Pedaling Sustainability 1

By: Andrew Gardner Apr 23

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I’m loathe to use the term environmentalist. It can be more polarizing than calling yourself a triathlete. It isn’t just the political nature of the word. It’s also because I’m not sure where I end and the environment begins, though I have a suspicion it may be on the backside of the circuit racecourse at Fitchburg- there’s a whole lot of nature between the cracks in that pavement.

Regardless of the language I use in this new column on sustainability and cycling, I’ll try to avoid the sanctimony that befalls other environmentally-minded writers, including lists like THE TEN BEST WAYS TO GO GREEN! and the you really should suggestions about things you really should do. Cycling doesn’t need anymore sanctimony. I’ve seen people get bent out of shape about a mismatched baselayer, so in terms of rights and wrongs, cyclists seem to be all stocked up.

Fittingly, it is the compulsive culture of cycling that this column will celebrate in light of a sustainable agenda. There’s pride in knowing the strict lines that are drawn on what is and isn’t permissible in cycling. It seems clear that this strict compulsion is born out of a push for efficiency. Hours in the saddle, bits of focused intensity, ceramic bearings, ideal tire pressure- all the myriad details pushing towards efficiency consume riders. That minutia would burden most people. Imagine a non-cycling pastime requiring something as ridiculous as chamois cream. For a rider, cycling growth is tied to these details. Likewise, as has been well documented on this website, becoming a cyclist is a slow evolution from clipless pedals to well pinned-numbers. One looks up and has been consumed by tightly-taped handlebars, oiled legs and the perfumed details of obsessive-compulsive racers. This all seems normal. And it is! – But chances are, you draw lines. Embrocation is used only when riding. Hopefully.

The creeping absurdity we live with has been much the same in the larger world. We didn’t set out to live in a time when there were more cars, more highway commutes, more coal mines and more effects of a carbon-driven life than ever in history. It just happened. We just suddenly were here. Even as cyclists, this large, unsustainable existence is tough to ignore. Few of us planned for cycling lives marked by an increase in motor vehicle deaths, extreme weather events and our favorite Belgian riders donning jerseys emblazoned with the financial support of the Kuwaiti National Oil Company. But that is what has happened. Like Battenkill dirt, it is hard to take this stuff out of your life.

And so, in the realm of sustainability, I believe that a cyclist’s compulsion might help uncover stories for this column. In this space, I hope to find the pieces of efficiency and sustainability that play well within riding and racing culture, and explore them; bits like Ryan Kelly, my teammate, who dispenses with “utility” and “racing” labels and merely rides the forty miles to and from work most days.

I’ll also use this column to point out some of the ugly ironies that might surprise you- like the relatively sublime take cyclists have on extreme warming weather, as was the case with the heat wave we felt last month; or as in 2010, when an out-of-season Tornado ripped through the hosting towns of the Tour of America’s Dairylands during another brutal heat wave; or like last year when the Green Mountain Stage Race was nearly doomed by tropical storm Irene and required huge efforts by the organizing body to reroute and host the event. It was ugly in places. Yet throughout any media, cycling or otherwise, “climate change” didn’t get a mention.

In light of this column, you may say, “But isn’t it hypocritical to be involved with any type of competitive athletics and try to address sustainability? Wouldn’t we be more sustainable if we didn’t bike race? Are you just some sustainably-cycling Pharisee?”

My answer is simple. Yes, it is hypocritical. Yes we would be living more sustainable lives if we chose not to race. But I choose to draw my ethical green lines with regard to sustainability in a place that let’s me drive (a car) to bike races and buy carbon wheels. To that end, I also look at where else sustainability and efficiency fit into this life I live. The environmental effort has long labored under this type of credibility test. Are you green enough to talk about this???! It’s not unlike asking participants at a cancer walk if you can see their tumor. We don’t do that because everyone knows that cancer sucks. In the same way, addressing real life in sustainable terms is possible. In the case of this column you are reading, which will appear twice monthly, it will be with cycling as a lens for questions of sustainability. So get ready. Keep your eyes peeled for the places where sustainability and cycling meet and feel free to send stories and comments my way at Finally, you really should stop using the word Pharisee- it makes you sound sanctimonious. Next time, use triathlete. It just sounds creepier.



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