The weekend shooting in Arizona has the United States—indeed, much of the world—discussing the need for civility in political discourse and beyond. The shooting of Representative Giffords is a tragic response to someone who represented her district according to her convictions.

One of the great treasures of our planet is its amazing diversity. From the blue whale to the ebola virus, planet Earth is full of unlikely and exciting life. Similarly, human beings are prone to just as diverse an array of beliefs and opinions … and all-too-often we act on those in ways that can horrify.

Where I live, the cycling community is enormous. Within 50 miles of me there are more group rides each week than I can number. There are countless more riders in the area who ride alone or with only a few other cyclists. The groups I ride with are made up of a stunning array of people. We’ve got engineers, shop rats, lawyers, baristas, real estate moguls, coaches, tailors, loan officers and plenty of other professionals. Off the bike, some of these folks and I would agree about very little.

However, on the bike we agree about much. Thank God. For a peloton to work, the riders must aspire to a Borg-like single-mindedness. Few things can result in a crash as quickly as a disorganized pack. It is because of this common ground on the bike I can entertain conversations on any topic with the reassurance that we can remain friends, no matter what we discuss.

The many comments on my recent post on helmets have kept me thinking about the intersection points between personal freedom, rational choices and personal responsibility. One comment in particular got me to thinking more about my views on the responsibility we each bear to our brethren of the peloton.

Each time we roll out for a group ride or race, we’ve done so with certain assumptions about the other riders present. Even if we’ve never met them before, we assume that because they have joined this ride that they know not just the basics of shifting, braking and cornering, but the delicate etiquette of the pack.

Most of you probably learned the basics of pack riding years, if not decades, ago. The unwritten rules are voluminous:

  • Don’t grab your brakes suddenly
  • Hold your line
  • Don’t make unannounced turns that the whole group isn’t making
  • Accelerate when the rest of the group does
  • Don’t chop wheels
  • In a paceline, don’t half-wheel the rider next to you
  • Spit down, not out; same for the nose
  • Don’t let gaps open

You get the idea. Those assumptions are the basis for the peloton itself. After all, without them, we would not be able to go out and ride in a pack. The pack is possible because we assume it will behave in a certain way. Society works best when we operate with a similar set of givens.

There are, however, many other distinctions that can’t be classified under basic riding skills, but fall, at least in my conception, under the heading of etiquette as well.

I admit that when I’m on a group ride, if I see a guy in tube socks, I’ll probably make a comment about Pistol Pete. I’m not likely to follow his wheel either—at least, not in the first hour or two. But I won’t go so far as to say he needs to get with the program. After all, socks don’t really affect the group.

But as I’ve mentioned, not wearing a helmet on a group ride can have consequences for the entire group—at least those who stop—should there be a crash. Not wearing a helmet isn’t the only decision that you make than can have consequences for others. Bottle cages that shoot bottles James Bond-Aston Martin-ejector-seat-style are a hazard to other riders. And riding threadbare tires that could flat at any time simply shows a lack of respect for those around you.

Dissimilarly, riding without a seat bag that contains the items necessary to fix a flat is foolhardy, but not really harmful to the group. Just don’t expect anyone to stop for you, though.

When I was in the Boy Scouts 35 years ago we were always taught, “Be prepared.” The riders I most admire are the ones who seemingly can take anything in stride without the pack-mule-style Camelbak on their shoulders. We all flat, but it’s the rider who has not only the fresh tube and CO2 (for the fastest-possible inflation), but also has the old tire casing for a boot, who gets the points for consideration. I appreciate any rider who stops out of consideration. The kindest turn and best thank-you the rider with the flat can show is the speedy fix. And the guy who carries food enough to help out a bonking rider is especially stylish in my eye.

Showing our gratitude is perhaps one of the classiest turns I see. On occasion I’ve seen one rider buy another a coffee as a measure of gratitude for a strong pull, closing the uncloseable gap, or just stopping for that flat. Riding with cash enough to buy another rider a coffee is preparation of a different order.

It is through the etiquette I described above that makes even the most competitive of rides civil affairs among friends. However, in contemporary discourse there’s a belief that if you can remain civil when discussing the most charged issues—say religion or politics—then it shows you have no conviction. Similarly, if you really take your beliefs to heart, then each engagement is all but a fight to the death.

As a writer, I lack apprehension about wading into any of cycling’s more charged issues. They don’t carry the weight of abortion, socialism or immigration, but most of us have strong feelings where doping, the UCI and even bike building are concerned. That RKP has remained civil in its discourse has less to do with me than it does with you, the readers. As a community, you obviously value this dimension every bit as much as I do.

If there’s any chance that what we experience in our cycling lives can inform our larger lives, then I hope you’ll take some time to follow this link and consider the idea of convicted civility—the possibility that we can have firmly held convictions and yet remain respectful and even warm to those with whom we do not agree.

This was a belief I, myself did not carry for much of my life. I watched James Bond (what is it with me and the Bond references tonight?) films and could never understand how Bond could sit down to a pleasant dinner with some arch villain who he knew was busy plotting our hero’s death. How the hell do you have dinner with a guy who plans to feed you to a shark? No one ever had more on the line than his life, and Bond has never been anything other than polite. James Bond may seem a trite metaphor, but I suggest that we cyclists—in our quest to vanquish competitors under the most physical of circumstances—understand the value of civility better than most.

In civility lies the future of dialog in this world. And we, as cyclists, can inform that conversation with our peers.

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    I grew up with my mother’s words ringing in my ears “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” I am now living with the most beautiful South American wife whose motto is more of “if it’s on your mind, get it out there!”.
    I’ve always lingered somewhere between the two extremes and I too appreciate that the forum you provide Padraig, is frequented by those of similar a mindset.
    Good Form should not be limited only to the bike.

  2. Jim

    Civility probably starts with our media betters not imputing responsibility for the acts of a severely mentally ill person to their political opponents. I agree we need more civility in our politics, but that cat left that particular bag a long, long time ago.

  3. donncha

    @Jim While the Palin et al. aren’t directly responsible for the shooting, claiming that the vitriol which passed for political commentary in the US today didn’t contribute somewhat to the problem is just sticking one’s head in the sand.

    Rational people can ignore the vitriol, or realise it’s deliberately over the top, but there are those of, let’s say, unsound mind who will take it literally, and possibly act upon it. Whether that’s what happened in this case or whether the correlation between the crosshairs and the shooting was just a coincidence might be too early to say, but civility disappeared from politics in the US quite a few years ago, and perhaps, awful as it may sound, this killing can be the catalyst for toning things down.

  4. Grizzly Adam


    There is nothing that remotely suggests that this kid who pulled the trigger paid any attention at all to political commentary. To suggest that his actions are a result of such is to both undermine the democratic process and spirited exchange of ideas, and to absolve the shooter of the guilt that rests squarely and entirely on his shoulders. It is to suggest that the inevitable end to debate is violence.

    Nevermind that his odd obsession with Rep. Giffords pre-dates Palin’s appearance on the national scene, or that if one were so inclined, could point to all sorts of possible political imagery or tenuous, far-reaching causes for his outburst. None of which are anything better than a gigantic leap to a conclusion that only serves to validate ones own world view.

    The discussion today ought to be about the amazing acts of bravery and heroism that saved lives on Saturday, not the petty point-scoring of political hacks looking to demonize those who they disagree with.

    Passionate debate is healthy. It is necessary. It is the foundation of liberty and freedom. To tone that down, or to be forced to tone it down serves only to hand over more liberty to those who seek its confiscation.

  5. Nelson

    A thought… I ride with a big group, about 90, for a charity ride in Michigan for the Make-A-Wish foundation. We are the largest group and, relatively speaking, one of the most experienced. We ride safe but fast over the 300 miles. Over the years we have gotten a bad image from some of the slower, less experienced riders. They say we ride too fast, pass too close, and don’t follow proper safety guide lines.

    While a very small percent of our riders may deserve that image, the vast majority are some of the best and most courteous people that I am lucky enough to know.

    I took it upon my self to change our “image” one rider at a time. Each person I passed, talked to, helped change flats, filled their water bottles, gave encouragement, sat next to for lunch. (It seamed like most of the 900+ riders) were met with a huge smile and a thank you, a congratulations for their accomplishments, both physical and charity, and any other reason i could think of for that person to see our team in a better light, I did it.

    In short, it wast noticed. I was receiving thank you’s from people i haven’t met, my team mates and our team captain. The most gratifying part of the whole experience was when I was told that I made others around me “up their game” when all i really did, was show up and smile. I may not be able to change everyone’s mind, but i changed enough.

    Everyone can make a difference, one rider at a time.

  6. trekdude

    This past Fall, I came upon a rider on the road back into town. He was standing over on the side, off his bike, on his cell phone. I slowed up and asked, as any of us would, “are you OK, you got everything?” He said, no, that he tried to repair his rear puncture and his spare tube didn’t hold the CO2. He was on his third call to get someone to come get him. Well, I had just had a good solo ride and was about 1 mile from home and it was no problem to stop and lend him my spare tube and CO2. We swapped cell numbers and rode together about a half mile into town until we split towards separate, but close, neighborhoods. He said he would get with me and return my spare tube/CO2. I told him just return it when he could come ride with our Saturday morning group. He said he would rather return them sooner. The next day, he texted me asking for my home address. I replied. About an hour later, there was a knock at my door and his outstretched hand with two boxed tubes and a box of two CO2 cartridges! I was pretty stunned… and as I write this, I find myself still pretty buzzed about the good that is still out there.

    The shooting in Arizona this past Saturday is just wrong, for whatever reasons.

    I find allot of solace and peace, these crazy days, in all the good and positive aspects of cycling. I find cyclists, in general, a really good group of people.

  7. Jim

    >>>>Rational people can ignore the vitriol, or realise it’s deliberately over the top, but there are those of, let’s say, unsound mind who will take it literally, and possibly act upon it.

    How much are you willing to censor yourself, and our political scene, on the chance that some severely mentally ill person just might possibly be set off by it and do something violent? Tolerating speech I dislike is the flipside of being able to say things that others disagree with. Padraig’s writing, for instance, would be pretty darned boring, if he had to self-censor his praise of Mad Alchemy, for fear it would set off some deranged Quoleum lover (and believe me, some embrophiles are in fact deranged).

    The downside of free speech is that sometimes one’s feelings get hurt, one gets mad sometimes, and maybe even it causes crazy people to do crazy things. I would prefer that we would ignore what the insane might do, and focus more on our own exchange of ideas. Starting from that premise, civility is a balm, it’s what I put on my mindset when you say something that pisses me off. I remember to be civil, and I don’t lash out in return. This has nothing to do with insane loners and everything to do with finding better ways to respect the rights of others.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for sharing your views on this. I must echo others here and say I’m constantly amazed and reassured by just how wonderful cyclists are.

      Jim: I think you make some great observations, but I must admit I don’t entirely share your view. Let’s take an example with a little more relevance and a little sharper consequence. What if I were to say, “You know, I’m completely fed up with Pat McQuaid. His spineless leadership combined with his self-serving rhetoric has ruined cycling. Bike racing is a shadow of what it used to be and it is high time someone hooked his wheel into the grave.”

      Again, please dear God, remember, that was strictly a hypothetical. I do not think anything of the sort. My personal view is that such language has no place in civil society. But I’m assured the freedom of speech, aren’t I? So I could say that. And what if someone decided to take action against Mr. McQuaid? Would I bear any responsibility? It’s a matter of perspective. You may or may not think I’m culpable. Between me and my maker, my conscience wouldn’t allow me another decent night of sleep for as long as my heart beats.

      It’s going to be hard to convince some people that words have the power to incite others who lack motivation of their own. I believe they do.

  8. Howard

    Griz, I agree the shooter is entirely responsible but we don’t live in a vacuum, but a society. You don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You might not trample someone outright, but… Bravery and heroism are actually stong human drives, normal aspirations. The nasty baiting seen in our current politics is not passionate debate but egomaniacal powerlust. I don’t favor legislating behavior, but if this conversation can effect our vision of who we as a culture want to be, then all the better. Unfortunately media over the past century increasingly turns discourse into postureing with increasing effect, which makes blogs like RKP so enjoyable as a contrast along with the many its fine readers.
    Lets go for a ride

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