There are deep, historical roots to the protests over the extra-judicial murder of George Floyd. There are also shallow, recent tendrils.
Both have one thing in common: Control.
Historically the most powerful have controlled the share of resources allocated to the least powerful. Recently, the pandemic has smashed the levers of that control. As a result, people who were formerly submissive are now demanding more control.
You see it everywhere, even on bicycles.
Historically, “cycling” consisted of two types. People who predominantly rode in large groups and people who rode alone or with only a few companions.
The large groups were themselves divided into two groups, and both operated with sophisticated forms of control. The first group was organized racing. It was the most highly controlled, with national organizations, elaborate rules for sanctioned races, categories, licenses, drug testing, selection procedures, etc. However, racing’s ultimate control was speed. The person who rode the fastest sat atop the hierarchy and exercised control over those below. Cf. Eddy Merckx.
The #fakerace group ride, of which the Donut was one, operated the same way in that control was maintained by the fastest rider or riders. Anyone who wanted things done differently or who had an opinion about how the ride should or shouldn’t proceed was first required to be able to ride fast.
As an example, the numerous changes to the Donut Ride course over the decades have almost always come at the impetus of the fastest riders (let’s forget the landslide in San Pedro for a moment). When the course moved from a rest stop at Marymount to a full ascent to the radar domes, it was because the two fastest riders at the time, Stathis Sakellariadis and Greg Leibert, put their imprimatur of approval on the change.
Control in racing and in the competitive group ride was always ultimately exercised by the fastest riders.
Of course this was anathema to a great many people who enjoyed group rides, so they declined to participate and formed a different kind of group ride. These rides were denominated variously, “no-drop” being a common moniker, but what they all had in common was a ride leader or ride leaders who exercised control not by virtue of their speed but because of some other power factor such as wealth, age, years of experience, past race results, board membership, personal commitment to a ride or a cause, or simply being the person who started the ride, set forth the rules, and continued showing up to enforce them, a/k/a effort and enthusiasm.
This type of control, the control of personality, was by far the most dominant form of control pre-pandemic, and it created a place for riders of every type and skill level to enjoy cycling with their friends and peers. The benefits to the group ride governed by personalities rather than physical prowess were many.
First, they prevented the punishing mental beating that comes from getting dropped. Getting dropped sucks. Second, they allowed the personalities to dictate when the pace could be altered to their own benefit. In other words, “Today we’re going slow” [because I’m not fit], versus “Today we’re hammering” [because I’m fit] allowed for a modality that leaders could use to their advantage, creating an ideal ride for themselves.
Third, rides controlled by the exercise of personality allowed leaders to bring in riders of any type, whether slow or fast, skilled or unskilled, and force them to submit to the rules of the group. For various reasons people stayed or left. Some would always leave the group because they wanted to go faster or because they preferred a different set of rules or because of personality conflict. Others would stay with the group because it gave them security, a sense of order, predictability, or other benefits such as being part of a group, wearing matching clothing, having people to socialize with off the bike, networking … lots of reasons.
Not least of all is the actual reason of exercise: It’s easy to get in your workout when there is a set time, a set place, and someone is expecting you to be there. Personality rides also allowed participants to enjoy a shared experience. There is a special feeling when you roll up to the Rock in a peloton of 60 people, a unique sense of unity and group accomplishment.
Finally, the “non-competitive” group ride created a place for leaders to lead, and it was a place that could never be created for them if the ride’s sole mechanism for control was speed. Concomitant with that control it created a philosophy for why a particular ride happened in a particular way, and explained perfectly why any particular rider was slower or faster than any other. No one was better than anyone else (wink, wink), but at certain times on certain days on certain segments some folks were more equal than others.
The obvious contrast between the two types of group ride is chaos v. order. On the Donut, you don’t know who’s going to “win” the #fakerace, but you can be pretty sure that it will change from climb to climb and week to week. On the Donut, many who start don’t finish. Sometimes that’s you, and it’s almost always against your will. This is chaotic to be sure but it runs with a fierce and simplistic order, oddly enough. Fastest rider leads. Everyone else follows.
On the personality ride, you get pretty much what you pay for. There may be surprises, but getting shelled and left to fend for yourself as you slink home, beaten and deflated, isn’t one of them. In its most quintessential form, the personality ride makes sure someone stops to help you with your flat. On the Donut, no one cares, and unless you’re towards the front no one even notices. Better luck next week. The personality ride is orderly but has its own oppositional character–it is chaotic because any time something is controlled by personality, the characteristics of the leader(s) will create some level of discord with at least some of the followers.
The pandemic has decimated this order in cycling just as it has decimated social control of the most powerful over the least powerful. I see it every time I ride.
The people who used to throttle and rage on the Donut, Flog, or on NPR are now riding solo, maybe with one or two friends. The extraordinary energy and effort that they once put into prepping for Weekend Worlds has dissipated because there’s no more victory, only the raw output of speed as recorded on Strava or a Garmin. For these people, the pandemic has been rough. There’s not only no one to crush, but far worse, there’s no one to watch them crush.
But the people who have been truly devastated are the ones who invested so heavily in personality rides. Those rides have ended completely, and along with it the control that leaders once exercised over everyone on the ride. No more showing up as the boss of the chain gang, reciting the route and rules of the day, admonishing people what pace to keep or what to do if there’s a flat, no more organization of the peloton, defining where people are permitted to hammer, or explaining the greater physiological training benefits of the ride.
Instead, people who once rode together for the emotional safety of not getting shelled are out riding alone, and there’s no one they can instruct, advise, or admonish. When some hairy-legged dude in a t-shirt blows by them on a climb, there’s no one to look at in shared contempt, no finger to point, nothing to do except acknowledge that you got dropped by a dude in a t-shirt because, speed.
Make no mistake about it. The pandemic and ensuing quarantine have greatly destabilized the minds of people who are heavily invested in the control of others, on the bike and off. Even as the most powerful in society have been forced to submit to the reality of a killer virus and the harsh logic of the quarantine, their psyches have seethed at being deprived of control. As the government and corporations gear up mightily to reassert their control over the least powerful, cycling leaders have likewise sought ways to enforce control over their former minions.
In some cases it has been by sending out pronouncements about how people “should” ride during the pandemic, as if non-medical hobby bicyclists somehow have the credibility or power to tell ordinary people how to ride. Yet in the context of the past, this is exactly what cycling has always done, and what differentiates it from bicycling: Cyclists tell other people what to do; bicyclists ride bicycles.
I think back on all the times I have told people what to do and what not to do while riding and can only laugh at myself, wryly.
Unlike the personality ride leaders, some of the speedy leaders have attempted to reassert control by flagrantly ignoring any and all laws aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. This includes riding in groups, refusing to stay off closed paths and trails, and most tellingly, by behaving as if it’s business as usual and in a matter of weeks we’ll all be back to our usual antics, with the fastest riders sitting atop the control heap in a flashy new Coronovirusy Kit.
I don’t think it’s going to work like that.
I’ve been a personality ride leader, a speedy ride leader, a follower of both types, a solo rider, and a commuter. 40 million unemployed people, a global depression, a pandemic that continues to rage, a poorly functioning government, global trade and political conflict, and a watershed presidential election don’t bode well for things getting back to normal any time soon, by which I mean “ever.”
On a broader level, control will likely be asserted with crushing weight as those with the most power show what happens when the empire strikes back. With cycling? I’m not so sure. An influx of new riders and commuters, a large body of people who have been freed for months now of riding in some type of fake hierarchy, and the general irrelevance of “cycling” to life writ large are going to make it awfully hard for those invested in control of others to climb back in the saddle, so to speak.
Put in its proper context, can you really say that you still care who wins Paris-Roubaix? Can you really say you can’t wait to join a big group and be told what to do? Clearly there are going to be people who try to reinvent the past, same as there are people who only rode because of the group phenomenon and who will do everything in their power to resurrect it. Maybe they’ll succeed.
But in the meantime, this might be a good time to start enjoying what, deep down, you’ve always enjoyed anyway: “Just” riding your bike.
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