Many years ago, when this blog got underway, a true friend said this: “It’s good because it has a point of view. That’s what sets it apart.” He used to be the editor-in-chief of a major surfing magazine, and he knew about writing.
What he didn’t add was that “When you have a point of view, people will get their feelings hurt.” He needn’t have. I’ve been hurting feelings since I was old enough to talk.
When I blogged yesterday about what a bike racer is, and what a bike racer isn’t, it was like applying sandpaper to a sore rectum, and one of my subscribers made what he thought was the ultimate statement of disapproval by canceling his $2.99 monthly subscription. There’s a lot wrapped up in the idea that someone you’ve known for years can be so violently in disagreement that, unable to speak or write, the only way he can voice his anger is by withholding $2.99. Setting aside for a moment that people who use withholding money as a substitute for talking, especially when it concerns someone you know, the sad fact is that this person is one who loved hearing the truth until he felt like it concerned him personally. At that point he preferred something a bit less truthy.
“Satire is a mirror in which the reader sees every face but his own,” said Jonathan Swift, to which I’d add, “And when he does, he cancels his blog subscription.”
So I did what I always do. I emailed him a thank-you note for his long support and told him I was sorry to see him go. But what I didn’t tell him is that his petulance helped me a lot. It took me back to why I started writing this blog in the first place: To express my point of view. Not his, not hers, and not yours. Mine.
And as I considered that nugget and the friend who had encouraged it many years ago, I thought about what that point of view actually was. What is this blog really about?
The short answer is that it’s about cycling in the South Bay, but the add-on is this: And a lot of bike racing. This got me to wondering why the simple post of trying to define what a bike racer is pissed this poor guy off so utterly. The answer is a little bit complex.
A couple of months ago, before I walked away from #socmed, I noticed that my bike racing club didn’t have very many bike racers as compared to total club membership. I thought that was weird. Why would you join a club whose non-profit status is dependent on the mission of promoting and educating people about amateur bike racing, if you didn’t race, or want to race, or want to help other people race? What in the world about it could possibly be appealing?
So I looked around and noticed that my bike racing club was like almost every other bike racing club in Southern California. Lots of emphasis on “club,” not much emphasis on “racing.” And our club had more race entries than any other club in the state for the last two years running … and provides full, 100% race reimbursement no questions asked … and has a weekly racing newsletter … and mind-blowing discounts on clothes and equipment and bikes … and has a major physical presence at almost every race … and legendary weekly team training rides … and detailed race training plans … yet for all that, the actual number of people who pin on a number and go race is a minority of the membership.
The short answer is that even though bike racers look ridiculous and act ridiculous and are ridiculous, once you start riding a bike you realize that as ridiculous as they are, they are often the fastest people on the training ride. Or the group ride. Or the grand fondue. Or the local training crit. Or the fun ride. Or the coffee ride. Or wherever. And so you want to be like them, with this exception: You don’t want to actually race.
You want to wear racing clothes. Ride a racing bike. Do the faux group ride “races” and “race” on Strava. Memorize the “Velominati.” But that thing where you pin on a fuggin’ number and throw yourself into the middle of a bunch of aggro, fast-moving, win-at-all-cost nutjobs, risking death and catastrophic injury for the fantastic reward of 25th place or DNF or DFL? Uh, no thanks.
And just to be clear, that’s fine with me. There are as many ways to bike happiness as there are people on bikes. Bike racing isn’t for everyone, and these days it hardly seems to be for anyone. But regardless, a small cadre of people still do it, and another cadre of people still bust their butts to make the races happen. It’s a community and it includes lots of colorful characters, but the single most basic unit, the one that’s irreplaceable, is the nutjob willing to pin on the fuggin’ number, a/k/a the bike racer.
And just to be even more clear, I am glad when non-racers join our club. One day they may get inspired. One day they may help out at a race. Whatever they do, they’re often nice people, a little quirky, and fun to be around. The big tent is and should be open for everyone.
But it bothered me that relatively few people, people who seemed interested in racing, and people who posed and posted with all the accoutrements of bike racing, never raced. Were they anti-racing, or simply lacking a safe and encouraging environment in which to give it a shot? So, ripping off the very successful idea of our soul-sister-cum-competitor Velo Club La Grange, we did our own intraclub race series, and you know what? All hell broke loose, and it broke both ways.
The first wave of hell that shocked and stunned me was the extraordinary number of members who had never raced who, when given a free and safe and convenient and supportive venue, came out and raced their fuggin’ bikes. Most of them beat me like a rugbeater on a dusty carpet. All of them enjoyed the pre-race anxiety, the racing adrenaline, and the satisfaction of having done a real bike race. And the ones who didn’t race worked as volunteers, helping make the actual event happen. It’s amazing to think that members of a bike racing club would enjoy a bike race; almost as amazing as the thought that a bike racing club would actually put one on.
And let there be no bones about it, it was a club decision from the top down. Every single board member raced … how about that? And there were people who didn’t race, who didn’t want to race, but who showed up to help, because that’s the mission of the club: to promote bicycle racing. What could possibly make more sense and be less controversial than members of a bike racing club participating in, promoting, and assisting with an actual bike race?
Apparently, though, it rubbed at least one subscriber the wrong way. I’m not sure why; not being on #socmed anymore I’ve been spared all the details and have sniffed only the distant stench of the dust-em-up. But the bottom line is that somehow, by having your bike racing club put on a bike race and encouraging all bike race club members to race their bikes or help out, something elitist and exclusionary happened. Half of that I’ll agree with. If you didn’t want to help or enter or watch the bike race, you were pretty much excluded from it (by choice). But elitist? A free event open to everyone regardless of category, and a prohibition on all forms of high tech, expensive aero equipment? That’s elitist?
No, it’s not. It’s a bike racing club getting back to its roots at a time when this kind of thing couldn’t be more crucial if we are to survive. Because here’s the deal: If you don’t pin on a fuggin’ number and participate in an organized bike race, you ain’t a bike racer. You can wear the shit, ride the shit, and talk the shit, but you are not a bike racer, and you may be able to fool everyone at work and at home, but you ain’t fooling me.
Because words matter. The outside world may think we’re dopey, and you may think we’re dopey, but when Daniel Holloway drops in to ride with the locals, it’s awesome and you know it. When Fabian Cancellara shows up at Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica it’s a mob scene, and you know who’s taking all the selfies? The non-racers, that’s who! The ones who think racing is dumb, risky, a waste of time, and a waste of money swarm ol’ Fabian like flies on a big, stinking pile of, uh, honey.
So I thought about all this and decided to help people get their heads on straight about who was a bike racer and who wasn’t by writing yesterday’s post. It’s important because if you get to bask in the reflected glow of Holloway and Cancellara, if you get to “wink wink nod nod” imply that you’re a bike racer because you’re the group ride horseman, or because you just bought the coolest wheels ever, then you are ripping off everyone, especially yourself. What you’re also doing is missing a great opportunity. As our club races series showed, anyone can do a bike race. Bike racing isn’t complicated if you don’t want it to be. It can be safe and fun and done with zero fitness. If you think Fabian is cool enough for you to drool over, then trust me, you will get ten times more pleasure pinning on a number.
No one judges you because you don’t race. Every bike racer judges you for pretending to, but not.
Of course if it was just fakery and pretense I’d be down with it. This is SoCal, after all. But every person who pretends to be a bike racer and basks in the fake glory of looking and acting like one discourages other people from racing. If the payoff (and for some people, sadly, it is) is getting to preen and strut, but all you have to do is shop aggressively to earn the cred, then why bother to race?
Answer: People don’t.
The trend has become a toilet drain spiral, where there are actual groupings now called “concept” teams, where the sole purpose is to, for example, sell bicycle clothing. No need to race. No need to have a license. No need to do anything to be on a “concept racing team” other than buy into its “concept.” If you look the part, you’re in. But if you’re fat, slow, a little intimidated, but down inside really want to try out racing, well, tough. Because the concept team don’t need no racers, and it sure don’t need no fatties.
This is totally different from actual bike racing, which thrives on fatties, and is in fact filled with people who had significant weight problems but overcame them through training, diet, preparation, and a goal–the goal of racing. I could go through the list of current competitors who used to be morbidly obese who are now trim and fit and hard-charging bike racers. None of them would ever have made the “concept team.” So for each person who pretends or implies or suggests that they race because they, you know, associate with bike racers, there’s a counterpart who says “I’d like to race but why should I? These concept folks are way more popular and good looking and none of them seem to know anything about racing anyway.”
The fashionista elitism of non-racers is helping suck the life out of racing. Is the end of bike racing a bad thing? Of course not. Bike racing is as dumb today as it was when I started racing in 1984. If it’s going to die, let it. But don’t let it die because people who might otherwise have discovered its excitement and beauty were discouraged by the concept teamsters. Don’t let it die because 501(c)3 non-profit corporations dedicated to bike racing were too chicken-ass to encourage people to race. Don’t let it die because those who were engaged got subverted by those who couldn’t get out of bed early enough to train. And for fuck’s sake, don’t let it die because of Facebag and Strava.
What our club race series has shown (52 sign-ups for the 10-mile TT tomorrow, by the way) is that a whole bunch of people who belong to a bike racing club really do want to race their bikes, and that a whole bunch of non-bike racers are happy to come out and volunteer time and energy to make the racing happen. Give the bike racing people what they want, and let that dude who doesn’t care about this amazing sport cancel his $2.99 subscription, and kiss my ass goodbye.
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