Monday, July 11, 2011

Why I Am Not An Athlete

I recently picked up a book that I bought many moons ago at a closing Borders entitled The Non-Cyclist's Guide to the Century and Other Road Races by Dawn Dais. In retrospect, I should have known that it wasn't going to be a book written for me due to the presence of the word "race" in the title, but the cover had a cute ladies' bike and it was only like eight bucks, so why not. In the process of flipping through it to discover whether I was going to read it cover to cover, it brought up a lot of feelings I have regarding cycling for sport; namely, why I don't do it.

I have nothing against people treating cycling as a sport per se. And in some respects, I treat it as one too: probably around half of my riding isn't strictly necessary, i.e. not a grocery run or a doctor's appointment or meetings with friends. Sometimes I travel to a further place instead of a closer one, sometimes I go out without any destination in mind at all. And yes, cycling is great exercise: pound for pound it's not as effective as running or swimming, but in my opinion it's way more fun than either of those things. Also, I have this weird mental block surrounding exercise where I don't want to do something unless it's in some way "practical," even if this practicality is a stretch. I can't exactly run to work or to a fancy dinner party, can I? I can't swim to Target! Yet I will happily bike six miles to a distant coffee shop instead of walking less than a mile to the closest one, because that's "practical." I am probably insane.

So, anyway, problems with athletic cycling--GO! First, there is the equipment. Some of the things Dais recommends as a "probably should have" are: cycling shorts (which can easily cost over $75 for one pair), special shoes, special gloves, and a whole lot of other stuff that seems to be obscenely overpriced. And, of course, a racing bike, some of which can easily cost a grand and up. Talk about your barriers to entry! Then there are the century races themselves, which usually cost money to enter, and are often held (at least, most races here in MD... not that I'm ready for a century but I've looked for others) at places I can't bike to, which is a no-go for me due to the irrational hang-up discussed in the last paragraph.

Another beef I have is that many (again I'm generalizing based on what I've read online and seen in person) athletes are terrified of riding with traffic. Simply terrified! And while I don't want to discount someone's fears, because lord knows I have my own, this is an attitude that I don't understand, especially when the athlete is also a driver. It's the same road, the same rules, except you're going much, much faster. If anything, driving should be the terrifying activity, and that's certainly how it feels for me. But take someone out of their giant tank, and they turn into a wuss. Just like a gun owner, the "weekend warrior" feels helpless without their weapon. And as someone who is endangered (both as a pedestrian and a cyclist) by cars, it is hard not to feel perturbed by this "roads are dangerous!" nonsense. Yes, they're dangerous--because of you!

Probably my main objection to sport cycling, though, is because these athletes by and large aren't doing anything to increase the accessibility of roads for those of us who use our bikes for transportation as well as to "feel the burn." In fact, some of them lobby against riding for transportation. How many times have you been flipped off or called a jackass by someone with bikes (usually much fancier and more expensive than your own bike) strapped to the back of their SUV? When I think "athlete cyclist," I think of folks like that, folks that will drive five miles to get to a nice safe path and think transportation riders are losers. This is probably definitely not a fair assumption to make, but it's the one I make.

In the end, I guess it's dumb to have an anti-sport cycling bias, as dumb as a driver in a Ford Focus hating someone in a Formula One racer for not caring about their needs. We are doing completely different things, the athletes and myself. But biking is marginalized in a way that driving will never be in America, so it's hard to not see athletic cyclists who drive short distances as part of the problem. Truthfully, I get angrier at them than at your average driver, because they have both the physical strength and the equipment to ride a bike for transportation and they... don't. So close, and yet so far.


  1. My husband recently took up triathlons, and the cycling part of it has been ridiculous in terms of expense. He bought a used racing bike and a pair of triathlon bike shorts on sale and even those things were super expensive! And then we go to shops or expos, where bikes that cost $3K are being sold along with all kinds of gadgets like bars that let you lean over and aerodynamic helmets and even these contraptions that let you pedal in place to warm up your legs before a race. There's a reason why the average income of a triathlete is in the six figures, because most people who make less than that can't afford it! (And don't start me on the shadiness of a sport that allows a person to buy major improvements in performance simply through investment in equipment...) I've heard people complain that running is too expensive, but at least it's something you can do with a $40 pair of shoes and a decent jog bra.

    As for practical bike riding, I'd be more inclined to ride a bike as transportation if a) my city had anything approaching reasonable infrastructure for bikes and b) it didn't dump monsoon levels of rain every day for six months out of the year.

  2. Oh, the prices are insane. And I'm also not convinced that the extra expense is worth it... obviously a light racing bike will go faster and be more appropriate for a race than a hybrid, but does a four-ounce weight difference really matter? Does a minor adjustment in handlebars really matter? The answer to these things is probably YES, but still it's something like a thousandth of a second. I can't see spending that kind of money and attention on a sport, not my idea of fun. Although I do want to do a century at some point, at my own pace.

    As far as transportation goes, I hate harping on this but if you don't have the option to drive, you FIND infrastructure. I know from friends in Florida that it sucks for bikes even in the big cities, which is part of why I'd never live there. But I live in suburbia and manage to ride for almost all my daily transportation, and I'm no superheroine. (Although, to be fair, we ARE moving into Baltimore, partially because I'm so miserable here for transportation reasons.) If you--not you specifically but generic you--woke up one day with extreme myopia or epilepsy you'd HAVE to find a way to make it work, and it is the tragedy of sprawl that people with disabilities, or economic reasons for not driving, or hell, people who just don't LIKE it, are forced out of certain places or forced to find/make our own infrastructure. Humans are nothing if not adaptable, though. But hey, as long as you're not the kind of person who screams at bikers and cuts them off, that's better than nothing. :)

  3. Oh dude, never. I was actually once hit by a truck while riding my bike, and while I wasn't hurt badly, it scared the living fuck out of me, so I am super courteous and aware of cyclists around me.

    I would actually love to be able to ride my bike and not drive except in certain circumstances, because like you I hate cars and find them scary and damaging. I had that once, for about a year, when I lived downtown and could get just about everywhere I needed to go while on my bike (although the times I got caught in downpours totally blew). But yeah, Florida is the worst for it, even without taking the nightmarish sprawl into consideration.

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