I guess I must have talked with Guy Andrews, the editor of Rouleur, about my fascination with the cycling fans who dress up in costumes and run beside the cyclists at the biggest and most important races in the world. I love all the contradictions of the act, and also the possibility that instead of disguising themselves these people are instead showing us something real that the alchemy of a bike race allows to be released. Or else they’re idiots. Whichever and whatever, Guy asked me to write an essay for the 2011 edition of his photo annual, to accompany pictures by Geoff Waugh.

Who are these fools, these jokers, these idiots who race after race and year after year relentlessly and shamelessly smear their narcissistic insanity across the purity of the highest expression of our sport? Where is born and how is raised — and what, exactly, goes wrong in the life of and when — the cyclist who stretches taut a banana hammock across his bits and shuns all other clothes and on a snow-shouldered high mountain runs beside the greatest cyclists in the world, shouting inanities into those greatest-cycling ears? Why do these people, who are privileged enough to be able to take a month of holiday and follow a Grand Tour in a camper van — equipped with satellite television and internet access and a flushable toilet — abandon the quilted picnic blanket appointed with the region’s finest cheese and a chilly bottle of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay and, at the approach of the peloton, dress like Teletubbies?

Where did those topless university coeds come from? And those men — each with one letter of the alphabet painted on their buttocks, and, with the pack still hours away, already so inebriated that their every attempt at showmanship produces naught but an indecipherable misspelling — do they know the women? (And, one must ask, given the role of social conditioning in the development of what becomes our personality, have they ever known a woman?) Is it mere coincidence that over the 3,600 or so kilometers of the Tour de France, those two complementary groups are separated by no more than two — or something the more mystic among us might call synchronicity or even an important click of the cosmic tumblers within the complex combination lock of destiny?

And where might one buy body paint by the bucketful?

When you finally develop, after years of cultivation, a belly that gushes up over your thong and cascades in great billowing undulations far down onto your thighs, what instinct is it that commands you display this accomplishment to men who are so leaned to an edge first by genetic selection then by the rigors of their profession that they appear near transparent?

You — there! — the bicycle postman in period-correct full vintage uniform, and you, the milkmaid from an even earlier era, and all six of you on the penny farthings enduring the surrounding crowd’s pelting of empty beer cans, you clowns, you men in fright wigs, you (Mr. Claus and wife), and the seven Hereford cows standing upright with saggy udders and fancy trainers for running full-tilt up the mountain, you the man dressed like a tomato, and you, too, the chicken and as well the bunny rabbit, and I see you, as well, Superman and — is it? — Babar the Elephant, why have you done this to me? Why are my cherished memories of the most stirring bicycle races I have ever witnessed all populated by you crazy fuckers?

I’ve asked you to explain yourselves.

At a Giro d’Italia once, I interviewed Dore Holt, the guy who runs beside the angels of the mountains while wearing a football helmet adorned on each side with three feet of prongs from a real longhorn steer. Among other things, he told me works at Boeing, the aerospace and aeronautical manufacturer, so I have to assume he’s smarter than me. His most coherent explanation for his compulsion was this: “It’s cycling! It’s religion!!”

I have sat through the mumblings of Didi Senft, the famed devil, who could tell me in detail every mountain and town he had exerted his temporary dominion over through the entire course of his impish avocation, yet could not or would not tell me if his role were an allusion to the devil taking the hindmost or if as a high-flying archangel he offered a stinging commentary on the dire fate of so many of our sport’s celebrated angels of the mountains. Didi was most invested in asking me if I knew anyone who might sponsor his travels the following year. I similarly engaged Elvis in dialogue, twice in one day and mountains apart. One was young and vibrant, one bloated and mournful. Neither advanced my cause. I have sought answers from Papa Smurf, the Pope, a papier-mâché knar full of Vikings, chickens, a kangaroo riding a man, Barney Rubble, countless Sumo, spacemen, cavewomen, cavemen, hairy-backed men in bikinis, Marilyn Monroe. You have thrown beers into the windows of the press cars I’ve been in, and draped flags of all nationalities over my eyesight, and you have, I will admit, sometimes stunned me with your running prowess. You have blown your horns and rang your bells and vomited and high-fived and looked back and adjusted your vector to make sure your friends got the shot just right with you in it. I have seen you touch racers, push them, grab their shoulders, offer as you stride pacing beside them water, Coca-Colas, Peroni, wine, champagne, chocolates, pizza slices, bacon, money. I have seen the riders lash out and hit you. I have run over your feet with my car. I’ve seen you suffer bloody noses and what will become deep bruises from the brush of a moto’s side mirror.

A few times I have ridden through you, though never in real races. Once memorably on the Kapelmuur, during the Ronde van Vlaanderen Sportive, as I climbed bent over my handlebar like a supplicant, casting my eyes toward the church spire atop the cobbled climb, you jogged beside me on either side and clapped me on the back and shouted exhortations into both my ears and as a farewell sprayed me with beer. Once during an Etape my wife and I climbed the Aubisque and the crowd lining the road to cheer for the husbands or brothers or friends became frenzied at seeing a woman pass so many men and began closing in on us, scrambling at us and screaming Salut, femme! Allez, madame! Courage (drawn out and pronounced in two distinct syllables, cour-ahge)! Femme! Allez Femme! Bon something something femme! Each time, the crowd electrified me, drove me to the kind of surging performance I’ll never forget, but none of its jesters are memorable to me individually. From my experience, I have to tell you that to the riders you are never more than a passing amusement or a minor irritant or simply invisible. You don’t exist the way I thought you would.

I think you all know this.

So: Why?

Mr. Clean Bottle came to my town one day. He’s the giant white-and-blue bidon that runs the mountains beside the Tour de France peloton. His top and his bottom can be screwed off for easy washing. This is his innovation. He appeared to me in his ordinary human guise, but he had his giant bottle costume with him. Because why wouldn’t you? By coincidence, that same day I was staging a cyclocross race, at night, in my town’s composting center, and when I mentioned this he asked if I’d mind if he ran beside the racers.

The Dionysian Mystery Rites, more ancient than the word ancient, liberated from society’s rules and constraints those willing to lose themselves in wine, music, masks, sex, and perhaps, some scholars surmise, even cannibalism. Its practitioners, who found themselves suffocated by even those most primitive forms of civilization, climbed mountain paths and, once together with those who shared their need for divine ecstasy, gave themselves over to the wild spirits suddenly visible among them. Central to the rite was the act of losing yourself — escaping the persona you’d been somewhere along the way forced to become, and setting free the purest essence of your existence to become part of the primal herd rushing madly before you.

I stood shivering in the dark, watching a ten-foot-tall bidon unscrewable at either end high-five and backslap skinny men wearing headlamps and skinsuits as he ran among steaming smelly mountains of compost.

It was a mystery, alright, and ever would be to me — as will be, forever, the mountain roads run by men in full-body colored spandex fetish suits, the plush alligators, the kings and queens, superheroes, brides and grooms, The Thinker and assorted statuary, the ghouls, the ghosts, the zombies, those with flags draped over them as well as those painted as flags, the pirates, the Il Piratas, the thousand drunkards all dressed in orange, those who strip as they run, those who fall, those who rise with the riders they’ve chosen to accompany farther than anyone guessed, who keep going, who vanish into the heights as if finally and fully lost.

Turns out the longhorn steer had it right: It’s a divine mystery, this rite, and like all such enigmas neither has nor demands any solution. It simply is, and ought to be enjoyed for what it is. Failing that, even as a nonbeliever you can look at its adherents and see they’re getting something out of it worth your appreciation.

Yeah, I’m talking to you, cross-dressing female convicts chained together at the ankles on Mont Ventoux.

Originally published in Rouleur Photo Annual 2011