The spectrums of cycling

1.

Draw a horizontal line, for the sake of argument, and put ‘science’ at one end and ‘art’ at the other. Is pro cycle racing an art or a science? If you think it is more towards the former, then you might be Dave Brailsford of Team Sky, interested in numbers and percentages and VO2 maxes and watts at threshold. You are interested in form peaks and grand tour strategies. You respect riders who are clinical and measured, careful in their tactics and disciplined in the application of their talents. Racing is the serious application of physical talent and mental acumen. And it is all about the racing.

If you veer towards the latter, you might be writer Johnny Green. You see pro cycle racing as more of an art. You like flamboyant riders who put on a show, who are not interested in 450 watts of tempo climbing but want to attack and ignite a race. They are larger-than-life characters, on and off the bike, who are dynamic and engaging. They are not athletes but rock ‘n’ rollers.

Next, draw a vertical axis through the horizontal line and label one end ‘sport’ and the other end ‘business’. On this spectrum, if you favour the former you see pro cycling, and sport in general, as having redemptive moral qualities. It epitomizes dedication, hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, suffering and other character-building qualities. You watch it, and perhaps encourage young acquaintances to do the same, because it contains good life lessons, with ‘heroes’ worth emulating. This is the amateur ideal.

If you see pro cycling more as a business, then you regard pro sports as cut through with money. You understand that for pro riders that cycling is their job and that they need to earn money to support themselves. As such, you are more agnostic about the redemptive value of sport and see its practitioners more as well-paid entertainers than moral figures to be held in high esteem. You do not see suffering on a bike as a form of character enhancement, simply a job condition. You agree with writer Adam Gopnik, who penned: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.”

Finally, imagine a third axis (a 3-dimensional model) with ‘winning’ at one end and ‘spectacle’ at the other. If you are interested in the results of pro cycling then you favour strategies and tactics that result in winning. You think that winning should be justly rewarded as the ultimate incentive. You are dismayed when cheating – like dodgy deals or doping – skews the results and prevents the ‘real’ winner, the most talented rider, from claiming the race.

If you are more interested in the spectacle, then you are less interested in the race outcome. You want to be entertained. The results matter less than what unfolded on the road, how you were captivated or engrossed by the action, the spirit of the riders. You wonder why winning (see more below) is given such a high priority in terms of money and reward when all the riders are playing their part to put on the entertainment. You wonder what is distorted if someone does a deal on the road for a victory or pops some drugs to gain an advantage.

2.

Where you position yourself in this model of different spectrums of cycling will say much about your views on a number of questions. Take doping, for example. If you are more towards the science-sport-winning quadrant then you see doping as distorting of talent and training, cheating and morally wrong, and a distortion of the fair play outcome of a race. If you are more towards art-business-spectacle then you might see doping as the fuel of creativity, an inevitable by-product of excess money, and the fuel of the spectacle: cheating, sure, but when were rules meant to be followed; hazardous, maybe, but less so than a 100 kph mountain decent on skinny tyres; morally damaging, but everyone is an adult making a free choice.

Or take the racing calendar, for example. If you are more in the science-sport-winning quadrant you might be more of a fan of traditional, old school races (or this may also apply to those on the ‘art’ side). Two-hundred kilometres Belgian classics and brutal grand tours are your fare, where the racing sorts out the ‘hard men’, those of superior strength and character who can win against the odds, building their own characters and enriching our lives by their example.

If you are more art-business-spectacle then you can be sympathetic to new races and new ideas to build the sport. You might be open to the idea of shorter stages, shorter events, or inner-city circuit races that are more audience (and TV and sponsor friendly). You are supportive of the idea of a breakaway league, so long as there’s racing, and have no particular attachment to small Belgian races with names you can’t pronounce. You also wonder why it is necessary for grand tour riders to spend four hours on some stages just riding when it is the last two hours where the racing happens. From a business and spectacle perspective it makes little sense.

Ultimately, though, you are probably not wedded to the hard end of these axis, liking a little bit of a mix. A little bit to the left here, a little to the right there, depending on the issue at hand. In political terms, you are in the centre, where most people tend to cluster. That said, when push comes to shove, you will take a strong position on a specific issue.

3.

Pro cycling is slightly anomalous in pro sports because even though it is a team sport it is more akin to individual sports in that there is less fan identity attached to a team and ultimately to winning. Other team sports – hockey or football, say – have teams with a geographical identity (even if the team’s players are international) and their fans place a high value on their team winning (as opposed to just putting on a good show). It probably helped by there being at least a 50:50 chance of winning purely by chance in a face-off match, rather than the much longer odds of winning a race in cycling, either for a team or individual.

One might argue, therefore, that for many or even most cycling fans, the spectacle of a race is more important than the outcome, even if there are differences of opinion on science v art, or sport v business. As a fan, your allegiance does not necessarily reside with winners. The sport, though, is structured so that – for teams and individuals – winning is of very high importance. Sponsors want wins, team managers want wins, and winning is rewarded by points (necessary for ascendancy in the UCI system) and monetary returns. Officials, organizers and managers are concerned that without the incentive to win then there won’t be sufficient spectacle to entice the punters.

It is curious the attention and respect and reward we lavish on winners in sports. This is particularly curious given the single-mindedness required to excel at the highest level of sports. Not only do you have to be talented and lucky (purely random attributes, hardly worthy of adoration) to be successful, but you probably have to be driven to the point of selfishness, and ruthless and focused to the exclusion of everything else. This is not something we typically strive for in our own personal lives, where we try to strike more of a balance in our time and interests. For most of us, unless we are in competitive positions, our work goals are not winning and beating others but collaboration and cooperation. Our other priorities might more likely be family and community rather than competition and rivalry.

It is worth asking whether the emphasis on winning creates distorting incentives for athletes, particularly when it is attached to monetary reward and fan adulation. Is ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ a completely anachronistic and damaging value set to foist on athletes (young ones in particular)? Does this inevitably lead to a reprehensible single-mindedness ‘win at all costs’ mentality and also an incentive to cheat – and to lie and deceive along the way that ultimately does no one any good when it is uncovered (as it always is)?

Whether the emphasis on winning is morally corrosive in the long term is difficult to prove empirically. One might cite examples of ranting parents and miserable children at hyper-charged weekend sporting events in support, and how the early linkage of winning and success in children does not make them well-rounded adults. (For some interesting related comments on young athlete development, see this Science of Sport posting.) Still, one should be nervous about making the argument without some better evidence. Still, if the linkage between remuneration and winning makes you uncomfortable, and you would like to see more emphasis given to participation than placings, and you think that breaking the linkage between winning and money would reduce cheating, you might well ask: how might it done differently?

4.

Your author is currently reading a light-hearted but nonetheless interesting book, the latest from Alain de Botton called ‘Religion for Atheists’. As the blurb says, the books suggests “that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.” A subsequent post to this one will explore this theme further and, somewhat tentatively, argue that cycling has already stolen ideas from religion and may indeed be a ‘religion’ itself. Whether this argument can be encapsulated in the spectrum model outlined above remains to be seen.

Ullrich concedes to the superior climbing of Armstrong

Should camaraderie be more important than competition?

2 thoughts on “The spectrums of cycling

  1. Cycling, as a sport, and its core events, have been invented in order to get mor public for some media. So, cycling nver was a “proper sport for sport’s sake. Always has been spectacle, that’s a pro far the “arts”side…

    Thx for sharing your insights.

    Gretz, svenski.

  2. A pox on the sordid sciences and on the pale arts. I have no patience with either. I shun the circuses and pity those whose empty lives demand vicarious pleasures. What matters, the only thing that matters, is the spirit of fair play and the courage to live and die for others by our moral code. To those who care, I cry with Newbolt, play the game man, play the game.

    There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
    Ten to make and the match to win—
    A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
    An hour to play and the last man in.
    And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
    Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
    But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
    “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

    The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
    Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
    The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
    And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
    The river of death has brimmed his banks,
    And England’s far, and Honour a name,
    But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
    “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

    This is the word that year by year,
    While in her place the school is set,
    Every one of her sons must hear,
    And none that hears it dare forget.
    This they all with a joyful mind
    Bear through life like a torch in flame,
    And falling fling to the host behind—
    “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

    Vitaï Lampada (1892) – Henry Newbolt (6 June 1862 – 19 April 1938)

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