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Is THIS the pinnacle of cycling?

May 19, 2010

So I noticed, while I was rereading my old posts the other week, that I must be operating under some kind of assumption that racing is the pinnacle of cycling.

“I used to be some sort of fixie hipster douche,” the Bikefag metanarrative goes.  “But it got me into bike racing.  And bike racing is the correct, logical conclusion of my evolution as a cyclist.  Happily ever after.”

I don’t know, dawgs.  I think it’s time to question that assumption.

Is Racing the Pinnacle of Cycling?

Competitive cycling has certainly done many good things for me.

I’ve ridden further, faster, more places, more miles, more disciplines, more bikes, and with more people than I possibly would have had I never started racing and had I never gotten involved with the racing community and their totally ridiculous notions of what’s reasonable for a human being.

But racing, as a phenomenon, may not be all “personal growth” and “finding your inner strength.”

Unfortunately, racing turns the otherwise fun, wholesome, sustainable activity of cycling into a very self-centered, ego-driven, life-consuming, pursuit – not to mention the materialism, consemerism, and piles of waste associated with racing.  What’s better for the world?  Devoting all of your time to helping needy children, or devoting all of your time, money, and resources to riding an extremely expensive bike in extremely expensive gear against a bunch of other humans on expensive bikes – all of you having spent every second of your free time training so you can ride faster than the other guy in an event that needy children will never see and don’t give a shit about anyway?

Feel guily yet, racist?

I do.

But I don’t want to fall into a morass of regret all alone, dawgs.

I decided to get a little bit of perspective from some people I know: one a brand new racer, the other one a very experienced former-pro.

Let’s start with the newbie.

Sam Weinberg

with the green glasses

Sam caught my eye when he won an alleycat in my Undisclosed Northern Colorado Front Range College Town.  I was tickled pink to run across his Facebook page a year later, and discover that he’d started racing after moving away.  He was on the KU cycling team, and he was also on the podium in a bunch of pictures.  Not bad for a skinny boy duking it out with a bunch of cornfed, meatstick midwest racers.

-Who are you?

Sam Weinberg. I Race for University of Kansas Cycling and the Colavita/Parisi Coffee Club Team from KC.

-Tell me a little about your history as a bike racer.  How did you get into racing bikes?  Why?  What happened?  Where are you now?

I did my first race last July as a Cat5 in the first Tour of Lawrence. Shit was fun yo. I got to go way fast on campus and not have to stop for any stop signs or traffic. I finished in 8th place with the lead pack. The course has a few huge climbs and I wanted to puke at the top of every one of them.
Racing had been in my mind a lot before I entered that race, I’d done alley cats before and thought a real sanctioned race would be just as cool. I guess when you like riding bikes really fast, racing is the next logical step. Really, going fast was the only reason I signed up for it. It was in town, fuggin awesome course setup around our campus, and pretty cheap. What else was I going to do? Just watch?

This last November I joined KU and spent the off season doing some quasi-structured training/riding stuff. I spent time on a trainer which sucked and I did as little as possible, learned how not fun intervals are. But it paid off for the collegiate season when I romped on the D group and then annihilated the C’s. I finished first in all but my last race when I was too tired, cold and soaked to give a shit anymore (45 degrees, raining, and gusting at 40mph on already tired legs = reason for me to not care).

I joined Colavita/ Parisi because most of the other people on KU also race for them and it gives me something to do over the summer. It’s a bigger team, they like beer, it was a good match.

Mostly, I think I use it just to prove things to myself. I go into every race assuming I will come in last. There are guys out there that are faster than I will ever hope to be, and it’s very humbling to be put in your place by one of them or to keep up and prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you could imagine. Four years ago I never thought I would be finishing sprints at or over 35 mph. That didn’t even seem possible. Or to a more modest degree, I considered a 15 mile ride hella far; now, a century a week is my idea of fun. I learned a lot about myself and my abilities through the sport and especially racing. Collapsing to the ground at the end of a race just shows how far you can really push yourself and the next time, you know you can go just a little harder.

-Is bike racing the “next step” from recreational cycling?

Not necessarily. If you like going fast, racing is the next step, but if you like going far, touring would be the next step. It’s all in how you approach the actual act of riding. Do you do it for speed and endorphin rushes? or do you ride as a way to see the country side and get from place to place? It kinda branches there, I don’t see many racists doing tours and I never see tourers doing races. I’d say this is a guideline and far from an absolute rule.

I guess both options give you something to build towards. If you’re just out there logging miles for no real reason, you eventually get bored, stop pushing yourself, and are just going through the motions. If you’re trying to get faster to cat up or build endurance so you can do the Portland to Portland ride, there is something there driving you. There’s something you’re building towards instead of just wandering around. Focus.

It probably keeps you in better shape too. When you’re always trying to improve yourself for the next step up, it encourages discipline (courage?) and testing your limits. The weekend rec rider probably isn’t pushing their bodies to the limits. Trying to work to be competitive in the 1, 2, 3 ranks or ride the Rockies north to south is some serious motivation to see what your mind and body is capable of. So they are really the same, just different outlets for the same drive.

-What has bike racing done for you (good)?

Discipline. I’m a full time student with a job who is trying to be competitive in the Cat3 ranks. Without discipline I can’t make time for all the things in my life. It forces me, in a way, to actually structure my life, which is something I have fought against as long as I can remember.

It made me fast. I like to go fast.

Sweet, shaved legs (it drives the girls wild), badazz tanlines, and an uber aggressive bike setup that I can ride to class and show off my racist status. Plus, when someone asks me about riding I can respond “psh, I race.” Which brings me to another awesome part of racing: you can use it as an excuse for ANYTHING! Drinking for instance, you can not drink and be a badass because you race and can’t do that to your body, or drink like a fiend and still be badass because you race and its tough of you to drink in season! Sweet, huh? You can ride fast as fuck or slow as you want, cuz you race right? You can be too tired from all your training to keep up in the actual training ride or go super fast in the social ride, cuz hey, you race and going fast is all you know. It’s so fun!

-What has bike racing done for you (bad)?

Made me an elitist d-bag. I ride Dura-Ace, anything below that is crap, Campy Record is my new standard of excellence and anyone who doesn’t shave their legs when they race is a kook.

And it makes me spend a lot of money. Collegiate is relatively cheap; $50 + kit = ~$150 for like 15 races and all food and transportation is free. On season sux cuz I have to pay entry fees, food fees, gas fees, lycra fees, all sorts of ridiculous crap that makes this sport extremely exclusive and immediately rules out anyone without oodles of cash lying around. Shits weak yo. Go pro so its all free again.

It’s made me use the “Cuz it’s Eruo” line way too much and to explain just about anything. Suddenly white hoods are the hot shit and Pearl Izumi just isn’t legit enough.

-Why do you think it is that humans must get competitive on bikes?

It beats killing each other. Probably because someone has to try to dominate someone else, at least this way is non-violent and constructive. And it’s wicked fun to go really fast.

-Is bike racing the pinnacle of cycling?

Probably. It’s the most intensive form of cycling for sure. Touring, as I’ve discussed before, would be a close tie. One utilizes the machine for pure speed, the other for pure transportation. Either argument is valid. To be totally honest, now that I’ve thought about it some more, I’d say the pinnacle is to ditch the car all together. When you can successfully live your life without a car, do the things you want, and not be hampered by it in anyway, that is the pinnacle — your body, powering your machine, to move your life.

-If so (you can answer either way), what is the “pinnacle” of bike racing?  Lance Armstrong?

The pinnacle of racing is definitely pro status. Let’s just face it, those guys are at the top of the game and probably the most physically phit humans on the planet, competing in the most physically demanding sport anyone could imagine. It’s like “Hey, lets ride our bike 100 miles at fuckin’ 35 mph average!” “Yeah! Totally! And lets do that everyday for like three weeks! In the hottest part of the summer!” “Dude, lets totally put some fuckin’ mountains in the way too!” “Hell yeah brah!” Who thinks that’s a good idea? Those guys that are competitive at that level are untouchable. There’s no other form of cycling that intense (or any other sport for that matter, except maybe sport mountaineering).

-If not, what IS the pinnacle of cycling (feel free to say that this is a stupid question)?

The actual pinnacle of cycling is utilizing only your machine and your legs to carry you to your destination. Be it the grocery store or around the Iberian Peninsula, the bicycle is the ultimate form of transportation — simple and affective, it’s cheap and versitile, requires very little money to operate and is a wholly constructive endeavor. I live to ride, the bicycle is my life.

Be tee dubs I’m not really an elitist douche, I just like to joke about it. I’m serious about cycling (racing or otherwise) and committed 4 life!


Next, let’s hear from our wise, seasoned (bitter?  jaded?) sage.

Sarah Uhl

Sarah winning a stage at the Tour of Sommerville

-Who are you?
My name is Sarah Uhl.

-Tell me a little about your history as a bike racer.  How did you get into racing bikes?  Why?  What happened?  Where are you now?

Forever in my life, I have hated the infamous cocktail party question: “So, what do you do?” that we (as a society) continue to collectively fail at finding a more interesting way of “breaking the ice” when we meet someone new.  But, even though I hated it, I loved my answer. It was clear and concise and full of confidence.  “I am a bike racer.”  Or I was.  Or I always will be… I am not sure which one it is anymore frankly, because i am fickle and still wrapped up in the ridiculous identify crisis of being a ex-professional bicycle pedaler. (Don’t you feel bad for me already?)  It started when I was 12 and living near T.Town Pennsylvania.  The Olympic Trials came to our hometown track and I was in awe, so my mom signed me up for a kids class the following Saturday.  I guess they say “the rest is history.”  I spent ten years racing my bike all over the world, going fast and feeling famous in the microscopic bubble of elite bicycle racing culture. A decade ago I won a Jr. World Championship title in the match sprint.   That was cool.  It was a blast to be so fast on skinny tires for a while.  Now I discovered the radical nature of mountain biking and I am seriously considering a revenge… but not necessary to make an athletic debut, more so to experience the extreme lifestyle of these people and have goals to pursue again.  Road cycling culture is too clean, rigid, and lacking in personality when compared to mountain bike culture.

-Is bike racing the “next step” from recreational cycling?

Certainly not.  You either have it or you don’t.  You will know very early in the process.  There is no “Lets take the mirror off my handlebars and shave my legs this weekend so I can try racing for fun.”  It does not work like that.  You have killer instinct or you don’t.  You can’t teach tenacity.  But this does not mean nice guys finish last.  I loved being nice, smiling, and befriending my competition… in many cases just so they hated me more when I crushed their souls weekend after weekend.  Well, maybe thats a little extreme, but it doesn’t hurt to be nice before and after the race.  There is just little room for it while your in there.  Racing really is a selfish, elitist pursuit that can sometimes be metaphorically conducive to a poetic tilt like “bike racing is a platform in which I express myself” or “BIke racing is the stage in which I stand upon in life” (these are actually two things I used to say alot), but it is also a pretty primal act.  I think some people have shed those layers over the course of evolution or something.  They might not be as in touch with the instinct that needs to express itself in a competitive manner… so they should enjoy some recreational cycling and not worry about it.  The rest of us may gravitate towards pinning the number on just so that we channel what it must have been like to run wildly through the Savannah to escape a lion, or some ancient act modern life has robbed us of.

-What has bike racing done for you (good)?
I have bike racing to thank for a lot of reasons.  There is nothing like it really.  You get to take whatever you want from bike racing- be it just the sheer joy and ego in knowing that you are better than other people at something, or on the other end of the spectrum, a deep and meaningful experience of torturing your body to perfect your soul.  When you race 80 times a year, you better be ready to face failure and learn how to deal with it in a positive way.  That’s a great lesson in self-sustainability right there.  Learning how to pick yourself up and put a smile on your face after a terrible personal defeat is a skill I attribute to bike racing.  Its also where I developed a strong sense of confidence and adaptability to change and new environments.  Sport really is a great way to get to know yourself, and bike culture provides us lots of nerdy ways to fly our very own freak flags.

-What has bike racing done for you (bad)?

It made me sick and tired of the political bureaucracy that drenches elite athletics to the bone.  It illustrated the ability of human beings to become extremely narrow sighted in their life pursuits and worldview.  It continues to leave me with the inability to answer the question “Is recreational cycling the ‘next step’ from bike racing?”

-Why do you think it is that humans must get competitive on bikes?

Again, I don’t think everyone does.  Or may not everyone is a human being anymore.  Either way, plenty of ladies (more so than dudes) do not express their competitive nature on a bike.  I do not understand this, I just observe it.

-Is bike racing the pinnacle of cycling?

Yes and No.  Now your really going to make me get philosophical…

-If so (you can answer either way), what is the “pinnacle” of bike racing?  Lance Armstrong?

I believe bike racing is part of the pinnacle.  The pinnacle is what i call “bike love.”  Bike love is an unstable condition.  It fluctuates, and we never really “have it full time” but hopefully we can appreciate how it morphs, grows, changes shape, and develops. Its kind of like living in the present moment.  Bike love is like human happiness- somewhat unobtainable full time in its allusive nature, but all of us have experienced it in the moments- be it during a race, on a training ride, or just cruising to work along the river path.  You have to be okay with the ebb and flow.  The more you can appreciate bike love for however its best being expressed by you right now (as a racer, recreational rider, or just a god damn cyclist), you are closer to the pinnacle.


Bike love, dogg.  I like it.

OK, first of all, the two people I chose (as you can see) are hardly typical racists.  But I think they’ve been affected by racing in ways that make sense given their very different experiences.

My experience with racing is closer to Sam’s, but maybe I can synthesize all three of our ideas into one conclusion:

What’s good about racing?

If we don’t die from a crash, or dehydration, or a bear attack, or skin cancer, we may live a very long life thanks to competitive cycling.  Sam and I are both former smokers, but I can personally attest that my resting heart rate is spectacularly low and my lung capacity spectacularly high.  Pushing your body to the limit is certainly good for making you fast, but those hours in the saddle training will translate into years of life someday.  Right?

And yes it sucks the soul out of riding a bike to call it “training,” but like Sam said, you need goals to keep riding.  And matching egos with other racists is a pretty good motivator to put in those hours on a bike.

And if you’re gonna live, you might as well live, doggs.  For some that means going out and getting “fucked up” (I used to be into that myself), but for the competitive cyclist it means satisfying that primal instinct, as Sarah mentioned, by lining up next to your enemy and racing against them. When you’re sprinting against someone, you may be practically braindead for a second, but you’re also alive!

If going fast on a bike is what you’re into (and who isn’t?), racing other people will make you go faster.  I guarantee it.

Bike racing must be responsible to some extent for the popularity of cycling.

Plus, you gotta be into something, right?

Cycling is my primary avocation, doggs, and racing has a way of formalizing cycling as a hobby to give people an idea of where to go, and what to do next.

In association with this structure is the social structure of the bike racing community – something I’m extremely grateful for.  Getting connected with the bike racing community has been the impetus for a lot of the hours I’ve since spent on a bike, and a lot of the fun I’ve had riding.

What’s Bad About Racing?

oh man, all kindsa shit, doggs.

Bike racing, as Sam says, sort of turns you into a douchebag.  We’re exercising our legs, yes, but racing is also an exercise of the ego.  These “egoval” training efforts can really bulk some people up into very self-centered, must-win, my-self-worth-is-determined-entirely-by-my-results douchebags.

Like Sarah said, racing bikes can really narrow a human being’s sights.  While many associate cycling with “community,” the self-involved racist sees only personal glory.  Some see bicycles as a way to access the world.  But for the self-involved racist, bike racing is the world.

If your results in bike races are all that matter in the world, you’re missing out on quite a bit, dawg.

Also, the bikes that racing produces.  If we all just wanted bikes that worked, Bicycle Quarterly would be the most popular bike magazine in the world.  We would all ride steel bikes with fat tires, fenders, racks, and paniers.

But since we’re obsessed with performance, we continue to buy bikes that are slightly faster, yet many times less practical or durable.  Our cycling society lives under the delusion that someone is going to give a shit about how they rode their weekly three hour ride five minutes faster thanks to a crabon bike that they will replace in three years – when they could just as well ride the same ride on a randonneur with friction shifters and fat tires that they will never have to replace.

Racing biycles, racing clothes, racing supplements, all of it seems to defy the intended nature of the cycling experience.

“My favorite thing to do in life is go out and ride in the country and the wilderness for hours at a time – but I insist on doing it in white shoes and plastic clothing, on a bright-ass plastic bike with matching tires and brake hoods.  Also, preserve my open spaces!  Also, keep those resources coming so I can continue to have lighter plastic shit!  Also, get off my training roads with your big-ass truck, Earth-raper!  Also, why’s this gas gotta be so expensive?  I gotta drive two hundred miles to get to the races every weekend!”

Is Bike Racing the Pinnacle of Cycling?

I don’t know, doggs.  I’d like to say I started riding a bicycle as a statement of freedom from oil dependency or as an expression of my autonomous human-powered mobility, but I’d be lying.  I started riding this time for two reason: to have fun, and to look cool.

The thing is that there are times that racing doesn’t accomplish any of these ends.  It’s a sport that’s almost as dependent on oil as tractor-pulling.  Races rely on airplanes, cars, and motorcycles for transportation and aid.  Oftentimes racing and the associated training is not fun at all.  And frequently, nothing about racing looks cool.

Any “pinnacle” of cycling should, as Sam said, be able to rely on bicycle transportation only.

But I think Sarah has it right with her “Bike Love” concept.  The pinnacle of cycling is a state of mind, accessible to any cyclist, riding any bike – but not necessarily accessible anytime anywhere.

I’ve been on this peak that Sarah speaks of.  I’ve felt this “Bike Love.”  It’s a fleeting feeling, easily replaced with fears of whether or not my legs are strong enough, what some girl I have a crush on thinks of me, if I remembered to pay my student loan payment, whether or not that other guy is faster than me, whether or not my fork is light enough, etc, etc.  You can’t feel fear and Bike Love simultaneously.

And you can’t categorize types of cycling as being “better” or “worse” than one another, if Bike Love is the pinnacle.  There are many paths to the top of the mountain.  The only way to get better is to figure out how to find and appreciate Bike Love.

For me, bike racing has certainly brought me to the state of Bike Love.  So have many other types of cycling (mountain biking is usually a sure-shot).

So keep racing, I suppose, if that’s your thing.  But don’t delude yourself that bike racers are “more important” cyclists.  The important results that we get are from this state of Bike Love bliss – and no website can tell you who’s got more than who.

Oh, on a related note, I’m now the “dawg-sportif” of a racing team:

400 Smith Racing

Bike racing may not be the pinnacle of cycling, but 400 Smith Racing is the pinnacle of racing.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Joshua the Sojourning bastard permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:48 pm

    I experienced bike love tonight. It’s true. Sometimes multiple times in one day.

  2. May 20, 2010 10:54 am

    Dawgg. Blue for the dude, pink for the lady? Come on. Still, one of the best-written, most thoughtfully composed treatments of this subject I’ve seen, and one of your best posts. I’ll be taking the mirror off my handlebars this weekend. Dunno about this idea that only a goal can keep you riding. I haven’t had a goal since I started riding regularly for fun last year, and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistently riding even with no purpose. That certainly doesn’t mean I’ve gotten any “better” at riding though, but who cares? The only reason I’d like to be faster & stronger is so I could ride with more people. Right now it’s mostly a solo mission at pretty slow speeds.

    • bikefag permalink*
      May 20, 2010 11:42 am

      dogg, Sarah responded to my email in pink and I did blue for Sam because of his alma-mater. Also, those those colors fit my site’s coulourwaouy

  3. huntsandpecks permalink
    May 20, 2010 5:15 pm

    I enjoy this blog, and have since BSNYC linked to it. This is probably your best post yet, and you probably know that. That said, drop the faux-ironic vernacular. Dawg. That (and your appropriation of the BSNYC-ism “crabon”) are hugely distracting from what is otherwise reliably solid writing.

    • bikefag permalink*
      May 21, 2010 2:50 am

      Thanks HnP. As for the language, though, this is really how I talk, so why shouldn’t I have it in my blog? I haven’t said “carbon” in a conversation for months (always “crabon”). And as my 400 Smith Racing teammates will attest (exasperatedly), I say “dawg” in practically every sentence. Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up one day when I’m an adult with a real writing job.

  4. Sam permalink
    May 21, 2010 6:13 pm

    Czech out what happened Larryville yesterday:

    http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2010/may/20/drunken-driver-who-killed-lawrence-woman-bicycle-s/

  5. May 24, 2010 8:37 am

    Dawg, I have been thinking about your post quite a bit. Bike love, in its fleeting nature, might actually not just be the pinnacle of just cycling, or of just sport, but of life dawg. It really has everything. When you are experiencing bike love, you probably are also experiencing that great sense of flow, what the renown Hungarian psychologists Mihály Csíkszentmihályi considered to be “a completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” This is bigger than just bikes, dawg.

  6. Kevin permalink
    May 28, 2010 9:24 am

    I’ve raced with Sam, and he’s right. That MN road race was brutal. I stopped caring after the first 30 miles.

  7. jctwiggs permalink
    May 29, 2010 11:28 pm

    Dawg, I thoroughly enjoy your literary escapades, dogg. Keep ’em rolling.

  8. Ray permalink
    May 30, 2010 11:50 am

    Keep asking questions and writing down answers.
    I like it, because your questions are good ones and your observations and opinions are honest.
    Keep using your own voice, dawg. I may not love it, but I know it’s you.
    Your voice may change or you’ll do impressions too, but for now it’s perfect.

  9. June 1, 2010 10:49 am

    i think i just wrote about the “bike love” idea in my most recent post. loved reading this–it reinforced a lot of what i believe and shed light on a lot of racing mentality that i’m intrigued by, but not at all a part of. i have friends who race, but i definitely don’t have that “killer instinct.” even so, all things bike turn me on right now. thanks for the read.

  10. June 1, 2010 10:50 am

    i think i just wrote about the “bike love” idea in my most recent post, albeit on a very different level. i loved reading this–it reinforced a lot of what i believe and shed light on a lot of racing mentality that i’m intrigued by, but not at all a part of. i have friends who race, but i definitely don’t have that “killer instinct.” even so, all things bike turn me on right now. thanks for the read.

  11. Sam permalink
    June 2, 2010 9:36 am

    I didn’t mean to come off sounding like competition and a “killer instinct” are prerequisites for having any fun at all on a bike. I’m just competitive by nature so that’s where I find my motivation. Bike love is certainly something I wholeheartedly agree with and wish I’d thought of; it sounds much more like the pinnacle of cycling. If you’re having fun on while riding and have a smile on your face, then that is what cycling is all about: fun. If it weren’t for the ridiculous amount of fun I have on my bike, I wouldn’t have taken it as far as I have. Actually, in a very round about sort of way, David is very much responsible for sparking that interest in bikes for me (i.e. the people he lives with and his friends). My perceived pinnacle of cycling has shifted over the years, but the ideal lurking below the surface has always been that pesky bike love — loving others who choose to ride and loving your machine right back, however you want to utilize it.

  12. bikefag permalink*
    June 7, 2010 5:55 pm

    Also, vote for Sarah Uhl in the Breck Epic blog contest. She’s my friend and wants to get into the ($1,000) Breck Epic Enduro MTB stage race. She’s currently in third place and needs all the votes she can get.

    http://www.facebook.com/TheBreckEpic

    Thanks, doggs

Trackbacks

  1. Race Your Bicycle?
  2. Is THIS The Pinnacle of Cycling? « David Boerner
  3. R.I.P. Bike Fag: April 2009 – April 2011 « Bikefag's Blog

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