Code of the Road

I’m just young enough that the movie and television Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s escaped me. Even when Daniel Boone, Bonanza and other shows of the genre went into reruns, I never got the bug. I didn’t play cowboys and Indians; my friends and I were the third-grade equivalent of WWII re-enactors.

However, my father was a big fan of the Westerns and a few years ago we visited the Gene Autry Museum. It was a curious place to me. I find 10-gallon hats odd in the same way most folks think cycling shorts are strange. Among the things we encountered was a display with Autry’s Cowboy Code. I knew nothing of Autry’s reputation as the gentleman cowboy and on first reading, I found the code to be quaint.

Here’s Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code:

1)    The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2)    He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3)    He must always tell the truth.

4)    He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

5)    He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6)    He must help people in distress.

7)    He must be a good worker.

8)    He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

9)    He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.

10) The Cowboy is a patriot.

The opportunities for ridicule and comedy are just too plentiful and easy. See rule 1.

I read it a second time and was reminded of the Boy Scouts’ Laws (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent … yes, I still remember them).

As I considered them further, I began to see that the code reflected many of my views on how I believe I should behave on group rides. As I’m only slightly more exemplary a citizen than Rod Blagojevich, let me say this is what I aspire to.

We’ll take them as a David Letterman-style top-10 list:

10) The rider is a patriot. I take this to mean representing my team well. I’m not going out swaddled in stars and stripes on each ride, but I think I do have a responsibility to try not to be a d@#$ (always), especially when I’m in my team’s kit.

9) He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws. While most of the women riders I know I’ve been riding with for at least 10 years (and the last thing they want from me is pity masquerading as chivalry), every now and then a new woman shows up. I do what I can to helpful. Parents? Still don’t know where that one fits, but respecting my nation’s laws I translate as sticking with the group’s etiquette. This means not blowing a red light if the group is stopping, and it also means not stopping at the stop sign if the group is rolling and there are riders behind me.

8) He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits. There is little hope for my thoughts, so we’ll just move along. As for speech, this is one I have to work on. Once, at the turnaround for a TTT, my teammate leading into the turn stood up and sprinted away from us and the rest of us were still rounding the cone. I unleashed a shotgun spray of expletives intended to slow him down; all it did was come within a couple of quarks of getting us disqualified. How clean are my actions and personal habits? I’m not doing anything that could be construed as doping. No problems there.

7) He must be a good worker. This one is obvious isn’t it? Get to the front and do your turn. That’s been harder of late, but I’ve never been one to shirk my pull. I’ll kill myself for a teammate. Love that stuff.

6) He must help people in distress. I usually stop for riders in my group who flat, but admit there are times when something else short-circuits me and I don’t pull over. I always feel embarrassed later. I often stop for riders I don’t know, though on one occasion I was with a friend and we asked a guy if he had everything. He responded, “If I did, do you think I’d be standing here?” As smart-ass goes, it was pretty funny, and we decided he should get the chance to use the line on some other folks. Maybe not the best choice.

5) He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. ‘Nuff said. That stuff doesn’t play well anywhere.

4) He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. For me, this refers to the care I take when I’m riding on the bike path or through residential and retail areas where there are people about. Charging down the bike path in my big ring at noon ranks on the morality scale way ahead of Goldman Sachs partner, but it still isn’t cool.

3) He must always tell the truth. I’ve been known to tell a fib or two (per day), but for me, this one, again, resonates with doping. Not really a problem where group rides are concerned, but because this is aspirational and my aspirations key on the PROs, that’s how my sense of truth in cycling is tuned.

2) He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him. I suck at this. It’s not that I can’t be taken in confidence, the problem is when I say I’ll show up on a ride, what I mean is that I intend to be there. A lousy night of sleep for me, my wife or the little guy can derail my plans like a toy train swatted by a cat. Diseases go double. I mean to be there, even when I’m glad I’m not rolling out of the garage.

1) The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage. Okay, there are exceptions to everything and this is no … nevermind. If you don’t attack first, then you have, at best, counter attacked. Now, I see hitting a smaller man in more metaphoric terms; I see this in terms of hitting the ill-equipped: Don’t attack a newcomer or Fred. In other words, don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.

As for the last element, the admonition not to take an unfair advantage, I see this as the ultimate gentleman litmus test. If you hear the sound of people crashing, do you attack? I have to admit when I was a new racer, I’d drill it when I heard grinding metal. I soon realized that once I really knew my competition I wanted to make sure that if we didn’t all get to the finish together it needed to be for sporting reasons. On those occasions the riders most likely to finish ahead of me flatted out, I discounted my performance in my head.

Opinions varied wildly about Alberto Contador’s counter attack to Andy Schleck’s attack during stage 15 of the Tour, and the incident is a subtext to this post that can be scarcely avoided. On a training ride, attacking when another rider has crashed strikes me as inexcusable. In racing, when a career is on the line, I can understand that someone might not choose to wait. Waiting is nothing short of classy, but racing rarely rewards class. But what is more PRO than class?

Still, if Tyler Farrar wins a sprint, I will cheer more if he comes off Mark Cavendish’s wheel, rather than if Mark Cavendish’s wheel comes off.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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8 comments

  1. randomactsofcycling

    It’s as true on the road as in other parts of life: some people get it and some people don’t. I ride with a club and a core group that understand what goes and what doesn’t. Sometimes newer riders slowly develop their sense of what’s on and what’s not. There are some that just never do. It’s not that they are necessarily bad people but they have clearly missed something in their upbringing.
    I do like that cycling seems one of the last bastions of true sportsmanship. Even when playing my local “Over 35s” football, there’s some dodgy stuff going on. I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed much other than a bit of bluffing going on in Masters racing here.
    I think this topic could just as easily have applied to Cancellara’s actions on Stage 2 of this year’s Tour. Sportsmanship or Gamesmanship?

  2. Robot

    I think the allusions to a ‘code’ and ‘class’ are important here. When Contador counter-attacked Schleck’s mechanical, I though to myself, “He’s within the code to attack, BUT it would have been much classier to wait.” That didn’t stop Coppi and Bartali from killing each other every time one or the other flatted. Their propensity for attacking when the other had a mechanical is legendary, and it was part of the code of the time. It was a different time.

    My own aspirations are to stay within the code at all times, and occasionally, when I can muster it, to attempt some small bit of class.

  3. David A

    This is a hard one. Like Robot I want to be a “Cowboy” and have what would be looked upon by other riders as class. The lines between Code Hero and reality start to blur when pain and sweat and suffering start throwing left hooks. I have seen some ugly stuff in the race game…Kermis combine kings throw glasses of beer and then the glass in the winners face because he wouldnt sell the race to him at the prize table. And I have had team mates pull me to within 100 meters of a break and then give me a handsling so I could bridge while they gave up their chances of a prize….PRO Class

  4. Mike

    Parents … maybe respecting those who have more time in the saddle, miles under their wheels, and experience/wisdom on their side than newer and/or younger riders? I’ve met too many young guns who think that they know it all and just because they might be a bit faster (but not always!) don’t have to bother with anything experienced riders have to say/share. Seems like a fair parallel.

  5. michael

    Definition of class – the rider on the group ride who hits the hills hard and gaps everyone, clearly much stronger – then said rider turning around at the top, bombing back down and then proceding to pace/shelter/encourage/shepard the slowest rider(s) in the group up to the top.

    I like those riders, especially on those rare occasions where I am fit/strong enough to be that rider and give back to those who have given. Even those strong riders have their bad days, and banking some solid karma points will always get you paid with interest on those days.

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