Paul Proteus forgive me, for I have raced…and worse still, liked it.
Wait, what? What’s wrong with bike racing?
And the answer, if I’m being absolutely honest, is “nothing.” There are lots of our friends at the shop who race—cyclocross, road, mountain, you name it—but not me. Never me. I’m a transit cyclist. An unracer. I’m not one of those people who shave their legs and follow The Rules for being a jerk roadie.
Okay, fine. So I will chase back to the front of the group in a ride when I fall behind…but that’s only to let everyone know I’m back, no need to worry about me. Being friendly, not racing.
And I will attack every single hill on a farms ride…but that’s only because I’m slow on the downhills, and I used to be bad at climbing. Force of habit, not racing.
Yes, sure, I will admit there was that time I dropped everyone on the pastry ride (and, accidentally, a coffee ride [sorry])…but if you knew how good Shortcake and Qualia are, you’d want to be first in line too! Good taste, not racing.
What do you mean, I own pro team kit? Hey, I’m really just rooting for the Bianchis—and having a piece of Belkin team swag made by Belkin is just a moment of personal Zen. Bikelust, not racing.
Set up a proxy to watch the cobbled classics, late for work because of a dramatic Giro stage finish, watch the hometown crazies at Tulsa Tough, bore the ears of non-biking colleagues during the Tour? Do it for the scenery. And the weird cycling commentary. And old home nostalgia. And I have a soft spot for anything Belgian. Makes me a couch potato, not a racer.
Rooting for Rabo/Liv and UHC, discussing how Mara Abbot could totally clean Marianne Vos‘s clock in a fair and proper Giro Rosa, and meeting up at Right Proper to watch La Course on the big screen? That’s supporting women’s cycling, half the road, equal pay for equal pain, and the future of American road cycling. They’re the racers, not me.
Getting a really, really pretty road bike, naming her (in part) after a racer, chasing after local speed records, going out on days when I know the wind will be in my face, riding up hill after hill, finding ways to make both of us faster? That’s an unhealthy obsession with an odd color of bluegreen and me just being weird again, not racing.
Proteus is sponsoring a race? Okay, fine. Guess someone from the shop could show up for that. Ah, a hill climb time trial. Good for a first race. I can kill any hill in College Park, Berwyn Heights, or Greenbelt. I’ll train. 18% grade? How hard can that really be? OH. THAT HARD. Can’t step off my bike. Came in dead last.* Think I’m gonna puke. It’s official, not a racer.
Like I said, I’m a transit cyclist. A practical, everyday person with a practical, everyday Schwinn. I have a rack in back, a bell and a light in front, more knowledge about local geography than breakway tactics, a nice, comfy saddle, and wide platform pedals that fit my hiking-booted feet. I obsess over the local highway code and why it fundamentally violates the ethical principles of communal justice and the common good, can identify Anacostia Tributary Trails by the color of their painted centerlines, tow the WABA Bike Ambassador trailer all over DC, and swoon over everything Elly Blue has ever written.** I work for economic and environmental justice, sensible transit planning, the good of communities, the public welfare, and I. do. not. race.
Because racing and racers don’t do these things, right? Bike racing is the domain of young, able-bodied, well-off, white males. It is exclusive. Snobbish. Expensive. Dangerous. Laden with all sorts of class and cultural baggage. It’s the exact opposite of what I want cycling to look like. It looks a lot like something enabled by the oppressive patriarchal power structures in our society I want ended yesterday. Even less comfortably, it looks a lot like me.
And I am not okay with that.
So I stayed away from pinning on a number and chasing down breaks. If bicycling is going to save our economy, as the Bikenomics subtitle says, it needs to be our economy, our world, a collective excluding nobody, of any class. Cycling can’t just be for People Like Me if it’s supposed to benefit everybody. Making the world a better place by riding a bicycle didn’t start with me—and it sure isn’t going to end with me. This whole “changing the world” thing is supposed to be…well, whatever the opposite of “exclusive” is. “Universal” seems like a good choice of a word—and the universe just isn’t made up of people just like me. If anything, its made up mostly of people who aren’t like me. So why should I have anything to do with something so unlike the change I want to see in the world?
Call it the monstrous fierceness of pride and the deceptive name of curiosity,*** but I wasn’t going to let my only race experience be a bad one. In spite of myself (and a fair bit of waffling the day of), I forked over my license and registration fee and entered the Greenbelt crit race. 30 minutes, plus two laps—you know, the “rookie race,” just without any rookies in it.
Don’t get dropped. Keep to the front. Don’t pull the pack. Remember to take off your saddlebag. Please, God, don’t let me crash. Marianne’s ready. Kyrie eleison, we’re off.
I’ll admit, I was scared for about the first five seconds—long enough for two people to pass me and the first descent to start. Like I’m going to let them take us out THIS early! I chased, flying down the sun-dappled downhill of Greenbelt Park, watching the changes of the road, chasing as I came through the turn, trying to figure out who, out of all these unknown other people, had a good wheel to hold on to for dear life.
Three laps in, someone tried to break the pack. I’d picked the wrong wheel to follow. I was getting dropped. Not. Happening. We’re chasing! Someone grabbed my wheel as I dragged them back to the pack for the next descent. Oh, you’re very welcome. Grrr. Downhill again. Hm. Not as bad as I thought it might be.
Last lap, another failed break, chased it down, watch how the sprint goes. Hold your line, pick a good wheel, don’t cross the centerline, who’s going to lead? If it’s the person I just picked, I can follow…nope, it wasn’t. He’s not chasing…well, I’ll watch how this plays out. Hey, ringside seat to the finish, better next time, right?
So I finished with the pack at sixth out of twelve, didn’t get dropped, didn’t even feel that tired, and got Nutella and bagels afterwards. Not Bad At All for a newbie! Good way to end the season, right?
Of course right—it involved Nutella! Can’t be that bad.
But here’s the thing. I still keep reliving the thrill of those fast descents, of chasing back to the front, thinking over where I did well, where I could have taken a chance that might have paid off, what I’ll do better next time…
That bothers me. “Next time” means I’m coming back. Getting a license. Racing again. It means I can’t claim to not be a racer anymore. Right there, at the end of the season, I discovered that I like racing, this thing I’m supposed to hate—and not even cyclocross, where Vos and KFC get equal or higher billing then men, but criterium racing, the most gear-intense, hypermacho embodiment of every bike-related stereotype and power structure I hate, with its stupid unwritten rules and everything.
On the other hand, I really don’t like this whole “unracer” retro-grouch cycle chic “reverse” snobbery—no, really, it’s just snobbery—that implies that the honest-to-God decent human beings who race for District Taco, Bike Rack, and Sticky Fingers are holding back progress and ruining cycling for the rest of us. If I may be blunt—which, dagnabbit, I’m going to be!—Momentum is filled with at least as much consumerist claptrap class prejudice as Velo. Sometimes more. Even transit cyclists who supposedly “just ride” have their encoded power structure issues and people they look down their noses at.
And this is probably the part where I’m supposed to share my epiphany, show the way we can all embrace and just get along, and lil’ ol’ “cycletracks everywhere!” me can stop worrying and love the chase. Sorry y’alls. I got nuttin’. I can’t just let this one go. Try as we might to fight it, to show people that cycling is at least as much cargo bike as carbon fiber, that you don’t have to look like me to ride a bike, that world peace will come on two wheels, there’s still an ingrained societal image of what a “cyclist” is—and that’s a road racer. There’s even the expectation that someone like me, especially with my Very Pretty bike, should race, and some surprise that I really don’t. I wonder how much of that was due to genuine ability on my part, and how much is because of how well I fit the “racer” stereotype.
I want there to be an easy solution—a way I can destroy hills on a fast ride; flip a switch, work on proposals to the State Highway Commission and letters to my delegates; zip up the jersey and enjoy the intensity and focus of a good crit; throw on the Bike Ambassador shirt and hand out KIND bars to commuters; check the twitter feed, find out what Belkin, Rabobank, and UHC are up to; check Taking the Lane, see when the next VeloVixen ‘zine is coming out—all without contradictions or conflict. I want a spiritual Arenberg Trench: the most punishing part of the annual Paris-Roubaix bike race, the “Hell of the North,” with a paved bike commuter path next to it.
I don’t know that it’s that easy to compartmentalize a soul. If I can’t even keep de Beauvoir, Pascal and Augustine out of my bike problem, if I relate my work on the potter’s wheel to my work on two wheels, then how am I supposed to keep biking out of biking?
What do we try to change first, and how? End the normativity road racing—or introduce new people to it, so it’s not such a snobbish and exclusive club? Is it even possible to do both? Is it realistic to expect either? How do I reconcile my racer’s instincts to attack, to course and chase, to close gaps or find them, with a commuter’s politeness, caution, and Thursday evening Zen? How do I merge the world of the criterium, with its isolated course closed to traffic, with the world of transit, where I’m riding as traffic? How do I take the partisans of either of these two worlds seriously, when each is telling me to dismiss the other as pointless, ruining the breed, not for serious cyclists—and yet, I love both?
Like I said, if you’re looking for epiphanies and easy answers—or “just getting over it” and ignoring the issues—this may be the wrong place, and not just because I seemed to have picked up a nasty habit of endlessly analyzing small details that get taken for granted some time during those years studying philosophy. The solution may be to obsess less and ride more, but, dagnabbit, I need all the loose ends tied up into a nice and tidy bow! It may be a case of wanting to have my cake and eat it too, of getting a thrill out of a sport where someone wins and others lose while seeking to simultaneously to use biking to create an equitable society without losers, but I’d rather it not be.
I don’t know what the middle course would look like, the one between, merging, or ignoring the racing-industrial complex and unracer snobbery—well, okay, maybe a Minute with drop bars—but I want there to be one.
Maybe we’ll find it. Maybe we’ll make it. Maybe there isn’t one. I honestly don’t know.
*Well, okay, part of that is because I miscalculated my warmup, showed up late to the starting line, and they started my time when I should have started, rather than when I actually did. Truth be told, though, “dead last” sounds better than “just about dead last.”
**As you’ll probably pick up from clicking the links, Elly Blue is one of my favorite people in Bikeland, and my mom’s New Best Friend. Her stuff’s cool. You should read it. Also Sam and Co. at Fit is a Feminist Issue, whom I couldn’t work into this post, much as I tried to—it’s feminist philosophy and bicycling with dashes of akido, and very, very good.
***While the other bike ambassadors may poke fun at my (verbal) footnote habit…that’s from Augustine’s Confessions, book 13, chapter 21, paragraph 30.