Monday, June 2, 2008

It's Not About The Riding: Cycling, Blogging and the Grey Lady

One of my favorite things about cycling—and about our culture in general—is that you don’t have to deal with pesky things like time, effort, and experience if you want to do or be something. All you need is money. After all, “understanding” is overrated. It’s much more satisfying (and a whole lot easier) to simply bypass all that, fork over the Amex, and have everything handed to you in a shiny bag with a big logo on it.

Take for example “The Climb,” a new blog on The New York Times website to which a number of people have alerted me:

..The Climb is a blog that will chart my attempt, as a 41-year-old beginner cyclist who has never been in a bike race of any kind — and had never ridden even 50 miles in one day until last Saturday — to find out what it takes for an ordinary, not-particularly-fit mortal to survive a single, grueling, mountain stage of the world's greatest cycling race.

Basically, about a year or so ago the author, Robert Mackey, rode a hybrid around Central Park a few times and decided he wanted to know what it would be like to ride in the Tour:

I began to wonder how my struggles to get myself up the steep hill at the northern edge of the park compared to what the television commentators described as the "suffering" Lance and the rest of the peloton endured on their way up the Tour's great climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

If Mr. Mackey had contacted me back then with that question, I would have saved him some time. Firstly, I’d have explained to him that they don’t compare at all. Secondly, I’d have told him that all real cyclists, regardless of ability or riding style, understand the “suffering” of the peloton because they too know what it’s like to suffer on a bike. They suffer in amateur races; they suffer on long solo rides; they suffer over technical terrain; they even suffer to and from work as they risk death on streets teeming with SUVs driven by road rage-addled idiots because they’d rather be injured doing something they love than while away their mornings in a box being miserable.

So had Mr. Mackey really wanted to know what suffering is like, he’d simply have kept riding as much and as hard as possible. Maybe eventually he’d do some group rides, which would introduce him to a new level of difficulty. Then, once he got comfortable, maybe he’d try a race and get to ride up that same hill in Central Park at race pace at the back of the Cat 5 field. (Assuming he wasn’t dropped by then.) But of course, all this would take time and effort. Also, we’d have been deprived of his blog. Thankfully, though, he wisely took the “spend money now and the results will follow” approach:

I found a travel company in Nebraska with a French name, Velo Echappe, that takes Americans to France to ride in L'√Čtape. I signed up for their deluxe package, which includes entry into the race, two private feed zones along the route, the attention of professional mechanics and three nights in "the finest hotel in the entire Pyrenees Region," conveniently located across the street from the starting line.

To that end, when I did buy a bike to take with me to France, I got a Cervelo R3, the lightest one I could (nearly) afford.

I suspect at this point some of you out there might be getting mad. But I say, Good for you, Robert Mackey! You’re special, and you know that as a special person you shouldn’t have to muck about with the tedious and indignant process of riding your bike before knowing what it’s like to be a professional athlete at the very top of what is very possibly the most physically demanding sport in the world. Some of you might also be wondering, What qualifies this person to blog about cycling under the imprimatur of a newspaper of record like The New York Times? Well, like all newspapers The New York Times is wilting due to increasing irrelevance, so it’s only natural that they would want to publish a cycling blog on their website in an attempt to seem vital. It’s also only natural that they would go for a blog with a stupid reality show-esque premise and an author who’s a complete dilettante and appears simply to be looking for an excuse to buy expensive stuff and go to France. And most importantly, the Times has a rich heritage to uphold of publishing insipid articles about rich idiots and their expensive bikes. Like this one. And this one. And this one.

Hey, it’s the right of every privileged person to put the cart before the horse (or in the case of Mr. Mackey, the Cervelo before the whore) by buying lots of stuff before understanding how to even use that stuff. And hey, how can you be expected ride your shiny new Cervelo when you’re busy?

... just over a year ago, fate dealt me a kind blow. I got a new position at The Times, as a Web producer, and the transition made it nearly impossible for me to devote enough time to training for the race, so I put it off for a year.

Never mind that the world is full of doctors, lawyers, executives, business owners, construction workers, parents, craftsmen, contractors, plumbers, law enforcement officers, and so on who also manage to ride their bikes and race competitively. Fat Cyclist has a full-time career, a wife who’s ill, and like seventeen kids, and he not only rides every one of his fourteen bikes but he also races them and blogs about it incessantly. None of those people are Robert Mackey though, and none of them understand the difficulty of being Robert Mackey nor can imagine the demands placed on Robert Mackey on a daily basis. Also, he got sick:

...I barely rode my bike all winter, felled first by a bad case of bronchitis, and then by a badly infected tooth and what might turn out to be an allergy to my cat.

Hey, Mackey’s hero Lance Armstrong may have ridden his bike while recovering from cancer, but I doubt even Mellow Johnny himself could have stood up to cat dander.

Fortunately, though, it seems Mackey has recovered enough from the sneezing and itchy eyes to start spending money again. It would appear that with a few weeks to go he’s done what any sensible non-cyclist would do and paid someone to bail him out:

I’m finally two weeks into a serious eight-week training program sketched out by a coach at a place called Cadence Cycling in TriBeCa here in New York, whose other clients all seem to be training for insanely hard triathlons on even more insanely expensive bikes than mine. When I described what I wanted to do, and what little I’d done so far, my coach offered this assessment of my chances: “it’s not impossible.”

“It’s not impossible” indeed. Nothing’s impossible if you pay for it. Speaking of money, Mackey wants you to know every dollar he’s spending on this ego-fest is his own:

I am paying for all this entirely on my own and am not in any way sponsored by any of the companies that I’ve mentioned or linked to so far. I paid full-price for the bike, the coaching package, the trip, and the three-day immersion course in climbing (and descending!) skills I took last summer in North Carolina.

Thanks, Robert. Some of us were starting to question the extent of your self-indulgence. I would have been dismayed to find out some of this stuff had been given to you, and I’m relieved to know every bit of gross excess is your own. I’m also glad that you’re writing about all of this now, instead of waiting until after you’d finished and maybe actually learned something. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? Buy now, pay later. I’d wish you luck, but it doesn’t sound like you need it. Once you do cross the finish line, you will have accomplished something truly special in that you’ll have gone from being a clueless hybrid rider to a clueless Tour de France stage finisher without ever having experienced the joy of cycling or the satisfaction of discovering something for yourself. So in the spirit of putting the cart before the horse, I’d like to congratulate you on your fine finish in advance. I look forward to hearing what expensive hobby you decide to flirt with and blog about next.