Being Cyclists

In college, when I was doing an extremely rewarding and valuable liberal arts degree, I took a number of classes in the Philosophy of Identity taught by a former Finnish opera singer. Many of the texts assigned for these classes employed the classic brain-in-a-vat thought experiment to test out various theories of self-perception. They were all, without exception, stultifyingly boring, but the former opera singer was a very nice lady, and her classes fulfilled a requirement that allowed me to graduate a semester early and save my parents a half a metric ton of money.

My take away from those classes was that identity is a complicated mess of misperceptions and half-truths, much like the value proposition of a liberal arts degree.

Given the opportunity to talk about ourselves, we make bold statements like, “I am a cyclist” or “I am a writer,” as if those temporary actions derive from some deeper sense of purpose or intention. The bicycle is always a bicycle, unless it is destroyed, but is the cyclist still a cyclist when he stops cycling?

See, these are the sorts of annoying questions you get all day, once you’ve committed to the liberal arts.

In practical terms, we perpetuate the parts of temporary identity we like and want to project to other people. We are cyclists. You can tell by our shaven legs, bicycle-related t-shirts and funny tan lines. This part of identity is a creation, painting ourselves onto other people’s eyeballs. We spend obnoxious amounts of time (and money) on this. When it becomes too obvious that this is what we are doing, we are called vain, and we retreat into more covert ways to get our story across, like writing a blog.

The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “Looking Glass Self” to describe the complicated ballet of projected identity. “I am not what I think I am,” he said. ” and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am.” By wearing this cool t-shirt, I give you the clues you need to form the right idea of me. Look at my funny, little hat. I am pretending I don’t look silly, because as a cyclist, this is what I do.

In the suburban milieu I move in, “what do you do?” is a common question, a way to figure out who someone is and how they fit into the world. Unless the person standing next to you at your kid’s soccer game has a white coat and stethoscope around their neck, what are you going to do?

What I usually say is, “I sell custom bicycles,” which invariably occasions looks of strained credulity and some mention of a bike hanging in a garage somewhere, rusting. When push comes to shove, I tell a more complete story, which often results in the same reaction. Sometimes, as it turns out, we give the world clues it fails to use to solve our personal mystery. My interlocutors look at me askance. “Custom bicycles,” their eyes say, “is that a real thing?”

It is, but it is probably not WHO I am.

What I would like to say, even to this vocational question, is “I am a cyclist,” but that implies one of two things. I am unemployed and riding my bike is the most worthwhile thing I can come up with to tell you about, or I get paid to ride a bike. I am a professional. Neither of those things is true, and they just make the conversation more complicated, so…

Maybe, if we accept Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” (tidbits like this are the province of the liberally educated) then the corollary, “I am what I think,” is also true. In that case, I really am a cyclist. In those moments when I ought to have been paying attention to Finnish opera singers, I was probably, at least mentally, riding my bike. Even now, as I’m typing, I’m up a hillside, rocking in the pedals, the wind stroking my helmetless hair (I eschew safety in my daydreams), the effort costing me nothing. I was breaking finish lines, kissing podium girls. I was busy.

As I said last week, I am easily distracted, even from my distractions.

And I like this idea of spontaneous identity, the one that comes from my daydreams and my passions. If I had paid closer attention, I might be able to tell you something about yourself as a brain-in-a-vat, something logically true but not altogether comforting. Unfortunately, that’s not how I roll (athankyouverymuch), even though I managed to graduate cum laude from an esteemed institution. The hard parts of academia escaped me. Call me liberally artistic.

In my mind, it all comes back to the stories we tell ourselves and others, personal myth-making. That these things may not, strictly-speaking, be true, or at least gross over-simplifications of who we really are, I find them comfortable and comforting.

Tell them all you’re a cyclist. Keep a straight face. Skip class/work/jury duty. Ride your bike. It’s who you are.

Illustration from L’homme de René Descartes, et la formation du foetus…. Paris: Compagnie des Libraires, 1729.

Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

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  1. C_hris

    Ah yes, the paradox of self-fashioning, by which the malleability of identity is made apparent in our efforts to concretize it. Didn’t Walt Whitman say it best?

    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

    My identity as a cyclist is as dramaturgical as my identity as a professional, or as a husband or as a son, and perception is the only liberation. Thanks for this post, it unexpectedly brought to mind many things I had not perceived for some time.

  2. Champs

    To me it’s about getting to the next mile marker, hitting the apex of the turn, or just keeping the bike upright enough that I don’t have to unclip before the bike starts rolling backwards down the climb.

    I don’t think podium girls have ever been part of the fantasy.

  3. Doug Page

    To quote the great philosopher Kramer, when asked “are you going to L.A.?” he said, “In my head I’m already there.”
    And in my head I’m cycling in France,…even though my body is watching the Giro from my couch in Sacramento. As Kramer said; I’m “already there”.

  4. WV Cycling

    Dear @Robot,

    I’m starting to gather information that makes me feel like deep inside you, there’s a possibility that you’re ([un?]admittedly) an insecure person. Confirm/Deny/Abort?

    – WV Cycling

    P.S. not an attack. I’m just trying to whittle this bar of soap into the the Robot that I am imagining in my own head.

  5. scaredskinnydog

    Wow! You smart guys talk about some heavy stuff. I get most of my philosophical reasoning from the classic masterpiece Caddyshack.
    “See the bike, be the bike”, and of course my life’s mantra “gunga da gunga de la gunga”.

  6. Sachi

    Ah, but skipping jury duty will get you arrested for contempt of court and thrown in the pokey. Probably best not to recommend that.

    You can, however, ride to your jury service!

  7. eLK

    Ahhhh. Am I a cyclist? Yes, it’s my chosen sport. Like why am I not a runner (which I was very good at but don’t enjoy as much)?

    I think to much, therefore I am over educated.

    I had a Dr. who said, as an example of why I need to take care of myself ( I had over indulged). “If a racehorse is not racing is it no longer a racehorse?”

    I am an athlete, so is the racehorse. I choose cycling. My mind is very busy.

  8. Michael

    “In my mind, it all comes back to the stories we tell ourselves and others, personal myth-making. That these things may not, strictly-speaking, be true, or at least gross over-simplifications of who we really are, I find them comfortable and comforting.”

    This, perhaps makes at least some of the liberal arts major worthwhile in cycling. I cherish the stories, the myths, the bullshit. We tell our stories, read/listen to others, and the whole time we’re just reiterating that we ride our bikes for obnoxious amounts of time. Then again, you don’t need a B.A. to appreciate that aspect of the sport.

    Really though, I’m just trying to validate this degree that I’m about to graduate with. Trying to ride and write my way into it, I suppose.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Author

      And we were just talking about junket the other day. Now blancmange. Perhaps there is a custardy conspiracy afoot.

  9. Rollthreefour

    WV and Robot, I have never settled my bill with Descartes, but perhaps “I think, therefore am insecure” might be a happy concession.

  10. Robot

    @rollthreefour – I like that. I find, when you have a choice between thinking and doing, doing is almost always the better bet.

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