07/19/2006 09:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Tour is The World

People like to compare life to sports. Sports can never really be like life because there is a winner at the end of the event, and in life, there is no end other than death and it's often somewhere between hard and impossible to determine the winner.

Still, if we're going to play the metaphor game, people ought to use the Tour de France as a model. It's a long, arduous race that is designed to find the best most complete rider, destroy the weak and unlucky, and leave everyone exhausted. At the end there are many winners, and even those who come away with nothing find something to salvage and claim to be better for the experience.

Of course, the Tour isn't utopia. It's a human endeavor. As with all human endeavors, human failings and weaknesses will come out. Irrational reasoning, unethical behavior, cheating, and the like, are going to be present. But there's something about the development and structure of racing that seems to bring out the better parts of human nature.

Mass-start bicycle racing is a great metaphor for conducting international relations. Racing is a community endeavor, where cooperation is essential to survival. Even bitter enemies learn to trust one another for their safety. Rivals work together most of the time. It would be impossible to race otherwise.

The downside for not cooperating is major. If a racer deliberately crashed another, not only will he get fined and booted from the race, he puts himself in a bad position in the community--and he might lose his job as well. If a racer proves himself unsafe in field sprints, the top sprinters and their domestiques (support riders) won't let him in line to even contest the sprint.

Bike racers are almost chivalrous in their words and deeds. If a racer promises he'll do one thing, and then does another, not only will he have created enemies, but enemies with good memories and friends, who will make the treachery known to all.

Racers are famous for helping one another and maintaining friendships with their rivals. Helping one another is just good sense. Sharing water and food at one time is not only nice, it helps insure that the favor is returned another day. Working with a rival to either chase down or get away from a mutual threat is a way to advance common goals. Friendships, bonds created under moments of communal stress are not limited by nationality, language, or teams.

While everyone wants to win, racers don't want to be seen as winning unfairly. No one wants to see a rival lose out because of a flat tire, or an inopportune crash, and, as a result, it's not uncommon for rivals to wait for a fallen competitor. This is, however, conditional, and debates on the ethics and efficacy come up whenever a supposed breach occurs.

Even the team structure of bike racing at the Tour is a great mix of differing philosophies. On the one hand, the racers are paid salaries, with the best getting significantly more than the rest. On the other, the prize money is shared fairly equally, with each racer getting an equal share, and often the support staff gets a taste of the money as well.

Most importantly, the structure of bike racing is more in keeping with a better understanding of the world. There aren't two teams, an "us" and a "them," but lots of teams of varying skills and strengths composed of diverse individuals. One moment, the teams and individuals may be rivals, another, allies. At the end, everyone wants to have participated in a fair race, and get another chance at doing well whenever the next race is held.

While sports aren't quite like life, bike racing in general, and the Tour in particular offer a fresh way to see the world.