The republican qualities of cycling

NBike OutEveryone that has ever served on a committee knows the frustrations of trying to establish a legitimate, healthy compromise to the most difficult items on an agenda. People typically weigh in with all sorts of opinions. In the end, the committee members vote and something gets decided. But it can be a painful process.

Cycling by committee

Some cycling rides are just like a committee. They start out with what seems like a clear idea, but the group is undermined with hidden agendas.

Riders express their opinions through their pedals. Other riders answer back, giving their opinions as well. Sometimes there are a couple “committee leaders” who stay up front for long pulls. Other riders linger in back trying to hang on. Others save themselves for late committee heroics. Almost everyone hates those people.

Peloton politics

Even the peloton in large professional races has its committees. Typically a rider or a group of riders will press their agenda that day by going “off the front” to see if they can “stay away” the entire stage. Rarely does this work, but people still try it because the benefits of riding ahead or in a small group include exposure for the team sponsor.

peter-sagan-2013-no-hands-wheelie-resized.jpgA very few riders might ride for the right to say “I led a stage of the Tour de France for 110 km.” There is always some room for individualism in cycling. That’s why people have long loved the likes of Jens Voigt, and why people root for Peter Sagan to freelance his way to winning sprints by jumping on the trains of other teams. It takes amazing cycling talent and fantastic bike handling to do what he does. Sagan is like a middle finger shoved in the face of the peloton. “Fuck you!” he seems to say.

Committee killer

And who else on this earth can say that? There are committees within the committees of every race. Each team in a stage race has its strategy. They each protect their General Category rider or work to position their sprinter for a win in the last 3Km. The bickering and competition between teams can get quite intense out there on the roads. There is only so much room on the road in major races.

In recent years Tour de France riders have complained the pressure and craziness is so great that it’s not safe to ride certain stages at all. There are moments in every Tour or Giro or Vuelta where it is a matter of survival to simply hold your place on the road. The mere structure of the race in these cases is a committee killer. Tour architects seem to like it that way. But sometimes individual cyclists suffer, get knocked out of contention or even risk their lives as a result. There is a fine balance between sanity and insanity.

The Dictator

A few years back I rode out with a group of cyclists led by a triathlete known for his 26mph average on the bike. Sure enough, he got down in an aero tuck position and blasted away. The rest of us on the “ride committee” that day looked around rather desperately for a wheel to grab. But the lead rider swung to the right of the road even when the wind was coming hard from the left front of the pack.

He was, in other words, “guttering” the bunch of us. Only first one or two riders could manage any sort of draft. The ugliness that followed was like throwing a bunch of Lutherans into a Catholic Mass. No one knew where to hide. The pack shed riders off the back one by one. Devil take the hindmost. It was a cold and lonesome ride home that day.

State your case

That’s all fair if you know that going. There are “drop rides” and “no drop” rides. But nothing was announced before that particular ride. I suppose if you show up and nothing is said, the assumption you can make is that no one is going to wait up for you. Every ride is a drop ride until someone says it’s not.

For these reasons, riding is democratic only in the sense that everyone has essentially the same chance to excel. Beyond that, anything goes. Cycling is an egalitarian yet often merciless sport. Only in club rides where communication is held before the ride do committees of riders have any sway. A really good ride operates more like a republic than a raw democracy or the mob rule of populism. Take a look at the definition of republic and you’ll see what we mean:

re·pub·lic [rəˈpəblik] NOUN
a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.
A cycling group ride can still be a great thing even when it is run by committee or conducted in the fashion of a republic. If riders agree on a goal pace and allow other riders within the group to take pulls and share in the work, everyone knows the expectations and can contribute in their fashion.
Certainly no one expects every cyclist on a ride to be equal in talent or fitness. Some riders will be stronger and do more than their “fair share” of pulls. Most frankly love to do this work. It can give great satisfaction to be fit and “rule the roost” for long stretches with other cyclists in your tow.
But consider the actions of that “dictator” who loved to gutter the group just to prove how strong he was. That has nothing to do with the real qualities of leadership. He satisfied his own ego, for sure. But he sure didn’t build genuine respect from all those he lured into his draft and then punished for trying to stay close.
There are tons of lessons for the rest of life in that example.

 

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in Christopher Cudworth, competition, cycling, cycling the midwest, cycling threats, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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