I never wanted to be a cyclist.
Even saying that seems a step too far; just because I cycle doesn’t make me a cyclist- that strange bread of nylon-wearing, nostril-flaring indignant little shits who run lights, cut you up and run over grannies on zebra crossings. But I suppose I am. I cycle every day, usually 20-30km. I have a “cycling wardrobe,” which ranges from indecently skimpy shorts and vests for the summer and a complex layering system of lycra, Gore-tex and enormously baggy waterproof trousers for the winter. Being unable to ride sets me on edge; I get itchy and snap at people, sick for a fix. It forms a holy triad of dependencies along with alcohol and caffeine; and it drags me through all the energy highs and lows I get with those, too.
So I never wanted to be a cyclist. I wanted to be a runner. As a teenager, I obsessed with cross country, regularly turning all my extremities blue four times a week, trotting around London’s parks on Christmas Day, watching my breath puff out in white clouds. But then I did a half marathon and knackered my young knees for good, and turned to cycling as a means of transport. That’s all it was at first; I was your average mama-chari cyclist, just trying to get somewhere and carry my shopping at the same time and not fall off.
Then I started to discover the pleasure of ducking and diving around taxis, spinning the wrong way up the street, feeling untethered by highway codes, last trains, hell, even gravity. I tasted that kind of high-adrenaline freedom I’d only previously gotten when skiing; the city was suddenly mine.
I learnt that (wo)man+ bicycle = most efficient animal on earth. And before the pedants leap up to tell me that a human and a machine does not constitute as an animal, let me let you in on a secret; when you’re cycling, you and your bike is one. It’s not something that cages you, that empties your wallet, neither something that blasts radio or holds your takeaway coffee cup or warms your seat. No, it’s not a car. But with the lack of protection comes a heady and addictive freedom that’s hard to resist.
And yes, it turns you into an idiot. It’s like climbing to the top of Machu Picchu and seeing a horde of lard-arsed tourists getting out of a helicopter; it’s like being anorexic and taking schadenfreundich glee in watching your friend scoff a McDonalds; it’s like being a pious recycler and watching someone throw out swathes of un-decomposable junk. In short, it inflates your ego and turns you into an insufferable, evangelical, arrogant idiot (but it feels great). You speed past tortoise taxis, monstrously sized cars and trucks filled with people bored out of their tiny minds, tapping their thumbs on the steering wheel and listening to FM radio. You’re out there with the elements, lungs gasping, muscles pumping, capillaries bursting, getting a dose of dopamine and serotonin higher than Thain Bolt. The cocktail of brain chemicals that explodes when you cycle- high on physical exertion and moral superiority- makes you hate all other vehicles and their numbskull drivers, and encourages you to terrorize them. No, it’s not big or clever; but it feels fucking good. So good, in fact, that your ecstasy is quickly converted into pure murderous venom for those who come cycling the wrong way down the road (often without lights, holding an umbrella or child, and emailing someone on their mobile phone). Never underestimate the scorn of an obstructed cyclist.
Like many vegetarians, cyclists’ motivations change as they become more serious about it; first it’s about convenience, then personal health reasons, then for the sense of well-being, then for entering the little clan of like-minded people…. and before you know it, you’re saving the planet and boasting about it. Social and media pressure to reduce carbon footprints only provides fuel for your evangelical fire; then a cycle courier beats a helicopter in San Paulo and that’s it, your hobby makes you into some goddamn modern day saint. It’s sickening… but maybe true.
Where do the negatives step in? Well, the bare truth of it is that you look shit most of the time (if you’re going fast enough and not just pootling along on a bike that is far too expensive for your half-ass effort). It’s hard to balance my sartorial fantasies with cycling; I dream of being one of those pristine Tokyo ladies, with their immaculately swept back hair and un-laddered stockings, heels clacking down the street. I’ve dabbled in more ‘feminine’ cycling clothes; leather gaiters were one particular success. But eventually, I succumbed to the same trademark get-up as everyone else; lycra and waterproof gloves and luminous, billowing garments that make me look like the lovechild of the Michelin Man and a cat’s eye. It’s a badge of pride, I suppose, but you wonder after a while if such clothes are a bit like nail extensions or car parts; they only bring you kudos from other people who own them, who are in the ‘club’. Everyone else looks at you with a look of slight bafflement and revulsion. It also requires you to carry around an unglamorous rucksack of a change of clothes (forever crumpled), deodorant, bike lights, locks and a million other tools and accoutrements. It also does not give you a nice body. Yes, the Tour de France pros, with a body fat percentage lower than a slice of Ryvita, look pretty good. But there are plenty other cyclists with a fat gut and enormous, gladiator thighs, fat knees, bifurcated calves and weedy arms. If it’s a svelte figure you’re after, take up jogging.
I can’t advise you take up cycling. It’s an ugly addiction that will only bring out the worst in your personality and your knees. I have rosy visions of a utopian, generous cycling community; and it’s out there, in patches. But let me warn your here; to irrational, fury-filled and arrogant cyclists like myself, unless you go fast enough, you’re just another thing in my way.
|Cyclists are fuckheads
Lately I’ve been feeling out of sorts, all annoyed and pissed off. For a while I figured it was on account of this new meditation I was fooling around with. Maybe I was tapping into the ambient anger of the entire world as it floated in, through and, you know, like, totally around my being. Closer, more rational, examination disproved this. The more I focused on my annoyance, the more it became clear that it was stemming from one source, and one source only - cycling. Yep, my big ol’ problem is cycling. More specifically, my problem is cyclists. And more specifically still, my problem is male cyclists. As someone who rides a bike to work and back rain, hail and/or shine – yes, I am quite the boorishly sanctimonious and indefatigable office hero who my colleagues not-so-secretly despise – I spend a couple of hours five days a week (along with the weekend ride – again, what a fucking hero!) watching cyclists either coming towards me, fading behind me, or, humiliatingly, whizzing past me. I have come to hate them in this time and this hate is unfortunately infecting my otherwise rather sweetly good-natured (and only slightly boastful) spirit. Shallow, I know, but there you have it.
There’s no polite way to say it, except to announce that, to me, cyclists are utter fuckheads. I hate them all. There is not one cyclist I like, not one cyclist I wanna be like. Because of this I wanna smash ‘em all; I wanna defeat them. And I want them to know the pain of my beating them. I want to ride so fast that they are forced to cry and quit and chuck their carbon fibre cretin-mobiles onto the freeway to be run over by heartless Toyota Hi-lux after heartless Toyota Hi-lux. I want them to try and catch me and die of heat stroke. I want them to call their wives on their mobile phones in tears asking for them to be picked up in the family truckster, and when they arrive on the scene their wives are so disgusted with them that they leave them for a real man. A man who isn’t a cyclist.
I hate the poseurs in white lyrca who seem to feel they have to ride with their knees about a meter apart cause their packages are so fucking goddamn huge they couldn’t possibly close them and ride like a regular human being. I hate the little ferret-faced with their oh-so-tech-wrap-around non-prescription glasses who uncannily resemble Lleyton Hewitt. I hate how cycling is a rich clown’s game. I hate how it’s the new golf. I hate the groups of wealthy kids wheedling up our local hill led by a fat daddy dork in orange lycra. I hate the bozos spread out at the coffee shop on Sunday mornings looking so sweetly satisfied with themselves for having ridden sixty whole kilometers with a bunch of other middle-aged schlubs kidding themselves they’re athletes for one day of the week.
Hmm, there’s a lot of hate going down here so I should be clear: I hate cyclists who identify as cyclists. Like the way Martians identify as Martians. And I mean road cyclists (and triathletes too but that should go without saying right?). Sure, those melons on mountain bikes wearing jogging shoes who have to push in to be first at those annoying places where the cycleway meets a main road shit me, as do the groups of fat arsed oldsters in flouro yellow yelling “bike up”, “bike back”, “dust on the sidewalk”, “train thirty kilometers away”, “breath of air in Equatorial Guinea”. But, you know, they are minor irritations, lumps to be ridden around, ignored. They don’t grate as much as cyclists because…well…I’ll get to that.
For now, though, I probably should admit that I came to give a shit about cycling kinda late. I was a runner from as soon as I could run away from dogs until my knees felt like they were gonna give way. That was well over thirty years. I know, I was spoilt; I loved running and to enjoy over three decades of it was more than I maybe deserved. While I ran competitively when I was younger and did pretty well, I hated competition and actally loved training. It was the pure brilliant feeling of pushing my body for no other sake than to feel the limits and possibilities; I enjoyed running alone for no other reason than the gorgeous pleasure of it. My best running experiences ever were running around the ‘burb for an hour or so at night, thinking whatever thoughts floated on by, seeing all these lives going on in the windows, feeling my legs but not really feeling them, feeling like I was somehow flying through the night-time air. Bliss. However, as luck (or karma) would have it my right knee started to give way on the downhills. They were unavoidable, unignorable, shooting pains that made me worry I might ruin my ability to even walk again made me think that it was time to stop pounding the roads. Plus, to be honest, I had stagnated. I ran too much – five, six days a week. I didn’t get enough rest and reached this point where I just never really improved.
Instead of taking a rest, seeing a doctor, doing something, um, sensible, I quit. Yet I knew I couldn’t quit the aerobic exercise addiction, so I bought a bike. It’s what runners tend to do. Even at the start, though, I was adamant I didn’t want to ever be a cyclist. I would be just some guy who rode a bike. Because I was just a guy riding a bike I could feel okay when all the cyclist knobs flew on by me while I blissed-out at the scenery. Ah, it was just like my running days with the added bonus of gear to fantasise about. After a while, though, I started to get used to my route. I sped up a bit, and upped the distance too. I got fit in a way I hadn’t been for ages – the lack of road jar was a wonderful revelation. So was my occasional burst of speed. It was then that the rot started to set in. I got disgruntled when a cyclist passed me. I then started to make an effort not to be passed so much. And then I was out of control. I started to feel pissed off and insulted whenever I did get passed…by anyone I remember screaming in the office one morning “he was wearing tracksuit pants and he tried to pass me!!!! Couldn’t he see I was his superior and like stay be-fucking-hind me?” I had completely left behind my beautiful solo exercise dream world in order to enter a world of competition and stupidity. My previously happy ride to work quickly became a race. It was possible, if only in my mind, to win the ride to work. If I passed some other commuters that meant a little, but to cream a roadie, well, that felt like something. It felt like a victory against the enemy. I would come in off a side street and scout for a roadie to humiliate. Then I’d arrive at work or at home with tales of my derring- do, how I passed this idiot with full white team kit on a blingion dollar machine on my old steel fixed and just hung in front of him long enough for him to register my one sprocket rocket and then, oh boy, I totally accelerated him into dithering nothingness. Not just beaten but beaten by a real man on a real bike.
And, well, life got a bit boring after that not just for Bug and my office mates who had to listen to this crap day after day. I festered every time I got on the bike. I had to push every ride as hard as I could go. There was always something to prove, someone to prove myself against. But I think what made me realise I had I hit rock bottom was when I saw this colleague of mine on a bike pedaling along the road after work one day. I’d had this run-in with them (see I’m carefully not giving away whether it was male or female), but hey, now they were on my turf. Oh, and they would pay big time! So, um, what I did was to, like, ride by them as fast as I could, say hi, so they noticed me, and then power over the horizon. Oh yeah, that taught them a lesson! They might win at work but I would win here where it counted, where it was body against body. As I was bragging about this to my typically sweetly bemused Bug, I started to hear myself. What a fucking tool! I also realised that all the competition after and before work on the roads and cycleways is on account of small men like me trying to win at something, anything, after having, or before facing, a day of exhausting failures, a day of being the crappest worker, the dumbest guy in the office, the office joke (or in my case a day of being teased about being the gayest straight man alive – plus being the dumbest guy in my team, obviously). The more they (okay we) strain, the more we are trying to compensate for our crapness and our shallowness and our hopelessness. To need to win so badly at something when you can never really actually be certain anyone else is really racing with you at all is unbelievably pathetic! Which is exactly what I hate cyclists. It’s their oozing need to win, their palpable, transparent desire to look fast. I find this grasping incredibly ugly, despite, and maybe because of the fact that I adopted (or was been infected by) their behavioural, but not sartorial, attributes. I hate cyclists because I am, almost, one of them. My hatred is self hatred. My disdain for their ugliness, is disdain for my own ugliness.
And it is what I perceive as the general ugliness of the sport that has prevented me from developing any romance for cycling . I am not inspired by the tales of the mountains in the Tour de France. I am unmoved by the fatalities, the feats of Merckx, Armstrong and company. They are as gripping to me as tales from the history of Galaga. I just don’t care. Not in the way I cared about how Valerie Borsov ran the 100m, and how big his legs were and short and chopped his arm action was. Not in the way I dug Walter Moses in the 400m, or Arthur Whitfield in the 1500 and the mile. Those men competed with supreme beauty. It was gutsy, but more than gutsy. In my mind, it was regal. It was beyond effort. It was an expression of who they were as humans. In distinction, I look at cyclists and all I see is strain and effort and cloyingness.
In many ways, I blame it on lyrca. Really. Because when I think about it all my athletic heroes are in the past, in the pre-lycra days. Lyrca has ruined sport as an aesthetic encounter. By framing the body too sharply it foregrounds the effort and toil. It also says I would rather look like a dick and shave a fraction of a tenth of a second that look wonderful and do that bit worse. It is mean and grabbing. It reeks of the professional world and as such exists in another zone to the grace and foppish charm of the amateur world when sports where just a part of life. It’s because of this that for me amature life/sports is real life/sports. Sure, runners like four minute mile record breaker, Roger Bannister, had a professional attitude. After all, he used his medical training to try and maximize his performance. Yet he also knew that life held more than sports. He gave himself a deadline to break the mile record after which he would definitely quit in order to become a doctor. This attitude supports sporting effort but locates it within a bigger compass. It is one part of a full life, not something one obsesses about and becomes ever more dull and boring about.
The key to all is that they ride effortlessly and gracefully. That is what I am after. When I pass a cyclist I want to do it without effort. I want it to be a simple extension of not just my physical superiority but my mental and, fuck it, ethical, superiority as well. This superiority is something you just have and I think you get that by not wanting it, or that is what my reading on Zen is telling me. It would be a way of riding without care about how fast you do against others, a way of riding with just the body, carrying your own veil of night-time with you, like a cloud, a fog, a haze separating you from the other lesser mortals, the dipshits on the road with you. There would be no need at all to draw attention to oneself. One could be friendly and courteous and even slow sometimes, because there is nothing to prove. One’s superiority would shine through all one does.
The problem, of course, is not turning into a cyclist in the process. See, last week when I went to Boffins to buy the firstwent to Boffins to buy the first, that connects his straight edge punk roots with his Zen master life now. They didn’t have it but a short book by triathlete (!) Eric Harr caught my eye. It was called, and I am not making this up, Ride Fast. Baby! I couldn’t resist. I devoured the entire thing in one sitting. Hell, I actually did one of his training rides one ridiculously hot Sunday night. I felt like a dick though. Utterly. It was no fun at all, there was no easy spirit, no flare, just a middle-aged guy thrashing his body until his head, literally, felt like it was going to explode. As ugly and as pointless as it felt, that damned book keeps tempting me to the dark side. The issue I have is to be fast without trying and when not riding fast to be elegant without trying. All of which is real tough for someone who is slowing down with each year, getting wider around the middle, thinner on the top and as shaky as Mohammed Ali. Which is why the darkside of training and cycling computers and, ahem lycra, are sometimes tempting. And because it’s so easy to slip over to the darkside, I have to be ever cautious. I think it’s going to be a continual struggle, to ride and not be a cyclist, to be an athlete and an aesthete. It’s gonna be worth it, though, as one day when I pass you on the street while you huff away on your latest model TIME, with your fetid chub crammed into your spandex and your bandana around your fat head and I hardly even notice your existence except as a minor puff in my slipstream, you’ll be inspired to grow up too and learn the power of the Zen aesthete Renaissance man. See, my struggle is our struggle.