A Video About Cycling (and Life)

I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.

So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?

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.

It Never Gets Easier, You Just Cope Better

In cycling it’s often said that “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” Anyone who practices regularly at a sport will know the sentiment. Train for ten years going up a single mountain climb and at the end it’ll hurt just as much as on day one; the only difference will be one’s average speed.

I spoke with a friend and fellow student here at Yale-NUS College over dinner recently. He had spent six weeks of his summer holidays at a Buddhist monastery in rural China. Each day he would be woken at four A.M. to begin the first of three sessions of meditation for the day. I wanted to know from him how he noticed his approach to meditation changing; how he observed his mind clearing over time, how it became easier, how he became better at it.

His response was that, in all honesty, it wasn’t the meditation that he remembers. It was the mosquitos that bit him constantly. At the monastery there was to be no killing of anything, including mosquitos, and while meditating he was forced to remain as still as possible. At the beginning it had been unbearable; he remembers hours hating the mosquitos, wanting to kill them all, angry that so little a thing could cause so much discomfort and could consume one’s mind so totally.

After six weeks, the mosquitos annoyed him exactly the same as they had at the start. He still noticed them all the same. But his attitude was one of resignation, knowing that within the confines of his situation, he could do nothing to alter the pain and annoyance.

It never got easier. Meditation wasn’t an antidote to his problems. But he learned that what was a choice was his response to the situation. It never got easier for him, but he did get better at it.

Drivers and Cyclists, Us and Them

I hate the pervasive driver-cyclist antagonism. Too often each group dehumanises the other to the extent that safety is made an even bigger problem.

The reality is most cyclists are also drivers, and most do their best not to hold up drivers and to ride with respect for cars; likewise, most drivers have at some point or other ridden a bike on the road and respect cyclists who do so regularly.

But of course the problem comes when one group gets so far into group mentality that the other becomes “them”—not really people, but a faceless group who get in “my” way. And this can happen on both sides of the equation. I’ve seen groups of cyclists ride as if they were the only people on the road, holding up cars for kilometres of road even when they could’ve let drivers pass. When the cars honked their horns, the cyclists moved out further into the road and rode slower. To them, the cars behind could have been driverless; group mentality made it seem as though it was just the “other” trying to get in their way.

And too often I’ve seen drivers drive recklessly nearby cyclists, especially when passing. Some drivers try to pretend as though there were not any cyclist on the road.

Just the other day I was riding up a hill here in Singapore, sticking as close to the side of the road as possible, when a van drove past me as if I hadn’t existed. I was swiped on the shoulder by the van’s mirror and almost knocked off. When I caught up with the van at the next traffic lights (to the driver’s dismay, since he hadn’t bothered to stop) he smiled maliciously and said, “That’s why you don’t ride your bike on the road.” Never mind that he was my only danger.

It was as though he were not speaking to a human. He had so forgotten that I am someone who also drives a car, who also has a family, who also has years ahead of me that all he could focus on was the fact that I might’ve got in his way. What was stranger than being hit by the mirror (which shook me and bruised but ultimately was not a big deal) was hearing the driver speak to me in tones one might speak to a tree that has fallen across the road.

Like I said, I hate driver-cyclist antagonism. I hate the articles local newspapers come out with once a month or so on the subject, which stir up those antagonisms further. I’m both a driver and a cyclist, just like most drivers at some point ride their bike and most cyclist at some point drive a car. To dehumanise is literally to forget that one is human, and that is the greatest danger of all—it is what leads to a cycle of maliciousness, because all one begins to see are two groups, one of which I’m in and the other which I’m not.

Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the saddle, realise that in an hour’s time the person in your way themselves might be driving a car or riding their bike. We’re all rarely as static as simple labels like to make us out to be. If only that were easier to remember.

And what I thought, after that van sped away from me, was that it is not so far a step from the phoney war between drivers and cyclists and the more real, far more dangerous antagonisms like those across the United States and Europe at present.

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.