Texas native Danny Goodwin is an artist who works primarily in photography and installation. He is Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and that title really impresses his NYCROSS.com teammates, with whom he’s raced since 2006. A blissfully married father of two lovely daughters, Danny would be a lot faster if he spent half as much time training as he does thinking and reading and writing about bikes, and a lot more successful as an artist if he trained less.
We pretty well know, probably from about the time we are potty-trained, how to succeed. This doesn’t necessarily mean we do follow through, but I think on a very basic level we at least know how. That is: set attainable goals and move toward them by building upon successes and avoiding failures. Or, to put it another way: move toward what comes easy and away from what is difficult. Peeing in your britches is met with disapproval, but if you pee in the pot like a big boy you’re rewarded with affection and praise (which is better). I don’t think the essential lesson changes much for many years. It just gets subsumed into layers of nuance and complexity as we rack up miles. How else to explain the continued popularity of quick-wealth seminar gurus offering sage advice on short cuts to financial independence (or awesome abs, or climbing prowess, or a few more watts at FTP)?
Popular culture seems obsessed lately with failure (or “fail” in its Internet meme and neo-meta-coinage form as not only a verb but also a noun, pronoun, adjective, etc.). Sitting in Penn Station, waiting for the train to Albany, after riding the train from Newark, after the plane from Hong Kong, I got a bleary-eyeful of ESPN’s “FAILy Awards”, in which well-coiffed anchors with lifelike rubber heads revisit the year’s most entertaining sports blunders in a testosterone-poisoned spoof of the Oscars. Being smugly obsessed with failure doesn’t mean you really know anything about it, though. According to Scott Sandage, in an interview with Sina Najafi and David Serlin called “The Invention of Failure” in Cabinet Magazine (#7) a few summers ago, failure is a ubiquitous part of the American experience but most of the language we use to describe it derives from the business world, where we “measure our souls using business models”. The concept of failure as something that defines one’s identity is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The worlds of bike racing and working artists have more in common than may, on the surface, appear. Both share a screwed-up flavor of teleology that foregrounds failure as a necessary part of success—not necessarily as something to be avoided at all costs. Failure actually IS an option. And often, the success part never really happens in the conventional sense. How many of you have actually won a race? OK, I’m not counting that Cat 5 cyclocross race—what about recently, in your current category? When I explained to my daughter once what a domestique is, she quipped, “…so is that what you do? Is that why you never win?”
Most serious artists have a similar stubbornness to clock back in even after their last studio day (or ten) was a total, soul-crushing disaster. We both—racers and artists—call it “learning to suffer”, right? As one completes that fourth and final two-minute submax interval at what feels like 125% of so-called lactate threshold, the only thing that keeps you from backing off to avoid throwing up is the thought that “this is when the adaptations occur”. Meaning, it is in those last seconds of an effort that goes far above and beyond one’s comfort zone that the body is trained to process the enormous amount of lactate coursing through the muscles. It is ostensibly what makes us faster, provided of course that we recover properly. Muscle failure during training leads to muscle success in races. Same thing with art: just when you think you have something figured out, however mediocre, you’ll inadvertently discover something far more amazing than anything you could have planned. A dear friend—an artist you’ve probably never heard of but who is nonetheless quite “famous” in my world—claims that one never really has more than seven good ideas in a lifetime. The best artists are attentive to haptic and haphazard discoveries that don’t rely on intellect to manifest. Learning to “trust the process” is as much athletic as it is intellectual.
It is tempting to get behind the cliché that, in the grand scheme of things, making art and racing bicycles are trivial and decadent endeavors. After all, if one applied a like level of effort and commitment to more practical pursuits, one might be quite a more prosperous and well-balanced person. And yet, what are civilizations remembered for (I mean other than the resources they consume or the peoples they conquer but fail to govern)? Most end up leaving behind a legacy of expressions and efforts. That’s part of what compels me to roll that big-ass boulder up the hill every day and watch it roll back down every night. I think about the myth of Sisyphus a lot, actually.
Brother Sisyphus was forced to endure his pointless, maddening, relentless punishment for his hubris (although he really only spoke truth to power, ratting Zeus out for having an affair). I use the word Sisyphean, perhaps, a bit too often to describe racing and art, but I think it is particularly apt in both cases. Hubris is what got me into this mess in the first place–imagining that I, who was never really an athlete, could be competitive at such a demanding sport and that I, who was raised to know better, would risk it all to follow a career that might never bring financial stability. And so my punishment for the audacity to try is that it is hard as hell and only gets harder the higher you climb. Truly–if you win races in your category, guess what? You get to upgrade and then it gets A LOT harder. Get a solo show in Brooklyn and if you don’t get one in Chelsea the next year, you were a fluke. But, to drill down deeper into the aptness of the myth, I suspect that Sisyphus, like me, took some masochistic delight in his struggle. Maybe not at first, but I bet he got really damn good at rolling that flippin’ boulder. You may assume his efforts were pointless and that he accomplished nothing, but I like to think of him as the undefeated world champion elite uphill-boulder-roller. An epic fail(ure).