and I hope, the races will be more open. There will be a little more craziness. Everyone will think, ‘Hey, this year is so different, why not?’ Usually we don’t have a lot time for training as there are races throughout the year.

This time we are like athletes from other sports, such as runners or swimmers, who do a lot of training for one big goal. We have spent five months training. I think some fell into the trap of overtraining, especially at the beginning of lockdown. I think it was important to stay calm because the season is only beginning now and we have to be fresh.

Cyc: As a French rider on a French team, will you be under extra pressure at the Tour de France?

GM: I have raced the Tour three times now [coming 12th in 2019] and have learned to live with that pressure. With [former team] Wanty Gobert I was the leader and didn’t have a problem with the pressure – in fact I was looking for it. I’ve spent a lot of months without pressure and now I want it again! I like being the leader, I like the responsibilities.

At the Tour of San Juan this year [where Martin won the KoM classification], the team said to me, ‘It’s only the first race of the season and we don’t expect anything from you.’ I was quite frustrated by this way of thinking because every race I do I want to win or at least do something important, not just gain some kilometres.

Cyc: Tell us about your book, Socrate à Vélo (Socrates on a Bike)

GM: The publisher came to me after my first Tour in 2017 because I had been writing a diary in [French national daily newspaper] Le Monde. I came up with the idea of the Tour raced by philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Spinoza and Nietzsche. It was a little bit inspired by the Monty Python football match between philosophers. I have loved philosophy since school.

It can be a terrifying subject so I thought my book would be a funny way to talk about it. I also wanted to write about my experience at the Tour and to dismiss some clichés. Cyclists, like other sportspeople, are often considered dumb, only able to ride and push as hard as they can on the pedals, but this is not what I see with my teammates. I wanted to highlight what Nietzsche calls the ‘intelligence of the body’.

This is the kind of intelligence that’s not rewarded at school. This cleverness of the body is what we develop when we ride. The body learns the movement and it becomes second nature. Nietzsche would have made a good cyclist.

Cyc: If Nietzsche is your favourite philosopher, who would you say are your favourite cyclists?

GM: Ha! As a Nietzschean, I don’t like idols. I don’t have any; I want to go my own way. When I was young it was the Armstrong years so it wasn’t the best period for having dreams.

Cyc: How do you balance being a professional cyclist and an author?

GM: It’s not difficult. I write because I enjoy it, not because I have to meet a deadline. I’m doing some writing at the training camp. Do I get ideas while I’m riding? Sometimes, but it might only be what I need to buy from the shops! Sometimes I don’t think of anything at all.

That’s one thing I like about sport – you can arrive at a state where your mind is completely empty and it’s just your body. It’s quite a pleasant feeling.

Cyc: You’re writing a second book. What will this one be about?

GM: It’s a comparison between the ‘society’ of the peloton and general society. The society of the peloton tells us a lot about the world.

Take the subject of global warming. We all know we should work together to find a solution but still we don’t. You could compare this with a breakaway. All the riders know they have to work together but there is still one guy who rides a bit harder because he thinks he can win and it’s like he’s shooting himself in the head.

Cyc: Do you think the Covid pandemic will change society?

GM: This period will change a lot of lives because usually we are always moving with no time to think. But for a few months we were stopped and had time to think about our priorities.

People realised they didn’t want to spend all their time in the office, on the subway or stuck in traffic jams. I think something is happening for the best.

Cyc: Can professional cycling set an example for a ‘greener’ way of life?

GM: Yes, but we have a lot of work to do. It’s easy for us to say we are cyclists and are eco-friendly, but we spend a lot of time in planes and when you see the caravan at the Tour it’s not a bike race, it’s a car race! And I see a lot of riders still throwing away their bottles in the middle of nowhere and am embarrassed by it.

Cyc: What one piece of philosophy would you offer our readers?

GM: Take the sport seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Socrate à Vélo is published by Grasset (French only at present)