I am sometimes accustomed to bouts of nostalgia when atop the bicycle, even in the basement on the rollers as I was this snowy evening, unable or unwilling to stop my mind from drifting back to many youthful moments of joy and abandon. The instant that my foot is firmly on a pedal, and the taught chain engages perfectly with a sprocket, muscles tense, circles making circles and the spokes set to hum, I am a boy again, caught in the grip of the sport in a way that has woven me into the fabric of not just cycling but its history and, if I am fortunate- if we all are fortunate- its future.
I wrote an unsolicited article for the local paper last night. I had submitted an idea months ago to the Editor, but hadn’t gotten a response. So I wrote a quick but tidy 500 word primer on the sport and Bloomington’s cycling culture. I wrote a bit about the racing Categories and a little on the esoteric aspect of the individuals’ contribution to the team. My premise was that we have these extraordinary athletes right here in Bloomington who have used the town as a springboard or home base while in school or beyond, and then moved up in the sport to an elite level. The hook was to get the paper to let me write about bicycle racing and our local stars each week, our accomplishments, the names, races, venues. To somehow freeze these moments in time and add some legitimacy to the sport. We deserve that. But my response from the Sports Editor was unfavorable, indicating “lack of interest…for a non-traditional sport.” So, I wonder if it will matter. I don’t mean that I wonder if the sport matters. It does. I mean why doesn’t your neighbor care about bicycle racing?
Why should anyone care about a bunch of men and women riding round and round? Of course, people do come and watch when it’s convenient. We’ve seen it at our downtown criterium every year and in some of the races that we go to in the larger cities and towns. But many of the spectators are curious bystanders, waiting in the corners to witness catastrophe. In this way we’re a bit of a freak show, and that troubles me. A bit of a terrible crash highlight film that is amusing to pedestrians shouldn’t be how we are remembered. When I tell people that we put on the bike race on Kirkwood Avenue each year I am invariably met with, “I saw the massive crashes in the corner last year.”
Drilling down just below the surface finds that cycling on the local level has no fan base. We have no cheering section. We don’t have a box score or statistics. We have no stadiums. For this lacking we are denigrated or at the very least, considered an oddity, a fringe sport. We have to change that, or at the very least address it as we look to the future of the sport. Perhaps you feel the same way that I do. Looking at the positive aspects of cycling, what strengths can we leverage as a sport? What we do have is speed and this incredible stoic athleticism that is steeped in tradition and a culture with our own language, idiosyncrasies and rules of engagement. It’s not like baseball, but it was once. In it’s heyday in the US, cyclists were heroes, commanding large salaries as velodromes (our stadiums then) sprang up throughout the nation. But we are the initiated. What happened to that momentum? The complexities of the times, economics and tastes conspired to leave the bicycle behind. We’re now left holding a dimly lit torch that only barely lights our way with occasional bright flashes from Americans who charged the cycling atmosphere from time to time. Another strength is that everyone rides a bike. Everyone shares the earlier sentiments referred to in the opening sentence. So, where is the disconnect between what we do as a sport and what our neighbors do as recreation? Is the gap as wide as comparing Nascar to someone who drives a car, or a collegiate wrestler to the WWF? Take a notice the next time you are on your bike how many homes have basketball goals in the driveway. How many baseball diamonds or football fields do you go by? The ubiquity of our major sports is insidious. Ours should be too. If you were to open the garage doors of those homes with basketball goals, you would find bikes, adult bikes, in every one. Unused, rusty, well intentioned, tires flat from disuse, chains rusted, spider webs in the spokes. Which is surprising, as this vehicle, as a recreational pastime is enjoyed by the smallest child to the oldest among us. So important is the ritual of riding a bicycle that as soon as one can walk they’re on three wheels. The removal of training wheels is every family’s children’s rite of passage, indelibly etched into our collective memories and faded photograph albums. Baseball is not the national pastime. Cycling is. It’s just that no one knows it. It’s the best kept secret and we haven’t really helped to bring bike racing out of the shadows.
When we take to the streets in training or racing, we should be revered by those who come upon us, not merely tolerated. Not because we are narcissistic megalomaniacs, but because we embody athletic perfection on the simplest of machines, unchanged for over 100 years. We are designed for speed and power through hours of dedication, unyielding to pain. Of course we are too humble to admit this, so we keep it to ourselves for fear of being even more deeply misunderstood by those around us when they say racing bicycles is a non-traditional sport.
What is the future of bicycle racing in our community? I don’t know. But I do know that it’s up to us. The sport’s governing body is not going to wave a wand and usher in the new way cycling is respected by our communities. You are. We are. We can choose to watch from behind the barriers or we can choose to direct the sport of bicycle racing into a sport that garners the respect appropriate to the level of its dedicated, elite competitors. How we do this requires vision, leadership and discussion.