The death of first

June 20, 2017 § 25 Comments

My dinner table can be a pretty unforgiving yet hilarious place, especially when all the kids, spouses, and my grandson are gathered around. No matter how witty your repartee, it’s hard to keep a straight face when at least one of the dinnertime combatants is eating rice with his fist.

There’s a great deal of story one-upsmanship, with each person trying to tell a funnier tale than the one before, and at times you have to put down your fork, forget about chewing, and laugh for a while at the ridiculousness of people, like the angry constituent who called to complain about Obamacare. My youngest, who was interning at a congressman’s office, took the call.

“I don’t eat at McDonald’s! How come I have to pay for all those fat people with crappy diets?” the caller demanded.

“Well, sir, do you have a pre-existing condition?”

“Yes. I’m diabetic.”

“Obamacare forbids your insurer from canceling your insurance due to that. Without Obamacare, it will be much easier to drop sick people from health insurance, which sort of defeats the purpose of having it.”


“Yes, sir.”

“Well, all those fat people should shop at farmer’s markets,” the caller said before slamming down the phone.

As the comments ricocheted around the table, my son, who took countless of these calls over the last few months, shrugged. “It’s post-modernism. Facts are negotiable. They aren’t even facts anymore.”

Which got me to thinking about bike racing and USAC. I had spent a while earlier in the day talking with an SCNCA board member about the challenges facing sanctioned bike racing. My point, unbeknownst to me, had been very post-modern. I’d opined that there was no such thing anymore as winning; there were only different metrics for success.

This, more than anything else, is why sanctioned bike racing will only decline, even as ridership mushrooms.

Time was, when you wanted to respond to the gnawing insecurity troll that lived in your head who was constantly asking, “How fast are you?” the only way to answer was to race yer fuggin’ bike.

Every bike race had a winner, and except for one-off events like Madison or the TTT, “winner” was singular. Everyone else lost the race and would try again next week, where they would almost certainly lose again. All outcomes were binary.

And not only did every race answer the question “How fast are you?” but it answered simply: Your speed was determined by how long it took you to cross the finish line as compared to everyone else who started with you.

The nature of bike racing therefore meant that you didn’t win very much, if ever. But you were guaranteed a clear answer to the question. That’s what you were purchasing. An answer.

In our post-modern world, we are ruled by quantum physics. Things are this, unless they are that, and of course sometimes they are both at the same time, and by the way, you can never know how fast you are going unless you’re willing to not know your position, and conversely, we can tell you where you are but not simultaneously your speed.

The quantum physics, post-factual nature of the universe has crushed a lot of things, bike racing included. You can be a winner without ever doing a race — on Strava. You can beat a world-class field in a major Euro stage race without ever leaving your garage — on Zwift. You can drug dope and you can data dope. You can adjust your speed and placing by weight, gender, age, location, and year of competition to twist the outcome as surely as you can sniff an inhaler, inject EPO, or take testosterone to be faster than you would have been without it.

And there’s no winner-loser in a grand fondue, which is a race that isn’t even a race that qualifies for a world championship masters title that itself is a race … except when it’s not.

Your variable metric for success can be applied to gravel racing, to century rides, to group rides, or to personal races run on power meters, heart rate monitors, and Garmin head units. You had the biggest left-leg power output of that Strava segment ever. Or among 50-55 men who weigh between 200 and 210 pounds. Statistics may be worse than damned lies, but they are infinitely comforting because they will whisper back to you whatever you want them to say. OTB in a hilly road race or 47th in the sprunt won’t whisper anything back except “You suck.”

If you did a ride and didn’t win SOMETHING that is quantifiable, demonstrable to others in the form of an e-trinket or data point, you are clearly doing it wrong. All wrong.

The anachronistic search for a winner offered up by USAC-sanctioned events is as vain a search as trying to explain the perihelion shift of Mercury using Newtonian physics. The theory won’t fit the observable phenomena because no one wins anything anymore, except at the temporary slot in spacetime where they choose to set the goal posts.

Thanks to this post-modern acceptance of #altfacts and #quantumphysics, more people seem to be riding bicycles as a result, and enjoying them.

I’m good with that, except of course when I’m simultaneously not.



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§ 25 Responses to The death of first

  • Sibex Czar says:

    Sweet usage of the Quantum Enigma!!

    • fsethd says:

      You can have your cake and eat it too but it won’t be cake by the time you do.

  • kimfue says:

    I come from a background of endurance horse racing/riding. Events of 50 – 100 miles in one day on variable terrain and conditions. Your first challenge was to ride to the conditions. It’s a lot different then racing on a groomed 1 mile oval track where speed only variable. The official motto for the sport was “To finish is to win”. Yes, there was always a first place but you had get through the “challenges” a course presented first before you worried about how fast you could finish.

    A lot of cycling events/races are like that. A 100 mile MTB race that starts at 10,000 ft, a 100 mile gravel bike ride/race in pouring rain with muddy single track you can barely slog through, the RAAM event. Successfully riding over a finish line when presented with course challenges, weather challenges, distance challenges, etc. is pretty empowering. Earning a high placing is the icing on the cake.

    If there is a decline in pure racing, where speed only determines success, it might be because there are more cycling events available that offer challenges to the individual other then “who is fastest”.

    If it were not for these kinds of events, I probably would be trying road racing and crits just to challenge myself even though I would have no chance of “winning”.

    • fsethd says:

      There’s not simply a decline in road racing, it is swirling around the drain. As you point out there are many alternatives to racing. Those alternatives are more pleasant to the psyche than being ground up and kicked to the side of the road as the pack rides away …

      A very nice contrast that really limns what I’m talking about is the novel The Rider by Tim Krabbe. This is a good example of a bicycle race. It is not very similar to anything else.

  • Jorgensen says:

    There were a few races way back that had a club (what teams were called back then) trophy for the highest cumulative points in that day’s racing, points awarded for the first 3 to 5 places from each race.

    It did encourage a club to field entries for every race, a first place midget added as many points as a first place Masters.

    • fsethd says:

      Now you don’t have to physically be anywhere or compete head to head with anyone if you don’t want to. So strange …

  • Brian in VA says:

    Hmmm. The Schrodinger’s Cat theory of cycling. I’m both cycling and not; winning and not, all at the same time. And no one else knows it.

    Fantastic! I could say, I don’t even have to go ride but I do because my sanity is there. And yet it’s not!

    • fsethd says:

      You start to wonder how younger people make sense of it all. Or whether that’s even a concept. Things just exist in constantly changing states. Camus and Sartre understood quantum physics before the physicists did.

      • “…Things just exist in constantly changing states. Camus and Sartre understood quantum physics before the physicists did.”

        Nah, unless they understood being and nothingness and alienation and all that stuff of high-school French (Camus) and AP English class (Sartre) before they were properly introduced to solid food. Understanding it all that early actually contradicts Sartre’s whole point, wouldn’t it?

        The basics of quantum theory predates both of them (Sartre only just), and was pretty well-developed by the time they were out of short pants.

        • fsethd says:

          The phrase “quantum physics” wasn’t coined until 1931, and quantum field theory didn’t get fleshed out until the 1940’s. Sartre was born in 1905, so he was probably already eating a bit of solid food to go along with the cigarettes and wine.

  • dangerstu says:

    I think cycling in the US reached the tipping point of being a healthy pass time some time in the last 20 years, previously you were on the fringe and the other people you tended to meet were typically involved in racing so that’s what you ended up doing. Now there are people who couldn’t give a damn about racing, but at some point you become fitter and want to test yourself not necessarily against others, hence grand fundos, gravel events etc. No New Age B.S misappropriation of quantom physics required.

  • Dave G says:

    Hey, I resemble that remark! (50-55 y/o, 200-210lbs). And that’s why I don’t race! Ha.

  • Hank from Pasadena says:

    Well, there is another factor. As I just became a subscriber to this fantastic work I will throw this out there. To actually enter the type of races you’re talking about requires an acknowledgement that the risk of crashing rises to a certainty.

    And that’s simply not on for many people. Take the post last week about the guy who intentionally hit the other guys bars. I’m not going anywhere near an event where there is any chance at all that the idiot next to me even considers that an option.

    I don’t care what the penalty is. The risk of injury is already bad enough with these several thousand pound things known as cars. I’m not adding other cyclists to the equation.

    I understand the joy and exhilaration. It is something you could not get from simply riding around and comparing your times. But non-individual-time-trial racing seems to involve contact and bike handling envelope-pushing as an essential part of it. And for many of us that is a bridge we are not crossing.

    Maybe I will feel differently one day. But I doubt it. As it is I am on the fence about the trade off between what you get out of the big group rides (like Montrose and Rose Bowl up in these parts) and what risk you add.

    By the way, it doesn’t help that anecdotal evidence indicates that you cannot avoid crashing in races via skill. Last year I saw video of ex pro Hrach being taken out by some knucklehead in a routine over 55 crit. If Hrach can’t avoid it then its unavoidable for the likes of me.

    I guess I will be missing out. But that’s O.K. Racing ought to be left to the people who really want to do it anyway.

    • fsethd says:

      You said the most important thing I’ve ever read about bike racing: “Crashing is a certainty.”

      Anyone thinking about racing needs to think long and hard about the word certainty, because it doesn’t mean “maybe.”

      • Hank from Pasadena says:

        And of course there are plenty of things which true racers consider fake racing but are challenging nonetheless.

        For example, L’Etape Cali was not a “race” but for a huge segment of the crowd it mattered how they finished, and because of the 12K feet of climbing some sort of bunch sprinting was not part of the equation. So that’s about my limit.

        And I happily concede that there is fun in not winning, but knowing you were in the same event as truly exceptional athletes. I enjoyed the part of L’Etape where Phil Gaimon passed us going the other way, with a relaxed wave, already hours ahead of us. I mean, we were only in the “same event” in a linguistic way, not in any real sense. But we were on the same stretch or road, so there’s that. 🙂

        That’s what sells much of golf. You can’t really play “with” the pros, but you can play “next to them,” in a pro-am and you can certainly pony up some $ to play the same courses they play.

        As far as I can see that’s what sells high end bikes. Certainly the doofus amateurs like me who buy them cannot possibly extract all the features the pros do, but so what? Fun’s fun.

        I’m going to try some of that wax chain lube you mentioned. Why not?

        Its not hurting anybody as far as I can tell.

        • fsethd says:

          There’s a lot more room for participation than there used to be, and that’s good. People get to define winning however they want. If you are nostalgic about bike racing, well, prepare to get a lot more so. Because the binary win/lose formula no longer sells.

  • paa says:

    Great post and so true.

    I like your last comment, “There’s a lot more room for participation than there used to be, and that’s good. People get to define winning however they want. If you are nostalgic about bike racing, well, prepare to get a lot more so. Because the binary win/lose formula no longer sells.”

    Winning sells but the format doesn’t. USCF has to change and offer more than just industrial park crits. They have to evolve the racing to attract participation.

    I don’t have the answer but I see innovation and evolution in just about every area of cycling and cycling events EXCEPT the USCF.

    It’s stale and paying to circle a parking lot for an hour to go elbows with a sociopath that might put you in a wheelchair for life sounds idiotic.

    The sport always has a place and testing yourself in a race will too. But the USCF has to innovate or it will just be the old dopers left racing for the glory days… which is pretty much the state of it now.

    • fsethd says:

      Old-style winning doesn’t sell, where there is a pack of people and only one wins. Winning has to mean, and I know this sounds bad, that everyone gets a ribbon.

      “Everyone gets a ribbon” sells, and it sells like crazy. That’s what we’ve all learned in the last 50 years. I’m not saying it’s bad or judging it, but it’s a fact. Winning only has a place in society when everyone is a winner. Otherwise people won’t pay, no matter how attractive the venue.

      You can’t pretty up a gnarly road race beatdown on a bike.

      • Hank from Pasadena says:

        On the other hand, runners don’t seem to have any shortage of races, and the fact that there is only one winner doesn’t seem to stop thousands from signing up. They even have these weird prize money races where you look around the starting line and there are actual pros there for the $500 bucks or whatever.

        I accidentally ran a fourth of July mile race once where there were five to ten runners who went sub-4.

        For cycling, its so tough to close miles and miles of road though. Its a totally different challenge.

      • paa says:

        I agree and know what you’re talking about.
        I just feel that there can be more evolution of the sport at the grassroots level. For example, the Hammer Series for the top level or Red Hook. Not saying Red Hook isn’t insane, it is. But it’s innovating and adding to where the sport is moving.
        Have road races stayed the same or gained popularity? I think those or circuit races are more interesting but I understand the economics of why crits are popular.

        • fsethd says:

          Road races have essentially died in SoCal. And road race participation is plunging in Europe, too. It’s just too hard and there aren’t enough trinkets.

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