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.