The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia

“To clarify, drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity. At least 4 in the top 10 on GC were in tears today. That’s drama.”

— Cycling journalist Neal Rogers on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

Stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia was when it all blew apart. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had been in the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, for the best part of the week, and had been looking unbeatable. He looked in control, cool and calm, and with a three minute lead over his nearest rival, it was said that “only a crash or major mishap” would keep him from winning the Giro.

Alack, Murphy’s law. The riders crested the first major climb of the day, the Colle dell’Agnello, in heavy mist, entering France from Italy. And then, a major crash and mishap. Kruijswijk misjudged his speed, entered a corner too fast, had his balance wrong, and couldn’t recover. He crashed hard into a bank of ice, flipping over his handlebars and landing heavily. He immediately leapt up, and put his hand to his helmet in disbelief. For the first time in the entire Giro, Kruijswijk looked anything but calm and collected, which was unsurprising after what was a very heavy fall. He struggled to straighten his bike and put his chain back on, eventually managing but having to stop again a few yards later as something was still clearly wrong with the bike. His rivals all passed him and accelerated to build a lead. By the end of the day, Kruijswijk would cross the finish line almost five minutes after his nearest rival on the general classification, losing what had seemed a practically secured maglia rosa.

Was it fair that his rivals took advantage of a crash? Social media was divided on this very point. The consensus seemed to be that this was not so much misfortune as misjudgement. Descending is a part of cycling, a skill like those that had put Kruijswijk in the pink jersey in the first place, and he was found wanting. That’s what bike racing is all about.

Esteban Chaves cried as he crossed the finish line knowing he would wear the pink jersey the next day. Vincenzo Nibali cried as he crossed the line, winning the stage after a few tough days of poor performance. Alejandro Valverde was disappointed as he fell off the podium positions after losing so much time to Nibali. And Ilnur Zakarin, who had been performing wonderfully during the Giro, ended the day in hospital after a brutal crash on a descent.

Such was the drama of a single day’s cycling of a 21-stage grand tour.

Neal Rogers’ tweet above perfectly captured the day. It captured why fans had cried, too, seeing an injured, shaken, embarrassed and oh-so-disappointed Kruijswijk cross the line. He had to ride past thousands of fans on the rest of the day’s stage. There was no hiding for him, and he had to face both Esteban Chaves, the new holder of the maglia rosa after the stage, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, the stage winner and ultimately the Giro winner. Raw emotion all around. These may be incredible athletes, but they have emotions just like anyone else.

That’s why sport grips the imagination in a way that movies seem these days not to. We know the ending of a movie before its done; they are so formulaic and scripted by Hollywood and other industries. In sport, it isn’t over until it’s over. Tears are real, as are the full range of human emotions in a single day—pride and excitement to begin, embarrassment and disappointment to end.

All this, playing out on some of the most beautiful and poignant mountains in the world. The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity. It is drama, but in that drama is some central element of being human.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing

Apology for IdlersI wrote recently of my experience learning how to do nothing. The essay came out of my experiences after being involved in a high-speed crash during a bicycle race, and receiving a concussion. For the next two weeks the doctor’s orders were to have cognitive rest, to literally do nothing—no reading, no phone, no computer, no intense conversations.

What I should have done during that period, however, was have someone read to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers.

While writing my own essay, I struggled with how to refer to “doing nothing”. I ended up referring to it as both doing nothing nothing—to be differentiated from doing nothing singular, which is lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram—as well as daydreaming.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is writing about doing nothing singular. And through doing so, he discusses how to escape the cult of busy—which is not so new a phenomenon after all—as well as why we should all take time to be idle. He touches also on the purpose of education and how it can come about as much through idleness as through books and classes, as well as the traps of living your life in pursuit of others peoples’ measures of success.

“Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”

He is careful to point out that doing nothing is not always preferable to doing something; but his task is to point out its advantages at certain times.

“The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be eat to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

We so often think of reading a book as doing nothing and relaxing, but Stevenson complicates this idea. His version of doing nothing requires escaping altogether the notion of productivity, including consuming knowledge. This is one answer to the conversation I had with a good friend about whether we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it.

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallot, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bust and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thought.”

Idleness—those “vivid, instructive hours of truantry”—is the best education we can get. In an echo of the character Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which was published just four or so years before his essay), Stevenson hilariously enlists Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting a young truant to illustrate the point:

“”Hey now, young fellow, what dost thou here?”

“Truly, sir, I take mine ease.”

“Is not this the hour of the class? and should’st thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?

“Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”

“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Is it metaphysics?”

“Nor that.”

“Is it some language?”

“Nay, it is no language.”

“Is it a trade?”

“Nor a trade neither.”

“Why, then, what is’t?”

“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.”

Idleness, in itself, can be a vital education in the “art of living”:

“Many who have ‘plied their book diligently’, and know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry, stockist, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life. Many make a larger fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them—by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living?”

Stevenson wrote this essay in 1876. He discusses exactly the “cult of busy” that so many, the New York Times included, have taken to be a modern phenomenon, and explains how idleness is a way out of the trap. This is perhaps his most important passage of the essay, dealing really with how people choose to live their lives.

“Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desks or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

Stevenson warns all students of the dangers of filling your life with so much busyness that you cannot focus on what is really important. He explains how conventional success is determined in society, and why students should be sceptical of that image.

These people “Have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train… This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.”

Stevenson ends with a warning to all who are young on what they might be giving up by pursuing a single measure of success through continual hard work, books and study. In practical terms, this is a comparison of different education systems—those that focus on work twelve or more hours a day, versus those that focus on life and practical skills—as well as a plea for taking time off to discover your own standards of success.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

Stevenson’s essay is an important one to read to see through the day-to-day traps and vanities of work and productivity. It is an extreme view, but Stevenson himself admits that; his purpose was not to persuade anyone of complete idleness, but to present the other side of the story that young people are so rarely told. His ideal is a middle way between productivity and idleness—and in that way, we would be able to ensure that our productive time is spent on activities whose ends we actually want to be pursuing.

 

Thanks to my friend Tamara for recommending the collection of Stevenson’s essays.

What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life

“This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College. May 21, 2005.

One of the questions faced these days by anyone giving a commencement address is whether to speak to the graduating seniors in the crowd before you, or whether to speak to the potential millions on YouTube. Many of these potential listeners in all parts of the world may be younger, perhaps just starting college, and your speech could come at just the right time to nudge their life in a slightly different direction—to make them conscious of their education, conscious of something important.

David Foster Wallace tried to speak to both at once. He spoke, to the graduating seniors before him, of the “the day to day trenches of adult existence” they were about to encounter. But he also spoke of the education they had just completed—the education they could not re-do, but could only try to make some sense of. This latter part of his speech is most important to those about to enter college. It is an ideal high school commencement address.

This is one of the paradoxes of Wallace’s commencement address. To have listened to his speech as a graduating senior, and to be told, perhaps for the first time, what my education was really about, would have struck me with a debilitating frustration. To go back and read those books again, and to have all those conversations again, with the knowledge that this all dealt with the most central aspect of existence might’ve put many of those seniors on very different life paths. But here they were being told about the “trenches” of existence, and what “day in day out” really means, perhaps without having ever realised what those four years at college had been for, how they could have limited the time they might spend in those trenches.

I was lucky enough to have been sent Wallace’s speech before entering college—and it was also sent to all students by Yale-NUS College’s Dean of Students the day before classes began in freshman year. This is how Wallace spoke to far more than those seated before him. And for all these people, the millions who listen to his speech online, understanding the meaning of their liberal education before entering college might have some immense effect.

It’s like in those sci-fi stories about an asteroid heading straight towards Earth, threatening human existence. Nudge the asteroid by even half a millimetre early enough (using a missile or something), and it will comfortably miss Earth. But leave it too late, until the asteroid is far closer to Earth, and the force required to knock it off its course might just be too great to be possible.

That’s the time value of experience. That’s also the power of writing and of speaking.

I didn’t properly grasp Wallace’s This is Water speech when I first read it, nor when I was sent it in freshman year. In fact, I’m sure I don’t grasp much of it even now. But from the start it gave me the sense that my education was about something larger. I felt then that it was about more than just a job and a career. It was this sense that let me push back when I was incentivised to connect my dots looking forward, and it has led to a fundamentally different college experience. As Wallace said, it has also let me learn how to give meaning to experiences.

The speech has also provided a reference point with which to understand my education. Each time I read it, I understand a little bit more of what Wallace was trying to get at. And I have no doubt that same will continue to happen for much of my adult life.

The Time Value of Experience

Note: I wrote this in mid 2011, when I was still 16 and in my penultimate year of high school. I might re-write it someday, but I feel the idea is important enough to make it worthwhile re-posting the original. The project I mention at the end, “They Don’t Teach You This In School”, was about creating an archive of life lessons and experiences through one minute videos asking people the question, “What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you had known when you were younger?”

You’ve no doubt heard of the Time Value of Money, a theory that explains how the value of a dollar in your pocket today is more than the value of that dollar if you receive it tomorrow. If you own that dollar right now, you have the opportunity to receive interest on it before tomorrow, which means that the dollar is more valuable to you by the amount of the interest that you receive before tomorrow (and tomorrow can represent any date in the future).

The Time Value of Money theory is the basis of fundamental finance and economics. It explains the core reasoning behind why people act rationally with regard to money and how people make investment decisions. There is no arguing with the importance of this theory in our society.

I propose that there is another theory which is arguably more important than the Time Value of Money. It’s a theory that is relatively obvious, but often forgotten. The theory explains the core reasoning behind how we act, and how we make decisions in life. And because it encompasses much more than money, it’s something that people should be made aware of, so that they don’t forget it.

Let’s call it the Time Value of Experience. It describes how experiences we have are more valuable the earlier that we have them, because those experiences can then be applied to all other parts of our lives in the future. It’s about knowledge and lessons that we’ve learned – so perhaps those terms are interchangeable.

If I make a mistake today – let’s say I screw up a negotiation with someone, or make a bad decision – then the lessons that I’ve learned through this experience are valuable, as they help me to avoid making similar mistakes in the future when perhaps the stakes are higher. By making these mistakes today, that experience is more valuable than if I made the mistake tomorrow because I’ve had a day with which to apply that experience to my life. Later that day, I may have avoided making a similar mistake because I already made the mistake earlier that day.

Therefore, experiences that I have today are more valuable than that same experience tomorrow by the difference of mistakes that I would’ve made before tomorrow if I hadn’t gained that experience today.

Obviously, the Time Value of Experience is not as easy to measure as the Time Value of Money. It’s intangible, and non-numerical. But by being aware of this theory, we can attempt to gain as many experiences as we can, as soon as possible.

This theory explains why many entrepreneurs love making mistakes, and look upon mistakes as a huge achievement. By screwing up, you’ve successfully gained experience and knowledge which you can apply to everything you try in the future.

The Time Value of Experience also helps me to explain the importance and value of my project They Don’t Teach You This In School. If people can pass on their knowledge and experiences through TDTYTIS, then young people can learn from that right now and benefit from it into the future. On the other hand, if the only way for someone to learn something is through personal experience, then society is slowed down because everyone is making mistakes that could be avoided.

I believe everyone should bear in mind the Time Value of Experience. You should try do gain as much experience as you can in whatever it is you do every single day, because that experience is more valuable the sooner you gain it.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

Why Do We Take Such Great Risks for Sport?

The crash was bad, but not so bad as to be unusual for bike racing. The speeds were high but not as high as they could have been, and because it was a pile-up many of the riders avoided road rash, the sandpapering of bodies as skin meets tarmac. It happened on a controlled course with barriers, meaning lower risk than if the crash had happened on an alpine descent during the Tour de France. What was frustrating about it, however, was the cause: a motorbike, meant to be leading the race, had stalled right in the middle of the narrow course. The riders at the front who could see further ahead were able to avoid it, but those further back couldn’t see beyond the rider in front to make out the hazard. The video doing the rounds online shows a few close calls, and then another rider tries to dodge the moto at the very last second but can’t avoid it, crashing hard to its left and to the right of the course hoardings. Other riders, with nowhere to go, crash right into him on the ground again and again and again. Another video, this one with sound, gives viewers the full experience of snapping, crunching, cracking carbon and the gasps of horror and fascination from the spectators behind the barriers. I’m talking, for those who haven’t seen the videos, about the recent crash at the 2016 Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn, New York.

The cycling world normally seems to exist entirely separately to the one most people inhabit. (I was tempted to write “the one most of us inhabit”, but a glance down at my shaven legs suggests that wouldn’t be quite honest). Yet ever so often the two worlds meet. Most often this takes the form of skirmishes between cyclists and drivers, both of course having good intentions but viewing roads as serving two different functions. Sometimes these tussles are brutal enough, crazy enough, or sufficiently vitriolic for the media to pay attention. At this point anyone with enough sense to see both sides of the argument would be best to avoid the comments section of any website covering the fracas.

The other time the two worlds meet is when a member of the media happens to be reminded of cyclists’ apparent insanity, and decides to spread the word. Global media recently covered a New Zealand cafe that decided to ban lycra-wearing customers, out of fear of what “unseemly bulges” might do for young patrons. And then, of course, there are the crashes, which beg the obvious question of who in their right mind would race bikes like that? A selection of the global media’s headlines for the Red Hook Crit crash include, for instance, “SEE IT: Brooklyn 30k bike race forced to restart after crazy crash — ‘Bicycle wheels and parts were flying over spectators’ heads’”; “Stalled motorbike causes massive cyclist pile-up”; and “Watch: Stalled motorcyclist causes mass cycling crash”. The headlines are written for the general public and pit cyclists and non-cyclists against one another in a clash of civilisation and sanity. Inclusion of details like “a 30k bike race”, marking the article as clearly written by a non-cyclist, immediately alienate cyclists who know that in that kind of race the distance is almost entirely beside the point.

In any case, as many of my non-cyclist friends have watched the Red Hook video over the past few days I’ve become an object of fascination. Having just come out of a 65kph pileup myself a couple of weeks ago, I’m all too aware of the dangers of the sport and what a crash like that is like.

David Foster Wallace described Federer Moments in tennis, when “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” I’ve never had the cyclist’s equivalent of a Federer Moment and I think that that’s because for us they don’t exist. A win is created throughout a race, never in a single moment as with a match-deciding touch of a ball to a racquet. There are therefore no individual moments that can be replayed on YouTube. To watch a rider crossing the finish line hardly gives a sense of excitement or beauty, as it will demonstrate nothing of how the race was won, the strategy and tactics and struggles that led to the victory.

The only moments talked about in cycling are crashes. They are the only events of the sport that can be shared in a brief video or discussed in a moment. All else is detail—the battles taking place over sometimes thousands of kilometres, the knowledge required of inter and intra-team rivalries that give meaning to decisions taken during a 200km stage, and the way that riders can be competing for first and second despite being kilometres apart from one another on the road. Detail is impossible to display on TV, let alone in a thirty second viral video. And yet it is what makes the sport. It is what lets those who have been cyclists for years discover new aspects to their sport every year.

I think the world of difference between games and sports stems from this presence or absence of a single moment to be replayed afterwards. That sentence might strike some as odd—aren’t games sports, too? Yes, but I don’t have a word to describe sports that aren’t games. They are all racing sports, but for me that doesn’t quite encapsulate it. So I shall have to make do with an inaccurate usage of the word “sport”. Games live for the event, sports for the detail. Games can be replayed by the “scoring” of points, the spectacle of tries, touchdowns, goals, shots. Sports must have their results explained, and sometimes this is impossible to do in its entirety, or at the very least could only be done in a full-length book. It strikes me as odd that no such individual word exists for these sports, as it is a crucial line of separation from mere games. “One plays football, or tennis, or hockey. One doesn’t play at cycling”, said Jean de Gribaldy, French cyclist of the 40s and 50s.

Stage 16 from the 2015 Giro d’Italia was my cycling equivalent of a Federer Moment. Or rather, it showed how there can be no such thing as a Federer Moment.

The stage was one of the more mountainous of the whole Giro, with the riders to complete over 4,500m of elevation gain—over half the height of Mt Everest. The weather was fine for the riders on the day of the stage, which had always been a worry after a perilous stage 16 of the 2013 Giro, when race organisers were forced to escort riders on a descent. Alberto Contador—32 year old Spaniard, one of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours (the Italian, French and Spanish), convicted doper—was in the leader’s jersey, the maglia rosa or pink jersey, with a two-minutes and thirty-five second lead over his nearest rival as stage 16 began. By this point the riders had already covered roughly 2,000km of at times mountainous terrain in two weeks, which in Grand Tour terms is when leaders’ exertions can start to catch up with them. Whoever had the best legs after a week of racing may not necessarily have them after two. Contador’s main rival was Fabio Aru, a 24 year old Sardinian riding for ProTeam Astana, the Kazakh team. Just before the Giro, Astana had come close to being stripped of their license to race due to a variety of doping allegations. The riders were there at the race, but had a constantly suspicious eye turned their way, which prompted many to say they were riding to prove themselves. Mikel Landa, Aru’s teammate, was in fourth place on the general classifications standing at the start of stage 16, two minutes and 11 seconds down on Aru and four minutes forty-six seconds down on Contador. He was looking strong, having won the stage the day before, but would be riding to serve his teammate Aru, unable to himself attack or go for the stage win.

After 100km of racing the peloton was still together. And then Contador’s tyre punctured. Here we need to step back a bit. Were I to show you a video of the event of Contador’s tyre getting a puncture you would see nothing of interest. You could hardly see anything, in fact—just Contador slowly coming to a halt and waving his arm up for the team car to deliver him a new wheel. It isn’t even worth watching. But it is what the event represents in the scheme of the day’s racing—and not just the day’s race, but the week’s, and the entire tour’s, and in terms of Contador’s mission to prove himself again after losing his previous Tour title after his doping ban—that makes it so crucial. And we can’t even just look at this Giro. We need to go back to stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France, when Contador was battling Andy Schleck on a hors categorie—literally, beyond classification because it is so steep—climb. The two riders were on their limit, riding mano a mano in one of the duels all cycling fans live to watch, with Schleck in the yellow leader’s jersey but Contador only seconds behind him overall. Schleck’s chain drops off just 3km before the end of the stage, forcing him to dismount his bike to put it back on. Contador accelerates away from him, gaining enough time over the next 3km to take the yellow jersey off Schleck.

After the stage, Schleck was understandably not happy. Contador didn’t show “fair play”, he said: “In the same situation I would not have taken advantage.” Contador for his part denied wrongdoing: “I know it’s delicate situation, I know there are complicated parts, but at the moment I attacked I didn’t know what happened, I knew after, I was already in the lead.” That day stood for the unwritten rules of cycling and the age-old debate about the role of mechanical mishaps—whether they are fair game to be taken advantage of, or whether opponents should slow down in the event that their primary competition is afflicted by an untimely issue out of their control. In this case, anyway, Contador was largely seen to be in the wrong. But that didn’t change the fact that he rolled to the start of the next day’s stage in yellow.

Often in cycling you must choose between winning and being a good human being. What do you decide when you are on your limits? What do you decide when you aren’t able to think clearly, when all strategy has been thrown out, and you are left with a single second to decide what to do? Racing lets you see yourself more clearly than in everyday life, and it lets you learn about human nature and the relationship between ambition and morality. Contador gave his answer, just as his opponents in the Giro are about to give theirs.

Back to the Giro. Contador had just flatted. And as he waits for his team car to get him on another bike and back into the race, we see teams Katusha and Astana speed up. Was their decision to push the pace just coincidental timing? Maybe, maybe not. Just as with Contador in the 2010 Tour, actions usually speak louder than words. But the parallel to Contador’s own decision to accelerate in the face of another’s misfortune was readily visible, meaning he couldn’t easily appeal to the court of public opinion. By the time Contador is back on his bike with his team in full damage-control mode, pacing him back to the bunch, he is over 50 seconds behind his main rivals, Aru and Landa. A gap like that alone at the finish line would have threatened Contador’s lead, leaving him vulnerable in future stages, but with a climb as difficult as the infamous Mortirolo still to come on the day’s stage, 50 seconds could easily have blown out to minutes. Not only was Contador not in the running for the stage win, but he risked losing the maglia rosa. He risked losing the Giro, and therefore not even getting the chance to compete for his stated goal of the GiroTour de France ‘double’.

Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team paces him well to the bottom of the Mortirolo climb, but they’re not moving nearly fast enough to catch him up to Aru and Landa during it. Contador has to decide: conserve energy by sticking with his teammates but risk not ever catching the others, or go it alone in an all-out effort? He has to think not only of whether he will have enough energy to catch Aru and Landa and stay with them on today’s stage, but also how his efforts might cost him on the next four stages before the end of the Giro. He reaches the bottom of the climb and accelerates away from his own teammates. He puts his head down, looking frequently at his power meter to ensure he doesn’t consume too much energy too early and burn out before the top. He eats a gel, takes a drink. Contador is majestic to watch, thrusting each side of his body up and away from the pedal one after another, his elbows close to his body and his feet literally dancing on his pedals. He sits down occasionally to recuperate, but he prefers to ride out of the saddle, seeming most comfortable when weaving his front wheel in and out across the road in time with the motions of his body. He passes practically the whole peloton on the way up, giving them no thought. A fellow Spaniard in a different team takes a few minutes to lead him up and let him gain any rest he can.

All this is playing out on a vast mountain in the Italian alps, the largest stadium in the world with fans lining the roadside the entire way up. Fans run alongside the riders, able to keep up easily because the road is so steep, offering words of encouragement. Contador occasionally offers a nod of thanks.

And then he can see them. Around just one corner they’re visible—Aru, Landa, and Steven Kruijswijk of team LottoNL-Jumbo. It has been thirty minutes or so of Contador in ‘time trial mode’, himself against the clock and his own numbers to try to reach his rivals. Even keen cyclists rarely watch thirty minutes of a five hour race, and even if they did it would likely be the final 30 kilometres—not, as here, almost 50 from the time Contador reached the base of the climb, or closer to 75 from the time he punctured. And yet all of this time is necessary to understand what’s really at stake in the race, how this manifestation of the sport is actually playing out.

But before Contador reaches Aru and Landa, there’s another battle going on. This one is less visible, because it technically shouldn’t happen. Aru is meant to have it easy, with his domestique Landa pacing him up the climb—all he has to do is sit behind Landa’s wheel, with Landa taking care of measuring their pace relative to power and a whole combination of other factors. But what’s becoming apparent is that Aru is struggling. At points Aru cannot even hold onto his teammate’s wheel, dropping back a few wheel lengths and then fighting desperately to get back. He starts weaving around the road, his mouth wide open to suck in more oxygen, all the while Landa looks perfectly measured, his face still calm and his mouth remaining closed. With Landa having won the stage the day before, people were starting to wonder: should Astana have picked Landa instead of Aru to lead the team? In other words, should it be Aru serving Landa rather than the other way around?

As Contador rounds a corner and catches the three riders these many details come to intersect all at once. Contador testing himself up the climb; Contador trying to catch those who took advantage of his mechanical; Contador versus Aru today; Contador versus Aru overall in the Giro; Tinkoff versus Astana; Aru’s battle with his own teammate Landa; Kruijswijk’s desire to crest the climb first to gain King of the Mountains classification points. These contests are all nested in one another, and are being played out between every rider and every team in the race. Nothing shown in a replay on TV can capture its complexity, or the beauty in the nested dilemmas of the sport.

Contador catches them, takes a couple of minutes to catch his breath, and then attacks again, speeding past Aru and Landa. As he passes Aru he looks back for a split second with a stare that says everything: you took advantage of my misfortune but you gave me the willpower to do this. Do you have what it takes? Aru cracks—he simply cannot respond. And that stare speaks both for Contador’s battle with Aru, as well as Aru’s battle with Landa. Aru knows his leadership of the Astana team is on the line in this moment. Next second we see Landa accelerating away from Aru to catch Contador—his directeur sportif had told him over race radio that he was free to ride for himself, to stop serving Aru and go after the win. Aru from here seems at times to be tearful while dragging himself up the mountain alone, and the rest of his race is a battle against himself to limit his time loss not against Contador, but against his own teammate. I’ll cut the story short here. These are the most prominent narratives of detail running throughout this stage, but every rider and every team will have equally fascinating and complex stories to tell.

A criterium, or ‘crit’, is a style of racing that almost seems invented to create cycling moments. In other words, crashes. Unlike a road race which takes place usually over hundreds of kilometres of open road, a criterium involves a set number of laps of a short course with tight corners, very often a city block. ‘Prime’ laps (pronounced “preem”) are announced by the ringing of a bell, informing riders that the person to pass through the finish line next will win additional points and sometimes a cash prize. Overall honours for a crit are awarded to the first three to cross the line after the full number of laps are completed. It is not the distance that makes these races what they are, but the sheer speed and the constant acceleration required as riders come out of the frequent corners. Looking at a rider’s heart rate or power data from a crit will show they were using their maximum capacity for the duration.

You can tell what kind of racing a cyclist will be good at by just one look at them. Crit riders are usually taller and heavier, denoting bigger muscles. They can put immense power down for relatively short periods of time. By contrast, a good climber in a road race will be shorter and leaner, with muscles that bulge less, aside from the upper part of the calf. They have a better ‘power to weight ratio’. On the flat roads of a crit, weight is relatively unimportant. What matters most is that riders have an ability to put down large amounts of power, which means bigger muscles, which means higher weight. But when the road starts to slope upwards, gravity starts to matter, and here what is more important than objective strength is how a rider’s strength relates to their weight. Climbers won’t be able to put down anywhere near as much power as a ‘200lb crit monster’, as they are sometimes called, but the relationship of the power they can put out relative to their own weight means they will reach the top of the hill significantly faster. The steeper the gradient, the more this matters, which is why riders like the five-foot-five Colombian Nairo Quintana excels in the steepest mountain stages of the Grand Tours.

The incidence of crashes in criteriums is higher than in road races because of the speeds, continual tight corners, and usually narrow course. The crash at the Red Hook Crit wasn’t particularly unusual aside from the involvement of a motorbike, which are more of a hazard during road races where they often need to pass riders. The video looked devastating, and my non-cyclist friends could hardly believe their eyes. The question was always why, why, why? Why would you enter a race knowing that a crash like that is likely? It’s a legitimate question, one I’ve asked myself many times after crashing in a similarly bad pile-up. But ultimately, the question probably misses the point.

Loving a sport means you see something where others see nothing. Where we cyclists see and speak of litheness and souplesse, others see emaciation and someone riding their bike. Racing a bike can look easy, but where some see a group of riders going for a spin through some beautiful French countryside or around a course in Brooklyn, I see humans struggling to overcome what their bodies are telling them they cannot do. I see a group humans at the foot of an immense mountain and can feel scared for them, knowing the burning pain about to wash its way through their bodies, knowing the way their minds will one second say ‘you can’t’ and the next will say ‘you must’, all the way up the mountain. I see the irony in a spectator yelling “move up” to a rider in a crit, while their body is on fire, wanting to get off the bike rather than exert even more. Even the grimaces on their faces cannot describe the pain they are going through, and I feel uplifted for seeing the way Contador rode up that mountain alone, overcoming every bit of that “you can’t” in his head—and I can feel Aru’s humiliation, Landa’s veiled pleasure, the year’s worth of emotion coming out in mere minutes.

But pain of an impact is something everyone can feel. The universal horror of seeing the Red Hook Crit crash shows how this kind of empathy is automatic, where empathy for the pain of riders as they climb a mountain isn’t. Even cyclists recoil from a phone screen after watching the video, and can wonder why they race bikes when the risks are so high. But that question of why, why, why would you race your bike is not unique to cycling. Why would someone scale a rock face without a harness? Why would someone throw themselves out of a plane? Why would someone snowboard down a mountain and do backflips on the way? I don’t understand anything of what drives people to take risks for those sports, yet I go and race my bike in a crit and watch people crash all around me, even to be taken out myself. There is something universal here in the psychology of what drives athletes.

David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on Federer that “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war… It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

I think we all reconcile with that in different ways. For me it has been coming to realise that my physical body has a counterpart to the years of mental growth through my education. I’ve come to realise that in the physical world, nothing can be rushed. In the physical world time plays its own part. Quit your job and train at cycling or running or whatever sport you wish every day for a year and you will still never be as good as if you trained methodically over two years. More than any intensive training it is simply miles, or “time in the chamois”, that leads to the physical changes needed to improve as a cyclist. I still notice my legs changing shape as months go by, my upper body diminishing to make me more efficient on the bike, the quantity of food I need to consume adjusting as my gut is also made more efficient. And I know that time will also play its part to eventually take all this away from me. I see older men on recumbents in the gym, still intent on spinning their legs but no longer with the ability to ride upright. Their legs still bear the remaining signs of decades spent shaping muscles to ride a bicycle, but each year will continue to take that away.

The risk of sport is an integral part of this reconciliation with having bodies. Bodies are fragile. Flesh can be scraped off, bones break. Bodies also heal. Risk in sport is not desirable, but it is an unavoidable part. And those of us who have a sport are willing to take the risks we do because it shows us that although our bodies can do all sorts of amazing things, they mustn’t be taken for granted. If youth is wasted on the young, sport might go some way towards alleviating that waste through the individual recognition that bodies aren’t uniform and nor are they infinite. A misjudgement of the mind has consequences for the body.

The beauty I see in cycling lies in part in physical aesthetic, in aerodynamic bicycles, glistening muscles, perfect roads and snow-capped mountains. It is also in part the beauty of mental battles, the metaphor of struggling and overcoming. Sport is so much more than a body doing what bodies should not be able to do. It is not just about physical perfection so great that it plays out on the court or field as transcendence. It is all of that, but that is not it. What a bike crash shows us is that whatever beauty we find in sport, and however that sport leads us to reconcile with our having bodies, is different for all of us. Through sport bodies become both mortal and immortal. The attempt to reduce a group of athletes to being seen as suicidal idiots must be resisted for precisely the reason that watching Federer can come to be seen as a religious experience.

An event like the Red Hook Crit crash is, on the one hand, entirely insignificant. The riders involved are faceless, the whole thing over in just a few seconds. Its details, though, are timeless. To see beautiful and powerful bodies made vulnerable to the whims of a stalled motorbike is to feel fearful and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.