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.

Author: mmoorejones

New Zealander and Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Yale-NUS College.

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