Post-Modernity and Pro Cycling
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” — H.G. Wells
The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the Cinderella story, the I-don’t’-believe-my-eyes moment — these phenomena are common to all species of sport. Yet amongst the various flavors of professionalized competition there are distinct differences we don’t often take stock of. Just as different sports attract and create different types of peoples, so too are different sports more or less effective remedies for different cultures or different cultural moments. And the sport most essential to our current moment — the sport you should be following nowadays — is professional cycling.
Undoubtedly you’re incredulous. I was too. Like all good Americans, I spent the winters of my youth planted on the couch watching football and basketball, the summers ogling baseballs. I gave no hoots when the TV talked up the wonders of the Pyrenean climbs and rolled my eyes when my dad wrote me letters extolling the exploits of Floyd Landis. But now I see the light, and now I’m going to try to persuade you, who are probably just as apathetic to professional cycling as I was, that it deserves preeminence in your hierarchy of fandom. Here are SEVEN REASONS WHY PROFESSIONAL CYCLING IS SUPERIOR TO ALL OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORTS!
1. The Return of Sport
Most professional sports today are not sports; they constitute an “entertainment business.” The activity of a professional little resembles the activity of the same name performed by school kids on playgrounds across the country. “The last time I played baseball was in college,” Barry Bonds tellingly stated. It is not “love of the game” that drives a professional athlete to spend large portions of their time doing commercials, interviews, charity visits, magazine shoots, and so forth. And that agents, general managers, owners, members of the media, advertisers — people who may even have never actually played the activities that generate all their money — are now as well-known ас the players they represent shows just how far the actual game has faded from center stage. We care more about Lebron’s DECISIONS off the court than on. Even on the field, athletes know everything they do has the potential to be monetized. Aaron Rodger does a touchdown celebration so he can spin it into a State Farm commercial. Considering their non-profit entities, professional sports leagues make a hell of a lot of money, and we all know that money spoils everything.
Unlike the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, professional cycling did not arise organically (evolving from a playground activity to an amateur club sport before eventually congealing into a professional league). Instead, bike racing was actually first conceived of as a business venture, a venture launched by none other than the media. Newspapers organized all the major bike races, including the Tour de France, as a way of generating something to write about so they could increase circulation. This is ironic, of course, because cycling has turned out disastrous from an entertainment and business standpoint — it’s one of the most financially and journalistically mismanaged sports out there. Basically, cycling’s business model consists of tricking ludicrous sponsors (such as corrupt Russian oil oligarchs, human rights-abusing Bahraini princes, or the US Postal Service) into wasting money by patronizing a team (over 90% of a cycling team’s budget comes from sponsorship). Usually, it only takes a few years for the companies or individuals to realize cycling’s a stupid investment, and then they pull out, forcing the team to collapse or hope a new sponsor can be goaded in. A reason for the financial incompetence of cycling is, besides the fact that it’s run by dollar-sense-deficient Europeans, that the only people who are interested in being a part of cycling’s organization are former cyclists, and riding your bike all day isn’t the same as getting an MBA.
But this money mismanagement is a blessing in two major ways. First, cycling only attracts people to it who are interested in the pursuit for its own sake, for the glory. Multiple-time Tour de France winners make only a little more than a 2nd round NFL draft pick, and an entry-level rider makes less than an entry-level office worker in New York City. Because it’s not lucrative, it attracts not those who are chasing money and always looking to do endorsements and all of that, but those who are interested first and foremost in the race itself. So when a rider is celebrating, they’re not looking over their shoulder to see how they can help their “brand.” They do it because they love it. This makes the sport not about money but about sport. And because of the lower profile, cyclists are able to leave money on the table in order to do what they’re passionate about. For example, Peter Sagan, the current world champion and everyone’s favorite rider, has decided to compete in the Olympics in mountain biking — simply because he can!
On the other hand, because cycling salaries are so low, it is all about the money in a way more real than in the major professional sports. Basketball player Latrell Sprewell made headlines a while back for refusing a $21 million deal because he said it wouldn’t be enough to feed his family. Of course, $21 million is plenty for a normal person to live off of and salaries for major-sport pros are so out of proportion with a real working wage that such a statement can only be met with mockery. Even a bad professional in football or basketball will have money to be fine; the problem comes only with their mismanagement of it. So if an NBA player doesn’t perform well, at the end of the day they’ll still be able to feed their family. Lebron, when he loses, still makes millions. No one’s livelihood in the pros of any of the “Big Four” sports depends on their performance. So they don’t play as desperately (e.g. NBA players don’t play defense because they’re paid too much to have to). In cycling, however, an athlete’s livelihood really can be tied to their performance. Contracts are only 1–2 years long, meaning a cyclist is almost always riding with the Checkbook of Damocles hanging over their head. So when a no-name launches a daring attack from long-distance, you know they’re riding for their life: for the dream of being able to live off of pursuing one’s dream. There’s a level of desperation not palpable in many other competitive endeavors.
Cycling has wonderfully refused to take any sensible steps to make the structure of the sport more financially sound (their latest BIG IDEA to make the sport mainstream seems to be installing go-pros on some bikes…), so cycling’s simultaneous mix of immunity to market logic and reality of real financial strain ensures that the sport part of the sport remains front and center. There will be no fantasy cycling. EA will not be releasing a Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France 2016. The event itself — the beautiful race — remains the primary nexus of experience.
2. The Return of Nature
Sports were once synonymous with the outdoors. “Get off the couch, go outside and play!” But if you’ve been to a major sporting event in recent times, you may have noticed they now take place almost exclusively in artificial environs. They are alienated from the natural world. Even the wood in basketball courts and grass in stadiums are mostly fake. This mutes the effect of the natural elements, as well as of a place’s geographical particularity. There is not much difference between a game played in Houston’s dome and a game played in Indianapolis’. The experience has been standardized. If you turn on a game in the NCAA tournament, you’ll have no idea where it’s taking place except in the abstract world of NCAAland.
Cycling, by contrast, is one of the few sports to take a spectator not away from but toward the natural world. You get to see landscapes, seascapes, desertscapes, mountainscapes. What’s more, each of the different environments is allowed to present itself as a different environment. There’re no weather controls, so the particularities of place impose themselves on the competition, on the human body. The smallest differences in heat, wind, snow, rain, etc. are felt more keenly by the cyclist since they each affect them more dramatically than one not exercising. A sudden crosswind, or scattered showers on a time trail day can tip the balance of an entire race. Whether it’s a mountain or a rainstorm, nature, for a professional cyclist, is not merely a background affair that one must take into account while confronting one’s opponent, but an opponent in itself. That is, one rides against not merely against one’s competitors but also against nature.
And just as nature leaves its imprint on the race, so too does the race on nature. Of Mt. Ventoux, commentator Phil Ligget memorably commentated that “it’s only a mountain, one of many you can see on this French Country morning, but for 171 young men it would be a place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness.” Just as the mountain calls on rider to surpass the rest on the stage, so too does the race cause this one mountain to become known, to stand out from the rest of the mountains on the French countryside. Most sports leave no trace on the natural world, but the bike race has the potential to forever elevate the terrain into a site in which human greatness happens.
3. The Return of Culture
Cycling competition takes place not just in natural landscapes but also in the realm of the everyday life of citizens. Streets and highways are transformed into the scene of athletic combat. It more keenly draws one into and helps one reimagine the human-built world. Biking through streets makes us realize more how they differ from place to place. Just as climate changes are more noticed on a bike, so too are traffic arrangements and signs, road surfaces, architectural styles, and so forth more keenly felt. In most sports, “home field advantage” is mainly about the crowd, not about the fact that the players understand the particularities of their own turf better than their opponents do. But when a bike race goes through the roads a rider grew up training on, they are at a huge advantage because they know the twists of the route much better, which lines to take around curves, when there are false flats, etc… “Home” has real meaning.
And because cycling is international — there’s the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Dubai, the Tour of California, the Tour of Beijing, and races pretty much all over the rest of the world — one gets to see these differences from around the globe. One also gets to experience how each host nation’s fans react in their own ways to the peloton streaming through their lands.
Globalization and multiculturalism obviously apply to the riders in the race as well. Though it’s still dominated mainly by Europeans, the ranks of pro cycling are increasingly filled with people from all over the world. So, you get to learn more about cultural differences. And even when it comes to European cultures you think you’re familiar with, you’ll learn the difference between, say, Sardinians and Italians, Manx and English, Tasmanians and Australians. These backgrounds are reflected often in differing riding styles and philosophies. Some teams aim for cultural homogeneity (e.g. there are teams composed entirely of Spanish-speakers or Francophones), while others are international. Cultural difference often causes friction. Racism is still a real issue in cycling. On a less nefarious level, cultural difference comes to the forefront because communication is a very important part of racing, so language barriers are real obstacles (unlike in, say, baseball, when you don’t really need to speak that much with your teammates during the game). Cycling is also unique in that opponents sometimes work together (e.g. when people are on different teams but trying to keep the same breakaway alive), so even if you speak the same language as your teammates, you’re forced to learn other languages to be able to cooperate. (Incidentally, fans too often have to face the language barrier because most good coverage is not in English). In these ways, cycling forces the question of culture to view in a more pronounced way than many other sports.
4. The Return of History
Because the races cover so much ground, the riders and the fans get to see so much of the culture of human civilization; this adds a dimension of time that other sports lack. The peloton streams past the ruins of Europe’s past: French castles, roman roads, World War battle sites… Most sports keep you in the contemporary. Watch a football game and you’re unlikely to think about anything that happened before the year 1900. But cycling demands your attention get sucked into contemplating the meaning of history.
The history of the sport itself is also experienced uniquely. The places a race visits have accrued meaning based on past famous things that have happened there (many bike races are over 100 years old). For example, a race cannot be biked on the road to Gap, France without reference to Lance Armstrong’s famous ride through a field that took place there. Places trigger memories in a way that the sites of most sports’ static stadiums can’t (too many things happened in the same place in a stadium, so meanings get covered up on top of each other).
Cycling also makes you conscious of history because unlike in other sports, things change too much to allow different eras to be compared. There are no advanced statistics for cycling that can bring all races into some imagined contemporary playing field. The past has to remain past. And there’s no website like brefs.com you can visit to see how a particular rider performed in a given season because the outcomes of racing are so context-dependent and there are too many roles in a race to quantify for just looking at finishing places to give a good picture. Even watching highlights is unlikely to tell you much about how a race is unfolding unless there’s someone to explain for you what’s transpiring.
Which means that the race is only alive in the minds and stories of those who are riding in or following it. Unlike almost any other sports, cycling is not an image culture but a written and oral one. (The Wikipedia narratives on any pre-1920 bike races rival in cookiness much absurdist fiction).
5. The Return to the Spectator
The spectator of cycling plays a role not played in any other sport. In other sports, the spectator has unparalleled access to the game. They are equipped with dozens of angles, can speed up or slow down the action, hear all of the players’ thoughts in the post-game show, and get streams of data. They are like a god over the action. And yet they have little control over it, besides cheering. They have no chance of the game impacting them. It doesn’t affect their life except emotionally. They are everywhere, and yet nowhere.
Not in cycling, however. For a spectator, the experience they have is limited; they are made conscious of their particular spot in time and place. They only get a fraction of the race. And the barrier between fan and rider is more permeable than in any other sport. Fans can catch equipment, provide it to the riders, run alongside the race, drink beer with the riders during the race, and affect it in innumerable other odd ways. The flipside of this is that they are also at risk. Unlike, say, baseball, where the worst that happens is a fair ball is accidentally scooped up or foul ball bonks off a spectator, in cycling the spectators are regularly the causes or victims of crashes.
Cycling invades a spectator’s life in other ways, too. First, a race takes place in a spectator’s commerce spot, the streets of their cities. And it takes place during the day, not at night, so it is less sectioned-off from a normal living person’s daily routine. This is great, because it’s one of the few sports you can look at to procrastinate while at work. If you’re in the U.S., a European stage is usually over just in time for you to read about it during your lunch break.
Cycling also challenges spectators more than other sports because it doesn’t come with an instruction manual so you have to learn yourself. There are no highlights. The narrative of a bike race is in fact an anti-narrative, you have to come up with your own random things to occupy yourself in the absence of flashy action. The spectator is also challenged just to find a live stream of a race, or to understand the announcers once one’s able to find an illegal European stream to watch on.
The spectator is also challenged to ride their bike in their own free time to enjoy the spirit of the race. Few people after watching Kevin Durant are moved to go shoot hoops in their driveway, but the Tour effect on bicycle use during the summer is a real thing.
6. Return of the Human
I say “human” here, aware of course that most cycling you’re likely to watch is men’s cycling. As it happens, the bicycle has played an important roll in the advancement of more equitable gender rolls. Susan B. Anthony declared, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. And I will suggest that cycling is also unique in that the mechanisms of its professional sport are identical for both sexes. That is, watching a women’s bike race and a men’s bike race are exactly the same. Form is nearly identical, as are tactics. The race is self-contained, devoid of outside objective measures that might prejudice you in your judgment of performances (i.e. it’s not like track and field where there are time standards that alert you that the speed being covered is different). Cycling’s also not like basketball or gymnastics, where there are flashy highlights men are more likely to physically be able to perform that women can’t or visa versa. The only apparent difference, besides TV time and occasional sexism, is that female cyclists are more likely to contract “bike face,” a condition made up by 19th century scientists in an attempt to keep women from riding.
So it’s a more “human” sport than others, one in which the discrepancies between spectators’ interest in men’s and women’s competition are more directly tied to contingent sociological factors than biological ones. Fundamentally, cycling is physically unerotic, all eros is pored into the union of person and bike — the most efficient form of human transportation — longing for the crest of the mountain, the finishing line.
There is not sport that better symbolizes the struggle of humankind today. The cyclist contends with all facets of human experience: the cyclist works with and against teammates, competitors, self, nature, culture, machine, the limits of human biology, the temptation of the superhuman, the real and the absurd. The cyclist is the closest thing we have in sports to a hero, a latter-day Don Quixote (half crusader, half rocket ship) blasting off in pursuit of nobility and greatness.
7. The Return of Cows
Most sports feature few cows during competition, but cycling has many.
Conclusion: Coherence to the Incoherence
Since I’m too lazy to edit the above into something more followable, I will restate the main thrust of my argument here. The sport of professional cycling brings into the open facets of human experience that other sports often obscure. These include the questions of the meaning of sport, nature, culture, history, humanity, and cows. In no case, of course, does it do so without friction. The bike race makes us aware of the meaning of sport only because riders are usually forced to be cash-strapped in order to embark on the pursuit. We are aware of nature only because it threatens the riders with exhaustion, burns, chills, and viruses. We are aware of culture only because it disturbs our sense of normalcy. We are aware of history only because the race moves over roads built 100 years ago that are terrible in comparison to the smooth ones we’re used to. We are aware of humanity because drugs tempt us with the chance to enhance our nature. We are made aware of our machines because they break at inopportune times. We are made aware of spectators when they keep hitting riders with their selfie sticks. We are made aware of cows because sometimes they knock over riders. But by bringing this friction into the open, cycling allows us to be more fully aware of the dilemmas our contemporary world faces. This is not to demean other professional sports. Many are more exciting to watch than cycling. But at least on the scale of 1 to Miracle-Cure-to-the-Alientating-Effects-of-Late-Capitalism, pro cycling ranks best.
So, if you’re a rational human being, you’ve now been thoroughly convinced that you ought to be more committed to cycling and are now wondering what the best way to do so might be. If you’re not rational, you must be a Donald Trump supporter, but if I told you his Donaldness once sponsored a trans-American bike race that Lance Armstrong once took 2nd in, you’re now convinced as well. (Apologies for unnecessarily injecting politics into this, I just wanted an excuse to remind people of the Tour de Trump and that was the laziest way to do so; please don’t take it as an indication of my views). Now, there are a number of things this article has barely scratched the surface of when it comes to cycling. I hope you see this as a gift: it’s left to you to get the excitement of learning the names and stories of particular riders and races, to master the tactics and music of the bike race, to discover of the fact that the Tour isn’t even the most exciting bike race on the calendar, and so much more.
If you’re feeling a little bit unsure of how to pursue your newfound passion for pro cycling, you can watch this video on how to watch a bike race, and check out some more tutorial videos on Cyclocosm.com. Then, when Le Tour starts on July 2nd, you should read the recap during your lunch breaks at work (don’t actually watch most stages; that’d be boring). But do catch an actual stage later in the race (July 17–21st) with someone who can enjoy it with you. And after that, you should be all set on your own. And once you’ve let the race seep into your blood, grab your bike, go on a ride, and spread the good news!