JERRY: (Bravely) Well, what if I deliver it?
NEWMAN: You?! (Laughs hysterically) You can't deliver mail!
JERRY: Well, why not?
NEWMAN: (Thinks for a moment) I guess you're right. It's just walking around putting it into boxes...
While on the surface this just appears to be typical Seinfeldian repartee, it actually expresses a fundamental truth about life, which is that despite our best attempts to obfuscate it, it's actually boneheadedly simple. Really, life is just walking around putting stuff into boxes. Eighty percent of success really is just showing up, as Soon-Yi Previn/Farrow's husband/father once quipped. Tend your garden, as French writer Cabaret Voltaire once advised. That's it. There's no big secret. Before enlightenment you carry water and sweep the floor. After enlightenment you carry water and sweep the floor. And so forth.
Cycling is really no different, and as much as we like to think it's some rarefied pursuit that transcends everyday life that's really not the case--even when it comes to competitive cycling, which, for all the power meters and coaches and electronic equipment and "weird style diktats," really just comes down to this:
The problem, though, is that it's really hard to market the notion that cycling (or indeed life) is as simple as walking around and putting stuff into boxes. Like Newman, we all need to believe we possess some arcane knowledge or rarefied skill or "gnosis" attainable only by a tiny portion of the human population. If we're selling something, our job is to tempt people with this ineffable "gnosis" by burying it under phrases like "laterally stiff and vertically compliant" or by implying that this year's $2,000 component group lost those three crucial grams that were keeping last year's $2,000 component group from bringing you all the way to having a complete and total Zen-tastic bike-gasm all over your laterally stiff and vertically compliant crabon frame. Or, if we're buying, we need to believe that we're nearly there, and by spending just a little more money we can finally enjoy sweet, explosive release. It's what makes retail prices like these possible:
Yes, marketing is a subtle art. Give consumers too little and they get blueballs and go elsewhere. Give them too much and they climax too soon and start thinking clearly again. The truly gifted marketer can keep you right there in the middle, sometimes for years at a time, sucking the cash from your wallet like a stripper with a Miele.
This illusory "gnosis" concept doesn't just apply to selling stuff, either. It also applies to marketing the idea of ourselves, or our own lifestyles. We all need to believe we're the Navy SEALs in the Girl Scouts of Life, when in reality most of us are the Old Navy fleece pullover in the Wardrobe of Mediocrity. Cyclists--American cyclists in particular--are especially adept at deluding themselves in this manner. Consider this excerpt from a comment in support of daredevil cycling videographer Lucas Brunelle:
Almost every fatality and bad cycling accident in NYC is caused by an inattentive driver and an inexperienced cyclist. The driver is usually at fault but a rider like Lucas would never get hit by an inattentive driver. In my opinion the videos make it look a lot more dangerous than it really is. This is nearly impossible to understand unless you are able to ride at the same level which very few people are able too (or want to). A skilled urban rider's interference with traffic and pedestrians is extremely limited. If you are crossing the street Lucas will pass by you like a gust of wind. You won't even notice his presence until he's passed you and already a block away.
A gust of wind? Seriously? Sure, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking you're insubstantial and spirit-like when you don't stick around to interact with the people you're pissing off. Plus, when was the last time you saw a gust of wind make a documentary about itself? Then again, the "wind" analogy isn't totally off, since blowing through a busy intersection at full speed is a lot like laying a huge fart and then leaving the room.
More stunning though is the notion that "a rider like Lucas would never get hit by an inattentive driver," and that injury and death is somehow the exclusive domain of the hapless "noob." On the self-delusion hierarchy, thinking you're immortal lies on the very top. It's the greatest human folly. This has been true throughout history, from the Egyptian pharaohs and their lavish tombs, to the search for the Fountain of Youth, to people who think they are vampires. (Vampirism is often the next stop after Star Wars roleplaying.)
Of course, if it were actually true that "skilled urban cyclists" were immune from harm then there would be no need for a Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund, yet someone saw fit to create one. This is because there's usually a sizable gap between reality and the "gnosis myth," which is articulated perfectly in the above comment:
This is nearly impossible to understand unless you are able to ride at the same level which very few people are able too (or want to).
"Impossible to understand," really? This may be true of particle physics, but it's simply not true of riding a bike in a city. I do agree with the Brunelle apologists about one thing, which is that riding a bike in an urban environment--even at high speeds--is simply not all that remarkable. The subjects of Brunelle's videos don't really have skills beyond those of the typical Dutch commuter--or the typical American commuter for that matter. They're just more vain and are thus willing to take more risks in the service of theatrics.
But it won't do to acknowledge the fact that the new bike commuter on the freshly-purchased Public will possess most of these essential "nearly impossible to understand" skills in a matter of weeks, or that the only "gnosis" involved in cycling is the decision to ride a bike in the first place. (Yes, in America you are still "crossing the Rubicon" when you decide to ride a bike, so in that respect you are somewhat remarkable.) This is because cyclists all need to be better than each other. Further to yesterday's post someone on Twitter alerted me to an article in the New York Times about "hipsters," and it contained the following quote:
Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.
Just as social classes claim true knowledge of "taste," cycling subcultures claim true possession of "skills" even though they're mostly just doing the same thing in different clothes. Who has better bike-handling skills, the urban cyclist or the amateur racer? Does it really matter? They're all dorks! It's like arguing about who would win in a fight: Batman, or Darth Vader. (Uh, Darth Vader. Duh...) And no matter what you wear, or how unimaginably awesome your skills are, the distinctions become meaningless when someone whacks you in the face with a brick:
In any case, it's easy to fall into the myth of your own awesomeness, so I find it helpful to remind myself once and awhile that we all suck at riding bikes, and that the one of us who sucks the least wins* the Tour de France. It's really not much more complicated than that. This doesn't preclude our spending a bunch of money on a crabon "halo bike" or an artisanal custom dreamcycle, just so long as we keep in mind that focusing entirely on the bike is like picking a university based on how comfortable the chairs in the lecture hall are. Some companies have done a remarkable job of marketing the equivalent of taking a correspondence course while sitting in an ergonomic chaise lounge.
*(Pending the results of the bloodwork.)
Ultimately, we're all just walking around putting stuff in boxes, though some of us do suck at this more than others:
Bike crash on Brooklyn bridge by 10:30 - m4w - 20 (Brooklyn bridge)
Date: 2011-12-13, 2:55PM EST
I crash when I was on my bike, you were taking photos and just walked in to the path bike i warned you but because of all the traffic noise you did not hear me; and it was late I push my rear brake but you was closely and when I pushed both brakes the front one trow me off of the bike and I I hit you . I'm so sorry about your camera but I'm glad you are ok, you asked me if I was ok you were really nice to me and the people who helped us. I just got some scratches on my legs and my helmet got broken wish I release when I got home.
Email me if you read this I wanna help you get another camera because yours got broken
That never would have happened if he didn't have any brakes.