Letting It Go

After my first season racing in the bitter cold of a New England winter for the Yale Cycling team, it was almost surreal to race yesterday for Yale-NUS in the stifling mugginess of mid-afternoon in Singapore. Singapore’s size and year-round good weather mean if you want to race, you have really no excuse not to; you can ride directly to the course, and if it rains it will be dry and sunny again in a couple of hours. With a fast-growing cycling scene, a few passionate individuals, and a well-run cycling events company in Cycosports, racing here is on the rise.

Cycosports Seletar Aerospace Park CriteriumI competed alongside three others from Yale-NUS in the Cat C criterium, which ran seven laps of a 3.1km course in just under 35 minutes. The course was untraditional in that each lap had five corners; two sweeping turns that could be pedalled through, and then three roundabouts, which required heavier braking and even harder accelerations than a usual four-corner crit. The straights were longer than in other criteriums I’ve raced, making the efforts more varied.

The Oldham Breakfast Cycling Club, a club formed by Anglo-Chinese School alumni, had the numbers with maybe 8 guys in the race. On the first lap they sent someone up the road and almost immediately put four on the front to slow the peloton. Most of the bunch was nervous about putting in too much too early, and were happy to sit up, but I was concerned the gap could grow more quickly than anyone expected with one team dominating. I put in an early effort to chase the lone break, half wondering if the Oldham guys would keep blocking on the bunch and let the two of us work together to form a gap. But after half a lap working with this guy, that wasn’t to be, with Oldham pulling their own guy and me back, clearly intent on setting themselves up for multiple podium placings. Things were tame from then on until the last few laps, with nothing happening but a few half-hearted attacks on the straights which were easily pulled back.

I attacked out of one of the sweeping corners to test what the reaction would be, with three guys from the Roadbrothers team chasing me down straight away. I sat up around five wheels back to recover for the rest of the lap, only to watch as, with just over two laps remaining, one of the guys from Roadbrothers shot off the front at exactly the corner I’d previously tried to attack out of. It was an impressive effort, and I didn’t have it in me to follow; neither did anyone else, and within half a lap he had at least fifteen seconds on everyone.

The final lap was classic crit racing when a bunch realises they left it too late to bring someone back. As the bunch crossed the line with the one-lap-to-go bell ringing, I sprinted off the front to chase, figuring I’d be fresher than the guy out the front and could bring him back. It just wasn’t to be. His lead was too big, and as I got perhaps half-way between him and the bunch I realised my mistake. There was no way I had it in me to go all the way, and my effort was going to cost me in what was now inevitably going to be a bunch sprint for second and third.

Racing highlights parts of our own natures that in everyday life remain hidden; it requires us to confront our limits and the extent of our ambition. What do you decide when you are on your limit? 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 with which to decide? Racing lets you see yourself more clearly than in everyday life because it strips away the mirrors and walls we usually hide behind, and puts your subconscious on a pedestal for you to observe and analyse.

I should’ve known when to let it go; to realise that gold was simply off the table, but that it was still within my abilities to set myself up for a shot at the other podium placings. By focussing solely on first place I didn’t see the obvious, and I then passed up the opportunity for what was next-best. We are taught to “never give up”; but there is a point beyond which continuing to pursue something unattainable is simply rash.

The bunch absorbed me and I hung on somewhere in the middle to cross the line. An impressive race by Roadbrothers, and some nice attempts by Oldham. Thanks to my teammates Aaron, Danny and Zheng Jie who all showed impressive grit, and to everyone else from Yale-NUS who came to support.

Why Do We Commit To Sport?

A friend once asked me why I spend so much time cycling. He could understand spending perhaps forty-five minutes cycling each day, so as to keep fit and keep a good physique. But why would I bother going for such long rides on the weekends, hundreds of kilometres, often solo? What did I achieve by doing that?

I replied by saying, because I enjoy it. Because this time means something to me. Because it helps me in other parts of my life in ways I’ll never understand. Those were the closest I could get to what cycling means to me, but for this friend, these reasons were wholly insufficient. Again, he could understand time spent cycling (or any kind of exercise) up to a point, but unless one was training to be an Olympic athlete (where there are very clear rewards), he simply could not understand what one would get out of devoting so much time to an activity that in the scheme of things doesn’t achieve anything.

This question of what one achieves through running or cycling or any other sport that takes immense commitment is one that seems to sit behind Haruki Murakami’s brief, autobiographical book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On the surface the book traces Murakami’s preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon; it takes us through Hawaii, Japan, Greece and New York City and into Murakami’s early days running and writing in what is written as a personal attempt to understand what running has meant to him.

The obvious summary of the book says that there are certain lessons Murakami took from running that he applied to his writing which allowed him to succeed. Running a marathon is different from running a 10km; the training is different, the body is different, and writing a novel is a marathon, so the lessons Murakami learnt from his training helped him become a successful writer.

“You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of (running) muscles I wrote of a moment ago…” These kinds of lessons are interspersed throughout the book, and make for one kind of reading. But it is, in essence, the point of view of my friend who couldn’t understand the extent of my commitment to cycling. It’s a view of running that says running serves a practical purpose in our lives, which is why we do it. There is little point in doing it beyond the point where it serves that purpose.

Those practical purposes do exist, but I think Murakami is getting at his deeper commitment in this book. Cycling means more to me than for how it teaches me life lessons, but as my response to my friend showed, I was unsure how to describe that meaning.

I think Murakami comes as close as he can to describing it late in the book, when he talks about driving home from a race and wondering what it was all for.

“After our unpretentious race on a fall Sunday, we were all on our way back to our own homes, back to our own mundane lives. And with the next race in mind, each of us, in our place, will most likely go about our usual training. Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole at the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so.”

Murakami captures the intrinsic side of his sport; it is done for its own sake, regardless of how it looks from the outside. It feels right, somewhere inside, and that’s why we do it, even if it takes up too much time, even if it’s inefficient, futile and pointless. It may be all those things if we look for a purpose it serves; but if we stop looking for a purpose and instead do it precisely because we want to, the time spent running or cycling falls away, and these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences in life, perhaps precisely because we cannot explain why they were so.

I think that’s what Murakami really talks about when he talks about running. Not how it served his writing, but just what it is in his life, without the activity needing to achieve something.

How We Start Our Days is How We Start Our Lives

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Annie Dillard before I came across a quotation of hers. Yet as some quotations seem inexplicably to do, hers bowled me over; made me freeze at the full stop, made me stare out the window at nothing in particular and caused that wonderful zooming-out of perspective that I often think is three-quarters of the reason why I read.

The quotation said, simply and nonchalantly, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Of course! Of course how we spend our days is how we live our lives. Without the “of course” the quotation may not have struck as it did; the “of course” pats us on the back and says, it’s okay, you knew this deep down, but it took a writer to bring it to the surface; don’t take it personally that you’d forgotten about it all these years. Dillard wrote this line in her book The Writing Life, which is a reflection on writers and writing, and which seems the only appropriate place for a line like that to be written.

Of all the people I’ve met, writers seem to be those who daily live the idea. Pico Iyer has embodied the idea for me; he need not say the words, for how he structures his days all points to that larger knowledge that it is these parts that determine the whole.

To structure a life at the outset is an impossible task. I was once in North Carolina on a cycling trip with the Yale Cycling Team, and we were to scale Mt Mitchell, the “highest peak east of the Mississippi”. From our small cabin we could see the mountain stretching upwards interminably, the peak, however, always obscured in a misty cloud. One’s mind could not at once comprehend climbing the entire mountain; once we began, it was only possible by breaking the hours-long climb into each visible stretch of road. I only needed to make it to the next bend in the road, beyond which I could not see, and once I made it there, I could make it to the next bend, and do this enough times and I’d reach the peak.

It is a pleasurable thought that for most of us, our lives are already broken into these neat, short stretches of road. We need only decide how to live today, and then decide tomorrow, and through these individual decisions we will live a life. It reduces the overwhelming. It breaks up lifelong commitments into daily reaffirmations, which seem certainly feasible.

And if, out of respect for Dillard’s masterstroke, even at risk of butchering it, I could offer a slight tweak to her formulation, to break those individual days down into even more manageable parts, it would be this: how we start our days is how we start our lives.

Focus on the start of each day. Get it right, do something you’re proud of in the first hour, and, slowly but surely, you’ll find life itself becomes something you’re proud of.

Twenty Minutes

Start off easy for the first five minutes, they said. Then build up over the next five minutes to see how you feel. And then for the final ten minutes, empty the tank, full gas, don’t hold anything back.

This was my first Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test, a form of cycling baseline fitness testing. 11 of us from Yale-NUS were doing our tests simultaneously, and each of us were coming to the test with varying levels of experience with cycling.

Those who were completely new to cycling had not properly suffered on a bike before. Not knowing what this feels like, and not knowing when the limits are reached, they tried to follow the advice but could not tell what easy felt like. True suffering on a bike creeps up on you, and then hits all of a sudden. They didn’t know when to expect this, and when it hit it hit hard, and they slowed down again to avoid the sensations. They listened to the advice of those with more experience, tried to implement it, but did not know what use to make of it.

Those with some cycling experience thought the advice to go easy was for absolute beginners; having some knowledge of cycling, but not years of experience, they thought they could maintain the same power for the entire twenty minutes. They went out too hard right from the start and at fourteen minutes in realised they’d made a mistake, trying to drop their effort slowly to avoid others seeing their overconfidence. They listened to the advice of those with more experience, thought they knew better, and realised too late the value of experience.

And those with years of cycling experience—those who gave us all this advice—know that the same mistakes are made by everyone almost every time. They put themselves into the position of a beginner, going out slow to begin, because they’ve seen over years that human nature falls into the same traps. The mind, especially when in moments of extreme suffering, will misjudge the body’s capacities. They humble themselves in advance, having seen how they and others were humbled after overconfidence.

If life is a well and we are swimming to the bottom, the reality is we do not know how deep the well is until we are three-quarters of the way to the bottom. But before we reach that point, we cannot stop moving, but must push onwards. How does one push onwards when one does not yet know everything? Either through a form of overconfidence or underconfidence; through arrogance or a form of schlep blindness.

Development of experience in all fields follows what is probably a similar process. The paradox is that advice given is useless until one has more experience; but when one has more experience, one is inclined to think the advice doesn’t apply. Wisdom in this sense is seeing the follies one has made in other fields and areas of life and then escaping those two traps by humbling oneself in advance.

Peter Sagan and the Paradox of Eminence

Every sport needs its hero, those once-in-a-generation individuals who come to redefine a sport. These protagonists first shape the public perception of the sport, becoming its symbol for those with no sense of its history. And, ultimately, public perception works backwards to influence how even the sport’s traditionalists must understand the new reality of their sport and its meaning for millions around the world.

Whether one is inclined to like it or not, many of these battles seem to be playing out with the person of Peter Sagan. His name is increasingly thrown about, perhaps too often, as a “great”. Yet what is less understood is how he increasingly symbolises the age-old battle between ambition, tradition and greatness in sport. The way that the paradoxes between those three things are resolved may very likely define this sport’s twenty first century. Change in a sport like cycling happens rarely, and when it does happen it happens slowly—but there are telltale signs that minor battles we are seeing today are a sign of larger changes underfoot in this sport of ours.

There’s more to Peter Sagan than his palmarès . Sagan the person, Sagan the personality, complicates the cycling world’s love for him. There is, most obviously, his continual ability to tease this sport.

Sometimes he teases cycling through an unsuspected seriousness. For instance, right after he won the world championship last year in Richmond, he ignored the interviewer’s questions to instead talk about the European migrant crisis, and the good that individuals can do by believing they can improve the world. When the interviewer tried to change the subject back to the race he had just won, Sagan seemed frustrated that someone could lose so much perspective to come to think that a bike race was more important than migrants’ lives. “Sorry? The race?”, he questioned, with a mocking expression. In three words, he put everyone in cycling back in the real world, popping the bubble that so frequently surrounds those who define themselves by a sport.

Other times he teases cycling by ignoring its customs. We all know about Sagan not shaving his legs at the start of the 2016 season. Sean Kelly perfectly summed up the view of cycling’s old guard with his comment about Sagan to CyclingTips that “He’s wearing the world champion’s jersey, and he owes it to be respectful and to be clean and presentable.”

This sport can be a serious one, and Sagan seems to take pleasure in developing the persona of a kid who just loves to ride bikes, and who couldn’t care less about its customs and seriousness. This is all very much on display in a recent GoPro video featuring Sagan on holiday at a mountain bike race. His occasional infidelity to the road discipline by entering mountain races (including at the upcoming Rio Olympics) are a cause for concern to some who see it as a lack of devotion and dedication.

But the 26 year old Slovakian’s palmarès, too, points to some anomalies which in turn many have suggested are a sign of greatness. To start, there’s his exceptional success across a wide range of races. Then there’s his surprising versatility for a supposed sprinter. He can limit losses to, if not quite contest, pure climbers, as he did in the queen stage of the 2015 Tour of California, which set him up to win the general classification. And he can descend as well as Nibali, which was on full display at last year’s Tour. Four times winner of the Tour de France points classification, winner of the Tour of Flanders this year—the list goes on, all highlighting his versatility.

This versatility is itself relatively rare in a sport where to win one classification, or one race, can require complete dedication and a very different training regimen. The versatility upsets the expectations about the physical builds of riders who win certain races, and many have noted how the style harks back to at least one of the cycling greats of the twentieth century.

All that, and he’s young, with many years of riding ahead of him. There’s a great deal more Peter Sagan to see.

Sports are rarely changed from the inside. The process of change cannot happen in any community where its most ardent supporters are those who hold its positions of power. We can see this all too clearly in cycling with the UCI. History and tradition are paramount to those who live a sport rather than watch it, to those who study it and not just support it. And with the preeminence of history and tradition comes the belief that things are best as they are now, or even as they were thirty years ago; and even if one does not believe that, a traditionalist will still believe that the future presents dangers rather than opportunities. Enter Sean Kelly’s comment about Sagan’s unshaven legs.

Change is a slow process precisely because of this resistance, and it is not guaranteed. Any single rider who begins to be discussed as a potential “great” must then grapple individually with the paradox between ambition and tradition.

Ambition for greatness in any sport steeped with history and tradition is always going to be a convoluted, messy path. And the paradox of eminence in sport is that greatness is less likely when you play within all the rules, as the sport was practiced and won by its last star. Merely repeating former greatness may seem like the obvious path, but what was greatness decades ago may not be greatness today. And yet to break those rules leaves one open to being rejected by the sport as much as being recorded in its books—as Sagan has already seen.

Change seems to happen backwards. That is, a protagonist first influences those with no sense of the sport’s history, who in turn force the sport’s traditionalists to reconsider their own views. Because of this, Sagan’s unconventionality may already be working, and change in cycling as well as the unmistakable eminence of a new star may be well on their way.

All greats, in all sports, have struggled to find a path through this paradox of ambition for greatness and tradition, and sports’ history books are written about those who navigate it successfully. Peter Sagan already has the signs of greatness attached to him, but rarely have we considered what exactly greatness will require of him. Perhaps most interesting of all will be his appearance at this year’s Tour and those in future, where the meeting of cycling’s new unconventional star and its bastion of tradition will be on full display.

This Is Cycling

“There is something bizarre, yet intoxicating, in the way cycling juxtaposes these little dramas of pain and suffering amid landscapes of sublime beauty. As Nietzsche wrote in “The Gay Science”, “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

The Economist’s new lifestyle magazine, 1843, published a piece by author and journalist Tom Vanderbilt on what it’s like getting into cycling. Titled “The Long and Winding Road”, the essay deals with midlife crises to start and moves on to how a sport can be so addictive. It’s stunningly written, and comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing why cyclists put themselves through so much pain to repeatedly go up mountains.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.