The Tour de France is one of the hardest sporting events in the world. This year 176 cyclists have started the Tour, attempting to race for 3,328km over 21 stages to the scheduled finish in Paris on July 24. The riders will push themselves to their limits up mountains and often carry on through pain and injury. This might lead us to question why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through such an arduous event. What’s more, why do we celebrate those who suffer in this way?

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The first question is easier to answer. For the very best cyclists, there is the glory and honour associated with winning, alongside the financial and reputational rewards. For the rest, there is the great satisfaction that comes with competing, facing adversity, and completing the course. This is a central motivation for many cyclists, amateur as well as professional.

And such thinking isn’t confined to endurance cycling. For very many of us, facing difficulty and overcoming adversity is an important part of doing satisfying, fulfilling things: mountain climbing, gaming, playing a musical instrument or renovating a house.

The second question is more difficult to answer. Supposing that we are not sadists, why do we enjoy watching watching riders in the Tour de France suffer, endure and (hopefully) overcome?

One answer is that the Tour follows a certain familiar story or narrative. It is a competition or quest, where there are winners and losers, heroes and sometimes villains, good fortune and bad luck, and eventually triumph and disappointment. We derive great satisfaction from following such stories to their conclusion.

However, this doesn’t get to the heart of our fascination with, and celebration of, the suffering involved. A better answer can be found if we delve a little deeper into the motives of those who engage in arduous activity.

Man in cycle kit with visible shoulder injury
Slovenian cyclist Primož Roglič finishes stage three of the 2021 Tour de France despite crashing.
EPA-EFE/Benoit Tessier

In psychology, there is a distinction between what are called proximate causes and distal or ultimate causes. Proximate causes are ones that are closely related to some event, and might be thought of as the direct cause of what happens. So the proximate cause of my craving a pie is that it tastes good.

Distal causes, on the other hand, can be thought of as the ultimate or real reason why something happened. The distal cause might have a historical or social origin, as in the case of people wearing watches on wrists because it was safer in wartime to look quickly at your wrist rather than fish out a pocket watch.

Alternatively, it might be found far back in our evolution. A tendency to like fatty foods gave my ancestors an evolutionary advantage over those who lacked this tendency. That is the distal cause for my desire for pie.

Communicating virtue

For cyclists in the Tour de France, the proximate cause of their facing adversity might well be things like the desire for glory and a sense of personal satisfaction. The distal cause, though, is arguably something in our social or evolutionary past that gave those who tended to embrace suffering an advantage over those who didn’t.

Some scholars think that communicating pain through facial expressions and other bodily actions gives an evolutionary advantage, because it can be used to signal a need for help. But it can be argued that the facial and bodily communication of pain and suffering also gives another advantage. It can signal to others that the person suffering possesses a certain set of virtues or excellences – such as courage, fortitude, stamina and commitment.

Man riding bike through crowd
Belgian cyclist Wout van Aert during stage one of the 2022 Tour de France, an individual time trial.
EPA-EFE/Mads Claus Rasmussen

Possessing traits such as courage and stamina is typically an advantage. Those who have these qualities can better attain their goals as a result. Communicating that you have qualities like this to others is also important. It means that other people know who can be relied upon to be courageous, honest or wise in future. Knowledge like this is likely to help a social group to flourish.

In addition, suffering through adversity can enhance a person’s social reputation for virtue, and so enable them to have higher status – an evolutionary benefit.

Our interest in and celebration of suffering in the Tour de France might well, then, be the result of a psychological impulse to find out who has the virtues of courage, fortitude and stamina, and a subsequent tendency to be satisfied when we have gathered this information. Ultimately, our fascination may be the result of an evolutionary trait that benefits our social groups.

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