On religion, sociology and cycling (another interlude)

Like any good religious devotees, roadies have their rituals. One such ritual is the formulaic way in which training is discussed. These discussions typically take place when greeting old acquaintances at races, notably in the springtime when racing resumes and winter training results are in the minds of many.

A typical discussion might begin with a question such as: “So, been doing much riding?” Such questions are purely rhetorical; they are not to be taken as literal, requiring an honest and detailed reply as to one’s training regime. One’s response is governed by ritual and is determined by a rather complex formula. For example, if you have been indeed doing a little riding, clocking up a few miles, then an appropriate response might be: “Yeah, a few miles when I can.”

But as the amount of training increases, the response should move exponentially in inverse proportion to the amount of training done. Therefore, a moderate training plan involving a variety of riding might be described as: “A few miles, but family commitments have made it pretty tough to get out.” Got an actual training plan, complete with interval sessions and an online coach? “Pretty much rested up over the winter with a bit of back pain from putting up the Christmas tree.” If you’ve been spending the last 2 months putting in 6 hours per day on the rollers in the 53×11 while watching endless Tour de France dvds, your response should take on the magnitude of a New Country song – your porch collapsed, the dog died, your significant other left you and took your truck with your bike in the back.

The intention of such responses is not to obfuscate one’s condition (all will be revealed on the road in due course). The point is that roadies do not have the slightest interest in discussing training; it is an arcane subject of no relevance to anything useful (as opposed to where to get the best espresso, say). In the world of the roadie, all rides are recovery rides to local coffee shops, even if what one actually does is long tempo group rides or hill intervals. But the ritual of appearing to discuss training is still important as one must at least appear to be polite.

When answering a question about training, one must never (never!) reply: “I’m in training for a Gran Fondo.”

Blindsided

Your author must confess to having been totally blindsided by the Gran Fondo phenomenon. On initial appraisal, your author was attracted to the idea: a long ride on a closed course, just the sort of scenic event to finish a season and put in a few extra miles. Something to train for? Well, since when does one train for a ‘fun ride’ when the distance and toughness of the course is less than, say, stringing together the local mountains in a round trip. Still, with a price tag of around $200, it had better be a good day out.

The Vancouver event (Vancouver to Whistler), having just run its second edition, attracted 7,000 riders. Far from being a fun ride, entrants are now comparing finish times and can even pay an additional fee to start with a group at the head of the pack to avoid being held up by slower riders, thus facilitating a faster finish time. Additional events are now being run in British Columbia, almost like grand tours. Needless to say, Fondo training plans (not to mention Fondo-ready bikes) are on everyone’s lips and in the pages of popular cycling publications. Gran Fondos are now, apparently, serious events with serious racing.

There would appear to be a growing disconnect between marquee events (with impeccable if somewhat pricey organization and ‘epic’ routes) and the local grassroots racing, where a weekend Masters race on quiet, country roads with no-frills organization (but usually a great bbq) might struggle to attract 100 entrants across all age categories. It would seem, as least in Vancouver, that roadies are favouring the former and that there is little crossover. Are we becoming pampered racers who prefer to drop a bundle of cash for a Gran Fondo rather than support a club-run local racing event?

On class

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the idea of cultural capital as the way members of a particular class use cultural knowledge and taste to reinforce and support their class position, particularly members of the upper class and their predilections for high bourgeois culture. Pastimes and fashion was part of this process; think of it not so much as ‘we are what we wear’ but ‘what we wear (and what we do while wearing it) is who we want others to see us as’. Being French and writing in the 1960s, Bourdieu was naturally obsessed with class and brought a particular neo-Marxist perspective to the issue. Class is a little more of a slippery idea these days. In our (supposedly) meritocratic and materialistic modern society, class does not exist in a traditional sense, but only as a function of wealth. To the extent that the more wealthy might use consumer and recreational choices as cultural capital to reinforce their identity, though, Bourdieu still has a useful idea.

Cycling now offers a pathway for consumption, upgrades and activities that can reinforce a monied identity. The industry, and indeed its promotion, is based around an upward progression of not necessarily personal performance but of equipment. Bikes are price-pointed for certain types of rider, and major publications like Bicycling neatly categorize just about everything for the aspiring rider and racer. Any wheelset over 1,800 grams is not ‘race ready’, bikes with a tiny more vertical compliance in the rear are for Gran Fondos rather than racing, and riders can choose the groupset appropriate to their ‘level’. Clothing items of unabashed luxury abound, trading on their brand identity. This builds a myth that progress in the sport also involves a progression in equipment, an ongoing, presumably endless, upgrade path. For a new entrant, this path can be daunting and only reinforces the idea that cycling is a sport that requires a substantial monetary contribution over time; a sport that is for the upwardly mobile, and not those that just like to climb hills.

A recent glance through the magazine Peloton and an article on American bikes highlights this point. The Cannondale that won the 1997 Giro retailed for $2,700; Lance Armstrong’s Trek in 2003 was $4,730; Specialized’s top-of-the-line Tarmac in 2004 was $5,500. These are a far cry for the price tags of the pro-level bikes in 2011, more like the $8,000+ range, which are available in most cases to the public in an industry that has discovered that high-end consumers are willing to pay more and more for their rides.

To that extent, cycling may indeed be – as some say – the new golf, replete with connotations of wealth and success (the leisure time to play, the cost of the top-of-the-line equipment, and the fees for the greens). If this is indeed the case, then the Gran Fondo is cycling’s equivalent of St. Andrews.

The bigger picture

What might we make of this, is it indeed true, and does it really matter? While there might appear to be a gap between the Gran Fondo crowd and those that are the old-school local racers, the bigger picture may be somewhat more complex. This year in Vancouver saw a big boost in numbers at the Tuesday night crit series (not so much the Thursday night series, though) and the Cypress hillclimb (raising money for cancer research) saw a record number of entrants (around 350 when less than a quarter of that number turned up when the event was started four years ago). It will be interesting to see if there is greater interest and turnout for some of the other race events, particularly those a little less publicized.

Motivations should never be second guessed. Your author knows what it’s like to have a busy work and family schedule, and getting one’s legs ripped off at weekend race events through the season due to lack of time for training can get tiresome. A better option might be to focus on one event, like a Gran Fondo, and work towards it at one’s leisure. Sure, that entry fee is hefty, but can be offset by less weekend or weekday racing during the season. And why get hung up on some crit placing when a personal best can be set on a closed course without having to joust with traffic and those young guns who will ride inside your line as soon as shout “braking”.

Local racing will endure as it always has. Often under-subscribed, assuredly un-glamorous, but much loved by its participants as a regular little racing fix. But it is hard not to see it becoming disconnected from the marquee events, a poorer cousin. Still, cycling is a big tent and there may well be room for all. If it takes the big money of the Gran Fondos to pull more people into cycling, and to attract them to the other local events, then this can only be a good thing. If it brings more money to local bike shops, raises awareness of cycling in the local sporting mindset and legitimizes road racing, and gives more respectability to the sport then these are all good things.

But for some, there’s something vaguely unsettling about the corporate aspects of these events. If cycling is the new golf, then one might keep in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism: “An emasculated form appeared and proved just right.” If you also find the Gran Fondo crowd just a little too carbonized, then you too have probably been blindsided by the recent growth of these events and the particular participants that they have attracted. On conspicuous consumption, though, patterns in cycling are probably more reflective of wealth in the wider society than any particular reflection of cycling itself. The rise (and now fall?) of luxury brands in cycling is inevitably tied to the position of luxury brands elsewhere – not just in sport. If 2012 sees a decline in cycling bling, it is likely to be more due to economic conditions in North America in general rather than anything to do with mindsets in cycling.

It is also worth keeping in mind the criticism of brand consumption put forward in an article just perused today. The author argues that what we can tell about people by what they buy is exactly nothing. To use the author’s example, there are no Android people or Apple people, just people that buy those products. This runs counter to brand marketing that seeks to establish brand identities that consumers want to buy into, but is probably quite close to the truth. In most cases, we don’t want others to judge us by our own purchases – we’re complex individuals, after all – yet that is what we often do when judging others. Unless we’re Bordieu’s cultural elite, attempting to reinforce our status position, actual consumption choices may demonstrate little.

Religion and rituals

Ultimately, there are still divergent views as to what cycling means. To stretch the religion metaphor to its breaking point, you either see cycling as hardcore Scottish Calvinism with a working-class ethic, where you accept your lowly status as an amateur of scant ability and where the only reward for suffering is more suffering; the only luxuries you allow yourself are a wool jersey that doesn’t itch and a nine-speed cassette. Or you belong to a new, flashy Pentecostalism that celebrates all that is shiny and ‘epic’, that gives immediate high-profile gratification and takes you closer to the gods of the pro peloton through Gran Fondos and the Étape du Tour; here there are no equipment luxuries but essentials (a sub-15lb bike, carbon wheels, and soon, electronic shifting).

The above discussion has been offered not so much as a criticism but as a provocation (and also a little tongue-in-cheek), an opportunity during the off season to ponder what our sport might mean, in the spirit of the ongoing series of posts being presented here. It can either be viewed through a corporatist lens, or that lens can be coloured by our efforts to find ‘meaning’ in what we do (after all, what is religion but a form of meaning), hence the rituals and rules that help give cyclists their identity. In the end, most all of us are fairly ecumenical as to how we see our cycling, but how you answer that perennial question, “Been doing much riding”, will determine which end of the cycling religious spectrum you veer towards.

In the Italian cycling trinity, if Alfredo Binda is 'the father', and Gino Bartali is 'the son', does that make Fauto Coppi 'the holy spirit'?

6 thoughts on “On religion, sociology and cycling (another interlude)

  1. Ah yes, the increasing diversion to being casually deliberate to ones training regim. And the increase in “grand condo” type is equivalent to the lack of the need to suffer. The in crowd with a kool new carbon, whatever…

  2. Yes, “the only luxuries I allow myself are a wool jersey that doesn’t itch and a nine-speed cassette”. I can see myself now. Splendid piece of fine writing, sir.

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