Sometimes this sport (cyclocross, duh) just looks ridiculous. Not worthy of ridicule, mind you, but ridiculous. And I’m not working my way around to trotting out a bunch of well-worn clichés about the majesty of suffering in sport, either. I mean, sure, I frequently do write that sort of thing, and some of you read it, but not today. Today I am just thinking about a couple of videos I saw recently of reasonably competent ‘crossers looking silly, silly, silly. The thing is, for me, the beauty of cyclocross has nothing to do with contrivance and tomfoolery, or even mud and cowbells, but has everything to do with mastery. Depending on whether or not you are directly participating in the “mastery”, however, has everything to do with whether the experience appears to be silly, or inspiring.
I am not, by the way, talking about this video, here. No, this is simply awesome:
And why? Maybe because it takes cyclocross to its logical ludicrous and contrived conclusion, via the expedient of teeter-totters and whatnot. I’m not hating on our beloved sport, you understand—I’m getting somewhere important, here.
Performance requires a mutually agreed upon set of parameters between performer and audience. This is true in music, in theater, in sport, and in any scenario in which someone puts on their most projecting voice and says, “may I have your attention please!” What happens in those places of performance, competition, communication, revelation and enchantment is not only a transformation of space, but a transformation of the people experiencing that space, right?
So what I’m talking about here is The Other Side Of The Tape: being on a race course is a transformative experience. With no tape, you simply have a field, or a park; and with no spectators, you have no event, no happening, just a ride. We do laps on our training courses in local schoolyards, we ride the local singletrack, we do intervals on the road, and all of it is solitary, relatively focused, and routine. Pin on a number on a Saturday morning, though, when you can hear the PA system blaring over by the Start/Finish, and the hum of the diesels on the water supply truck for the pressure washer going over in the pit, and this transformation is clear: racing is a performance; and if we are accepting it as axiomatic (we are, I said so) that performance is a co-created event, then racing has to be a communal performance—there is no us without them; no race with no spectators, and no course with no tape.
Because it’s arbitrary, right? Of course it is. There are flowy courses that engineer their way around natural obstacles and avoid the dreaded “spiral of death” so prevalent in American ‘cross, where available space is at a premium and we struggle to get permission to play on the public grass. Yes, there are natural seeming courses, but the nature of cyclocross is that it ought to be a relatively contained, spectator friendly spectacle, and therefore contrived by both necessity and design. Remember that Olympic weight lifting, MMA fighting, Shakespearean plays, and Tuvan throat singing are also contrived, and yet, on special occasions, they all can communicate life-altering beauty.
The significant thing (for me, this morning) is that the emotions, the joy, the frustration, the effort of racing—all of that is very, very real, and all we need to bring these emotions and this communal experience to life is an open field and some caution tape. This brings me back to my original point: we all know you can’t simply explain cyclocross to the uninitiated; people have to experience it for themselves, and that’s not news, and isn’t a surprise. The surprising part is that we can’t even explain racing cyclocross to ourselves when we aren’t engaged in doing it.
Look at whatever category is on the course when you pull into the parking lot of your next race. Take a good look. The pace will look arbitrarily fast or slow, the turns will either disappear due to fluidity or stand out like a speedo in church because of their contrivance. Without pedaling through two inches of tacky mud on top of frozen clay—today—you can have no idea what it feels like; running 60 yards through ankle deep sand with your bike on your shoulder looks neither easier nor harder than any other athletic feat, until you’re doing it and the racer in front of you accelerates.
This is one of my abiding fascinations: you may know cyclocross, you may know the course, you may have raced on the course an hour ago; but when you stand outside the tape and watch your friends, nemeses and heroes go zooming (or trundling) past, you can have no idea what they are going through—racing is that ephemeral.
And that’s the point: the “stage” in the corner of the coffeeshop or bar, the crowd gathered around the latter-day sophist, the curtain on a broadway stage, or the fencing on the home straight of your local race—these boundaries, tactile and socially constructed, demarcate a line of experience we cross into and out of, but we can never be on both sides of the tape—on the stage and in the audience—at the same time. The experience doesn’t translate, and no matter how much of a body of racing knowledge we accumulate, we never know ourselves as racers at any other time than when we are racing. We remember results, and emotions, and the feeling of two-wheel drifting through loamy soil, but the racing experience doesn’t belong to us, it’s communal, and we can’t replicate it alone.
Maybe that’s why we do it every weekend.
*Image courtesy of Thierry Blanchet