There’s an insidious trend in cycling writing these days, and we need to put a stop to it right now. Namely, it seems many are trying to cast every minute element of the sport as some grand tradition, worthy of a handcrafted shrine decorated with Jesus candles and a weathered wooden box containing the second knuckle of Fausto Coppi’s pinkie. Yeah, I like the old Silca Pista floor pumps, too, but I’m not going to take a bunch of arty black-and-whites of one and wax poetic for 1,000 words about how the weight of the brass chuck in my hand psychically connects me to Eddy Merckx’s long-dead mechanic. But it’s not just the retro equipment genre that’s getting the sepia treatment, it’s every aspect of the sport – from pre-ride coffee to weekend training rides to naps. My fear is that, as we ease into winter and there’s less actual cycling news to chew on, we’re due for a spike in the sepia-toned writing market.
Look, Billy Joel sucks, but he had a point when he sang that “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”
Why do people in 2008 so desperately want to cycle in black-and-white, and why now? I guess some of it is the allure of all those old pictures that the Internet has given us free access to. Yes, those old grainy black-and-whites of Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Rik Van Steenbergen are great, as are the washed out color ones of Merckx, Ocaña, and the rest. They provide a record of cycling back then – the races, the people, the equipment – that lets us feel a connection to the past. But before we get all teary-eyed, let’s remember that those guys, to the best of my knowledge, all saw the world in color, because they were living in it. For them, those pictured rides weren’t some jaunty wet-wool-and-lavender scented festival of self-indulgent nostalgia – they were just living their lives, mostly just trying to win some bike races, and probably not spending too much time reflecting on the lot of it. I’m betting they weren’t obsessing over just how much crema was on their pre-ride espresso, the near-painful authenticity of plain white socks just above the ankle, or whether their mechanics used just the right number of turns of finishing tape on their handlebars. And they sure as hell didn’t write heart-wrenching tributes to any of those subjects. Because all that shit just wasn’t that big a deal – then or now.
I’m not claiming that cycling doesn’t have some deservedly hallowed ground. It has plenty – Tom Simpson’s memorial on the Ventoux, the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, and the cobbled climbs of Flanders spring to mind – and the sport certainly has some endearing traditions and little rituals handed down over generations. And maybe it’s O.K. to write about those with a goofy little tear in the corner of our eye every once in awhile. But your traditional Sunday ride piss break with the boys just doesn’t quite rise to that level, so let’s stop writing about it like it’s the goddamn bedrock on which the sport is built. Not every aspect of every ride has to be a spiritual awakening of some sort, and not every minor equipment choice enhances your street cred. Cycling’s true history and tradition is part of what makes the sport intriguing, but when you dilute it by taking overly frequent, overly reverent looks at mundane practices like wearing a cycling hat or repacking hubs, the original product just gets less tasty. It becomes cycling-flavored, rather than made with real cycling.
The recent turn towards black-and-white writing seems to me to be an accidental effort to try to create some sort of faux road racing culture, at least here in the States. In that imagined culture, we’re surrounded by sidewalk cafes, cozy bike shops with coverall-ed Belgian mechanics, empty roads, and acres of vineyards, instead of the strip malls, Starbucks, Performance Bicycle Stores, and traffic that many of us actually see when we roll out of the driveway. And I suppose that’s understandable – more and more people are searching for the simpler life these days, and that can take a lot of forms, including misplaced or invented nostalgia. Even this weird sort of nostalgia for the present.
The good news is that these often vain little introspections can provide some good writing, even if they’re about absolute bullshit, and it’s good to see that the blog world, where many of these occur, has helped get a lot of people writing again.
But the better news is that there’s already a real “cycling culture” here, so we really don’t need to replace it with an artificial one where we all act like we train, deep in philosophical thought, in northern Italy in 1976, but with a power meter and a carbon frame. You can see the genuine culture – surprise – at any amateur bike race around the country. Because the road cycling culture (or ‘cross, or track, or mountain biking) is what we make of it in the present, and we don’t have to give it a cheap makeover or over-examine every, single aspect of it to make it “authentic.” It’s authentic simply by being what we as cyclists do, here and now. And if that means you like an extra-large whipped cream monstrosity from Dunkin Donuts instead of espresso before your crit, and use pre-built wheels instead of building them in your basement while listening to grainy Edith Piaf records, so be it. Either way is valid, of course, and if you want to yell at each other in Italian on group rides, that’s O.K. too. But for god’s sake, just don’t think too hard about it.
So let’s stop PhotoShopping our million megapixel digital pictures into sepia tones and trying to dissect our lifestyle for the sake of self-validation, and live and enjoy life in the present. We can do it without losing our reverence for the more attention-worthy history and traditions of the sport, I swear. In the meantime, be on the lookout for our upcoming post, “My Silca Floor Pump: A Tribute in Words and Photos.”