Why do we ride bikes, why do some of us race? The questions are both frequently asked, and near impossible to answer. This week I've been pondering the questions again. In my wandering around the world of cycling sites I've tripped over a few new insights.
But let me begin at the beginning. Almost everyone in America begins with simply learning to ride bikes. Unless you have cyclists for parents or neighbors, very few children here have any notion of bike racing. So few adults are cyclists in America that children here frequently think of bikes only as toys. But most children in America do learn to ride, and most children love it for a while. Usually around 6th grade bikes get put aside for more mature interests. Some of us, however, stay entralled with bicycles. I think for me it was the discovery of bike racing at that age.
Bike racing is a simple sport. The cyclist that covers the course (long or short, paved or dirt) in the least amount of time wins, everyone else loses. Of course the process of racing becomes extremely addictive. The feelings of anticipation for the race, the physical effort, the thrill of speed, the sharp mental focus, the elation of finishing well, these feelings are intoxicating. Yet people race bikes for many different reasons and with different expectations. Since only one person wins any given race, what do the rest of the racers achieve? If a racer expects to finish in the top half, and finishes top 10, he's happy. If a racer just hopes to finish and she makes the front group, she's elated. If some one expects to win, and finishes 3rd, he's disappointed. Bike racing is a very frustrating sport, since any one thing going wrong can mean failure, and everything going just right for a win is a rare event. Steve Tilford, one of my boyhood cycling icons, wrote on his blog this week about expectations in bike races. Some times we know we can only achieve a small amount in a race, so do you quit before the start, or do you race anyway? True cyclists join the race and achieve what they can.
The Bike Toss. Racing bicycles is an obsessively consuming sport. Elite racers must push themselves to the very limit of their concentration both on the bike and off. If a series of setbacks occurs, sometimes over a whole season or several years, the frustraion will drive them mad. Once in a while a racer will have the peak of frustration hit due to a mechanical in a race, and then that racer will hurl their bike into the weeds. Bjarne Riis famously sent his time trial bike flying in the 1997 Tour de France.
But he is not unique. Other top pro's, collegiate racers, even juniors have been seen turning their race bikes into frisbees out of bitter frustration. Some times after this the racer quits not only the race but the sport. Since bike racing is so consuming, the frustrations can leave one hollow. With out the joy of expectations met, racing leaves one very cold. So why continue? Whether its the psychological toll, or an njury, or life changes, many people stop racing every season. Sometimes they just stop riding too. Why ride so much if there is no goal, no race to win?
But as Le Grimpeur wrote about this week, there is much more to cycling than bike racing. While bike racing, especially pro racing can consume all the public's attention for cycling, it is a hard and fickle sport at the top. Even in the past era's the sport of bike racing was hard on the racers, perhaps too hard.
Yet cycling is much more than racing bikes. Most of the guys who got me back into the sport a dozen years ago don't race anymore. Why drive 3-4 hours round trip to ride your bike hard for only an hour? Why not ride for 4 hours at home?, they would ask. So they ride thousands of miles a year. These guys ride year round, on every type of bike & terrain. They used to race years ago. They compete now only for town lines and hill tops, but the compeition is usually fierce. They are cyclists.
In Italy cycling is like baseball is in America, it is the national pastime. Cycling also has a history, a romance, a popularity in Italy like baseball does here. Understandably then, there are many more cyclists in Italy than in the US. The Gran Fondo circuit there has thousands of participants for each event. While a handful of former pros racers ride to "win" the gran fondo's, most riders are simply testing thier own limits. They ride because they love the sport itself. I was re-acquainted this week with a unique gran fondo, L'Eroica, a 200km course in Tuscany, over "la strada bianche" (white gravel roads). L'Eroica means "the heroic" and the route is the grand father of all dirt road randonee's. 4000 people will ride it two weeks from tomorrow; stopping every so often for fresh figs, panini, prosciuto, and a little chianti. Some will ride it on old steel bikes, with tubular tires, and in vintage wool jersey's. Not so much out of nostalgia, but to enjoy the past simplicity and ardour of the sport. They ride not to win, but to test themselves, to overcome personal as well as random obstacles, to find the beauty in their shared challenge.
They are cyclists.
I started riding bikes 35 years ago. I fell in love with bike racing almost 30 years, and began to race a regular calendar 12 years ago, but I only became a cyclist a few years ago. I would now still ride even if I never raced again. I now believe that the simple joy of riding a bike is as important to me as racing. I believe that is what defines a cyclist.
"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." - H.G. Wells