NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
My bike club has a group e-mail list and we often get into long chains of messages on bike-related topics. After all, most of us have been riding and/or racing for decades and have strong opinions. Recently my friend Mark e-mailed around a link to “The Rules” on a bike-geek website called velominati.com. There was no message text, but the subject line read, “We need to annotate this list … Dana?” I glanced through the list of rules and knew right away there would be much to say on this topic. Maybe too much.
Well, too much for the e-mail list, anyway. Some guys love the endless message cycles, at least some of the time, but others hate them at least half the time, due to Inbox bloat. Besides, as I discovered when I delved deeper into The Rules, they need to be thoroughly rebutted, and this rebuttal should be as widely accessible as the list itself. This isn’t a matter of a few rules needing some tweaks, but a fundamental problem of the authors’ approach, as I shall describe.
(In this post I won’t go through and annotate The Rules one-by-one, even though that’s what my teammate originally proposed. Rather, I’ll save that for a future post.)
A quick aside about the name Velominati: in this post I will refer to the authors of The Rules as “the Velominati guys.” I reckon I’m supposed to just call them “the Velominati,” as I would with “illuminati,” but I refuse.
The rules at first glance
At first blush, The Rules look like fun. There are clear-cut mandates in this list about a variety of topics that get debated on my club, such as sock color, whether cycling shorts need to be black, and whether or not the little knurled lock-ring on your inner tube valve should be discarded. The Rules list covers aesthetic matters that deserve to be covered, like the orientation of quick-release levers and the need to keep your bars level. There’s a decent amount of wit involved, like Rule #51, “Livestrong wristbands are cockrings for your arms.”
So I figured, okay, this is kind of like a style guide in “GQ” magazine, a compilation of little sartorial pointers. Not the kind of thing I normally pore over, but if somebody is seeking to fit in better with the elite cycling crowd, I don’t have a problem with that. But when I left off skimming the list randomly and started reading from the beginning, right away I had a bit of a problem with Rule #3, “Guide the uninitiated.” Who am I to tell some novice that he or she is doing something wrong? I don’t want that job, and probably a lot of novice riders couldn’t care less about tan lines being razor sharp or the right way to position their sunglasses.
But it wasn’t until I got to Rule #5, “Harden The Fuck Up,” that I started to get a bit riled. Now I see that this isn’t just a list of aesthetic do’s and don’ts, but a document that’s going to cast aspersions on how hard people should ride. Since the writers can’t know much about their potential audience, I guess they figure everybody needs to harden the fuck up. So they’re on the brink of calling readers like me poseurs, which is a pretty bold move when they’re giving advice about how, when hanging around a café after your ride, “having your cap skull-side tipped jauntily at a rakish angle is, one might say, de rigueur.”
Then, right after “harden the fuck up,” they get into psychobabble territory with Rule #6, “Free your mind and your legs will follow,” and how you should “wrap yourself in the sensations of the ride – the smell of the air, the sound of the tires, the feeling of flight as the bicycle rolls over the road.” These guys need to make up their minds: are they trying to be George Carlin, Tony Robbins, or William Wordsworth?
My friend Trevor, whose cycling credentials are impeccable (he not only won three collegiate national championships, but two in one day), responded to the Rules list by saying, “I took a lot of crap in high school for having shaved legs and being seen on my bike in ‘spandex’ pants (always black), but I was never embarrassed. That list is an embarrassment.”
He’s onto something, and I’m going to help explain exactly what.
The poseur paradox
Consider the photo below.
That’s me with my friend Dan. He’s got a visor on his helmet, in blatant violation of Rule #35, “No visors on the road.” Is he ignorant, in need of the Velominati link? No, of course he already knows most roadies would frown on the visor. But he doesn’t care. Look at what else he’s wearing: a national champion jersey. Yes, in keeping with Rule #16, “Respect the jersey,” he did win that. Now, should any reader of The Rules, in keeping with Rule #3, feel obligated to point out the visor faux pas to Dan? Not at all. First of all, it’s none of any reader’s business, and two, Dan would probably rip the guys legs off, or at least could. (Perhaps that’s why he had the visor in the first place … as a taunt.)
What about me? As a friend, could (should) I tell Dan to ditch the visor? Yes, but only because a) that’s what friends are for, b) I have a matching national champion jersey (we won them together in the Team Time Trial), and c) if Dan tries to rip my legs off, at least I can give him a run for his money. Authority is earned on the road, not through bluster and fancy prose. (There: I’ll make that my Rule #1.)
Not that being an accomplished cyclist gives me the ride to give pointers to just anybody. On my bike, the quick-release levers point straight back (in violation of Rule #41, which says this is only okay for time trial bikes—never mind I’ve been doing this since before time trial bikes existed). If anybody gazing upon my bike decides my skewer orientation looks cool and wants to copy me, great—but the fact that nobody does bothers me not at all. Why I should I mind if my bike looks cooler than everybody else’s? And why should I mind if some ignorant person thinks my bike looks silly, especially when, chances are, that guy is having trouble holding my wheel? It’s kind of a “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach.
In contrast, the philosophy of the Velominati folks seems to be, “speak brashly and swing your big dick.” They seem to think that by striking an air of authority and machismo, and employing great emphasis, they can achieve instant credibility. Consider Rule #9: “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.” That’s completely untrue. When I lived in Boulder (where they have real winters), it was a running joke that a certain breed of poseur only rode in bad weather, to show off. You’d see guys on rainy or snowy days, in their fancy cold-weather gear, whom you’d somehow never see out riding when the weather was nice.
I’ve certainly done my share of riding in miserable conditions (and have described recently in this blog what a pointless activity that is), but I’ve never had the experience described in The Rules: “Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.”
My goodness, what pretty prose! And what a bullshit notion. Yes, there are riders who love the work, but they’d love it more in good weather. The rider that Velominati.com describes here loves the idea of braving the elements, and conflates the idea with the reality. It’s self-deception born of narcissism. Sure, any solid professional will ride in bad weather if he has to, but I’m sure he grumbles about it and he’s right to do so. And if, say, he does better in the rain than his rival, he might be happy about that.
Lance Armstrong wrote, of the first Tour de France mountain stage in 1999, “When I woke up that morning in Dax, was raining yet again, which I considered perfect attacking weather, mainly because I knew the others didn’t like it… ‘It’s a good day for me,’ I thought.” This, to me, seems far more credible than what the Velominati guys have to say. And when Lance fricking Armstrong has more credibility than you, you know you’ve got a serious problem.
What would the Velominati guys say to me about my refusal to ride in the rain? “Harden the fuck up,” of course. But they’d be off-base. When it’s raining I ride the trainer because it’s a better workout, and I can suffer due to effort alone, which gives me more benefit than needlessly enduring painfully cold fingers and toes. I’ve done trainer rides long enough that, mid-ride, I had to change not only my sweat-soaked shorts but my shoes. For complicated reasons involving stress release, I’ve had trainer rides so hard I couldn’t stand up in the shower afterward. So I don’t need anyone telling me to harden up.
Ironically, just about anybody could make modifications to his equipment and his behavior such that he’s in compliance with all of The Rules (especially since “Harden The Fuck Up” is pretty hard to police). And the mix of ideological and sartorial rules would suggest that adherence to The Rules would make him not just a more stylish cyclist, but a more “real” cyclist. But in my experience, the “real” cyclists—such as the ones who actually achieve great things—aren’t so focused on any of this trivial stuff.
I have a friend whom I see on the road from time to time, who has great form, and rides a great bike, but who wears an off-brand helmet from the ‘90s that was a piece of crap when it was new. I’ve actually fantasized about doing an intervention, such as asking to see his helmet for a second and smashing it on the ground (like John Belushi did with that dude’s guitar), but only because helmets have a functional lifespan and his old helmet might not provide good head protection. If my friend doesn’t care how he looks, I shouldn’t either. And yet—and this is the crucial point—this guy is one of the most successful cyclists I’ve known. He rode for the 7-Eleven pro team back in the day.
I am in violation of thirty-seven of The Rules. And yet, I know in my heart I’m plenty legit as a cyclist. Thus, I find it absurd that this band of foppish writers, and whatever acolytes they’ve acquired, would judge me and find me lacking. But that’s not even what bugs me. What bugs me is that the Velominati have this idea that cyclists have to toe the line, to adhere to any code of conduct at all. To Trevor’s point, I came up in this sport embracing the role of the rebel. Not a cool, admired rebel like James Dean, either—cycling made me a social outcast. In the early ‘80s, I had black shorts, a wool jersey, a single bottle cage, used a Silca pump with a Campagnolo head, and had even snapped the visor off my helmet—in short, I was obeying The Rules. What did I get for my troubles? A self-satisfied Velominati feeling? Hell no. I was mocked by my peers, who routinely cast aspersions on my masculinity due to my shaved legs, my tight shorts, and my helmet.
I tolerated the abuse because that was just part of what it meant to be a cyclist. (I think that experience was universal among cyclists; after all, Dave’s iconoclasm is what made “Breaking Away” such a charming movie.) And yet now I’m supposed to let these fancy-talking Velominati guys bully me because I like my navy blue shorts, prefer expressing distance in miles to kilometers, and can’t be bothered to shave my legs? Yeah, right. To do as I please, without obsessing over my image, is entirely consistent with my approach to the sport for more than three decades. (By the way, Bernard Hinault himself broke at least one rule—I’m thinking of Rule #36, regarding cycling-specific eyewear—and looked very good doing it.)
But wait, there’s more
Remarkably, the assertion of poseur-ish codes of conduct isn’t even the worst thing about The Rules. The biggest problem is that there’s a Neanderthal sensibility lurking beneath this list. I’m talking about the unwritten rule, both implicit in The Rules and directly suggested, that cycling is for men only.
Skeptical? Consider this. Within the (incorrect, pointless) rule about how to signal turns, Velominati acknowledges that the audience for The Rules is international: “This one is, presumably, mostly for Americans.” That is, since this rule doesn’t apply to the entire group, they go ahead and say so. But check out Rule #50: “Facial hair is to be carefully regulated.” No mention is made of the women to whom this rule obviously doesn’t apply.
Of course that’s not enough to make my case on, so consider also Rule #11, “Family does not come first. The bike does.” Is there room to construe this as meaning a wife could put her bike before her family? Not likely, since this rule is based on an interview in which cycling legend Sean Kelly rags on his wife for leaning on his car, and—when challenged—doesn’t deny that his bike (and his car) come before his wife.
There are other examples. Rule #29, “No European Posterior Man-Satchels,” doesn’t mention non-man-satchels. Rule #33, “Shave your guns,” makes no mention of the fact that most women do this anyway. Rule #61, “Like your guns, saddles should be smooth and hard” doesn’t make any allowance for the reality that in most cases women legitimately need a bit more padding. It really does seem as though it never occurred to the creators of The Rules that women ride bikes too. For a group that purports to have all the answers, this omission seems remarkably unenlightened.
This isn’t just a problem for female cyclists, though. Readers of velominati.com shouldn’t let The Rules be a bad influence. Although male cyclists aren’t generally babe magnets, a great many of us have wives or girlfriends, and these women—who, after all, have to put up with our stick-thin bodies, our constant blathering about bike gear and race lore, and the sheer amount of time we spend out on the road—deserve our respect. Not grudging respect, either—I mean that they’re the main people we should be worried about impressing … not our fellow cyclists.
Here’s a little story to illustrate what I’m saying. Two of my teammates, a married couple, were doing a mountain bike tandem race together. Mike (a very good rider who has punched my ticket almost as many times as we’ve ridden together) cramped up terribly and had to climb off the bike. Sprawling on the ground, he apologized in advance to his wife Alyshia for losing the race. Alyshia, though she stands about five-foot-nothing, has the kind of Command Presence I’ve always admired—she’s the kind of person you hope will take charge if there’s ever an earthquake or something. As Mike recounted in his e-mail report to the group, “Alyshia had a very diplomatic response: ‘The race isn’t over yet. Please, harden the fuck up.’” Inspired, perhaps, as much by her fighting spirit as the prospect of his wife no longer finding him studly and awesome, Mike remounted, resolved to push past the pain, and they went on to pass everybody back up and win the race!
So how does Alyshia’s exhortation match up with Rule #5? Far, far more impressively. When a website says to harden the fuck up, that’s just more disconnected Internet blather. When a spouse says it, suddenly it has some teeth. Similarly, when another of my teammates (also a darn good cyclist, one of our best) told his wife he was thinking of shaving his legs, she replied, “Please don’t. The hair on your legs is almost the only masculine thing about you!” (What makes this comment great is that, far from being ill-spirited, she’s actually paying him a tacit compliment: “I know you’re secure enough to laugh at yourself.”)
Of course society is rife with retrograde macho bullshit, but cycling is supposed to be progressive. Its image is of a modern, forward-thinking mentality. To succeed at this sport requires a much more enlightened approach than, say, the shot-put or the hammer throw (which is why rules like Rule #93, “Descents are not for recovery,” are so annoying—if you don’t need to recover on a descent, maybe you didn’t go hard enough on the climb, and need to harden the fuck up!). So why do these Velominati guys seem to want to embrace an Andrew Dice Clay ethos, and suggest that male chauvinism is part of the sport?
“Lighten up,” they might say. “We were just joking!” To which I’d say, sure, masculinity and femininity can be joked about, and sometimes walking a fine line can enhance the humor. But you better get it right, and it better be funny, or else you’re suggesting there’s something intrinsically funny about a hierarchy that puts men at the top.
Rhetorically, the Velominati guys are like a bad group of hackey-sackers: you see them start up, and you head over to watch, maybe you’ve even got your hopes up, but they can’t keep the damn thing up for more than a few kicks. You keep hoping they’ll hit their stride, but they don’t, and it’s pathetic. The Velomanti guys’ declamatory haplessness is harmless enough where stem height or tan lines are concerned, but begins to chafe when they try to delve into the intersection of cycling and machismo.
Wait, I’m not quite done
Since I’m on the subject, I’d like to bring up a fundamental disconnect between the archetypes of the ideal cyclist and those aspiring to match them, at least in form. It’s clear that the Velominati guys base much of their ethos on the example set by old school bike racing heroes (Merckx, Kelly, Sean Yates, and Marco Pantani are named). These were all working-class guys who happened to get fairly rich and famous by being really, really fast. I doubt they spent much time worrying about their image. To the extent they achieved studliness, they did so effortlessly, not by carefully mimicking others or poring over lists of rules.
You think Merckx was caught up in macho posturing when he allowed this photo to be snapped?
You think Merckx was caught up in macho posturing when he allowed this photo to be snapped?
The rules about hardening up and riding in bad weather strike me as tacked on, to offset the reality that the Velominati guys are ensnared in a hipster, yuppie ethos. They can afford n+1 bikes (Rule #12), all of which cost more than their car (Rule #25), and they actually care what angle they wear their cap at (Rule #22), use highfalutin terms like “bidon” when a simple word like “bottle” will do, and have a rule (#56) about only drinking espresso and macchiato. They remind me of the Roger Moore James Bond, with his bow ties, his silly witticisms, and his epicurean tastes. (The latest Bond movie reboot was wise to break with all this. My favorite line in “Casino Royale” comes when Daniel Craig’s Bond, rattled after losing $10 million at cards, asks for a vodka martini. “Shaken or stirred?” asks the bartender. Bond snaps back, “Do I look like I give a damn?”)
My overall impression of The Rules is it’s all a bit too self-aware and twee, far closer to “Portlandia” than to, say, the dairy farm that Sean Kelly rose from. The cycling giants of old wouldn’t have hung out in coffee shops drinking this:
They’d have made their own coffee, probably instant, and if anybody told them they therefore weren’t real cyclists they’d have laughed. Drive, talent, luck, and tenacity made them great athletes, not a bunch of silly rules about what to ride, what to wear, and how to behave.
And one more thing? Merckx, Kelly, et al wouldn’t have called their legs “guns.” Trevor is right. That list is an embarrassment.
My second (and final) post on this topic, “37 Velominati Rules You Can Ignore,” is here.
My second (and final) post on this topic, “37 Velominati Rules You Can Ignore,” is here.
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