Sunday, December 5, 2010

On personal morality and the existentialism of cyclocross racing

A couple weeks ago, I got a new issue of VeloNews in the mail. Being the cycling nerd that I am, I usually read every issue cover-to-cover, including the reader letters. One reader letter that stood out was written in response to an article about giving Floyd Landis a feed bag at Tour of Battenkill earlier this year. The writer felt some angst about feeding an admitted doper. The reader letter read as follows:
Concerning Andrew J. Bernstein and his conflicted feelings surrounding the feeding of Floyd Landis--I had the privilege of standing roadside during this year's Cascade Cycling Classic, where I cheered for a post-confessional Floyd Landis. I have never been a doper. I have never tried marijuana, nor do I wear high waters and ride a fixed gear. I don't drink coffee like so many road buddies who don't consider caffeine a performance-enhancing drug. I have never tried beer and don't understand why so many cyclocross riders think it helps their performance. I try not to judge those people. There are so many things we could get hung up on regarding others, so lighten up and hand a guy his lunch.

-James Ford >>Eugene, OR

I respect the sentiment of the letter. Floyd served his suspension. And while I don't like that he chose to dope and then chose to deny it for so long after testing positive, I do like that he's come clean and has finally broken the omerta in an effort to bring more accountability to the sport. I would feel honored to hand Floyd a musette.

The thing that struck me about the letter was the phrase (emphasis mine) "I try not to judge those people." Perhaps I'm reading more into it than the author intended, but the self-righteousness of the assertions "I don't drink coffee," and "I have never tried beer," coupled with the statement "I try not to judge" left me wondering what exactly there was to judge about these actions.

Yes, caffeine is a performance enhancer. It happens to be a legal one. Getting plenty of sleep, eating apples, and doing intervals are also performance enhancers. They are also legal. The thing that separates these activities from using EPO or HGH is that EPO and HGH are against the rules and therefore against the spirit of fair play. Some may deem the use of EPO or other blood boosters necessary to complete a three-week stage race and for that reason suggest they should be legalized. While I don't think they are necessary to complete the race, they may be necessary to compete at the level we as fans are accustomed to enjoying. But until the day comes that such methods are legalized, they are cheating. And until the day comes that coffee (or Rock Star) or getting plenty of sleep or eating apples are banned, they are legal and consistent with fair play. There is nothing to judge if an athlete chooses to employ these legal methods. So I'm not sure what Mr. Ford is "trying not to judge" in this situation.

As for 'crossers drinking beer, it's part of the culture of the sport. Nobody would tell you with a straight face that it improves performance, it's just something that a subset of the racers enjoy. (There's a good case to be made that beer diminishes performance, since beer is basically empty calories with little nutritional value, and it's taboo enough amongst pro roadies that a certain team manager threw a fit when his athletes were drinking it.) Some may say beer helps them race better, but their tongues will be firmly embedded in cheeks when doing so. However, provided the person drinking the beer is of legal drinking age, again, there's nothing to judge. If one person chooses not to drink beer, that's his choice made according to his values and judgment. But those values are his alone and are not a benchmark against which to judge another.

Actually, the one case that can be made for beer as a performance-enhancer in cyclocross is that it numbs the inevitable post-race pain, perhaps enough that one might forget the anguish sufficiently to keep lining up race after race, suffering beat-down after beat-down, until he has finally done it enough to actually have some degree of skill at this cursed and sadomasochistic sport. If beer is the only thing that allows someone to persist as a cyclocross racer, then yes, it's a performance enhancer. But it's still legal.

Which brings me to my present existential crisis with regard to cyclocross racing. The existential dilemma we all face is that no matter how much we do to improve ourselves and others, eventually we will deteriorate and die. So the question becomes, why not shorten the suffering and commit suicide? According to some schools of existential thought, the greatest victory is accepting the absurdity of life and persisting, choosing not to take the suicide shortcut.

As bike racers, our lives are even more absurd than normal. The inherent suffering that's part and parcel of the human condition is not enough for us, so we inflict more. Either we have not only accepted the absurdity of life but embraced it to the point of trying to one up humanity in the suffering department, or we're just so stupid we haven't yet realized just how absurd it is to deprive ourselves of food, free time, and disposable income so that we can race our bikes, in many cases racing with no hope whatever of actually winning. And just as in life, no matter how much we improve, not only will we eventually deteriorate and die, but there will always be someone faster. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I got into cyclocross for fun. I got into it because of the laid-back atmosphere. I enjoy competing, I enjoy pushing myself as hard as I can go. I enjoy a challenge. I prefer to be the slow guy in a fast group so I can watch myself improve, and cyclocross certainly affords that.

But Saturday's race was not fun. The mud was challenging, the race was challenging. I pushed myself. It had all the makings of a good day on the bike, but it wasn't. On the first lap while we were riding a stretch of pavement, I accelerated to go to the front of the group I was with. It was the type of pass I've made 100 times without incident in road races. But as I came upon the lead rider, we made contact. I thought I was riding straight, I'm sure he thought the same, but we somehow got tied up at the elbows, and he went down.

I felt bad about it. It certainly wasn't intentional, but whose fault it was is immaterial because there's no way for him to uncrash. Let's just say that his reaction was a far cry from Jeremy C. saying "rubbing is racing" when he and I bumped shoulders in a crit a while back. It sucks he went down, but he got back on, bike and body both still in racing condition. Not too bad as crashes go, but you'd never guess that from his response--it was everything cyclocross racing is not supposed to be. At least I avoided Adam Myerson's fate, and he didn't punch me. So I've got that going for me. Which is nice.


  1. "Accepting the absurdity of life and persisting"...I love it! Great post!

  2. You know, I'm a firm believer that life is absurd if you're not hurting. As the beloved Wesley said, "Life is pain, highness." And anyone who tells you differently wallows about on a couch with pork rinds.

    On another note, I'm thinking we should make some "Don't Feed The Dopers" signs for bicycle races. Like at the zoo. Funny, yes?

  3. I'm cool with a mid-race blast related to some stupid incident or another. The fight-or-flight mechanism is working and people say stupid crap.

    5 minutes after the race? I'm not so forgiving of aggro.

  4. " It was the type of pass I've made 100 times without incident in road races."

    Ay, there's the rub.

    CX is not road. We are masters racers and an abundance of caution should rule, expletives are fun.

  5. Bob, you're right. Passing at a wide, straight section of pavement rather than in the trees is clearly showing a lack of caution. My fault.

  6. They are not banned because they give an unfair advantage, they are banned because they are unsafe to the cyclists. It sounds like your riding was also unsafe so you should be banned.

  7. Seth, fair enough. How about a self-imposed 8 month ban from utcx?

  8. sure. It should go into effect on december 19th