Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Do You Do?


Upon meeting somebody new—the friend of a friend, the parent of our child’s friend, a newcomer to our club, a stranger at a cocktail party—we naturally look for easy conversation starters. Many, including myself, observe the age-old rule of avoiding the forbidden realms: sex, politics, religion. But a great many do jump to the simple question, “What do you do?”

This seems an innocuous enough inquiry, but viewed a certain way it is actually pretty thorny. If you ask somebody about his accent, or her hat, or some activity you see him engaged in, the interest seems sincere. But since the career question generally comes out of nowhere (i.e., it’s not based on anything observed), the person asked this may naturally assume you’re attempting to place him in some sort of social hierarchy. (Martin Buber would roll over in his grave.) If the person asked this is insecure, the question may strike him as a euphemistic version of “What the hell good are you, anyway?” Meanwhile, with our ongoing economic meltdown, the person you ask may well be unemployed, which would start the conversation off on an awkward foot indeed.

I doubt that people really have ill intentions when asking this loaded question; for many or most it has simply become a habit, a standard opener. This blog post is about the problems inherent in this question; the duty incumbent upon all of us to quash it; and some handy how-to suggestions.

What’s the big deal?

You may think this isn’t really a problem. Perhaps you’re proud of your own career, don’t mind being judged by it, and like talking about it. Well, good for you. But what if you were unemployed, underemployed, have a job that is hard to describe, or just don’t like talking about work? Can you see how this would be a bad start to a conversation?

A special case involves a career mom asking this question to a stay-at-home mom. The stay-at-home mom finds herself saying something like “I’m just a mom” or “I’m a homemaker.” She may feel lame in the face of another woman who does everything she does in life and also has a career. The career woman, meanwhile, may feel silently judged for her life choice. The whole thing can get awkward.

True stories

When I met the parents of my college girlfriend, the first thing out of the mother’s mouth was, “What does your dad do for a living?” I was taken aback. Embedded in this statement were several notions: 1) She is interested in the prospects of persons peripherally associated with her daughter; 2) she considers a man’s work more important than a woman’s and is thus not very progressive; 3) she considers the vocation of a young man’s father to be an indicator of something important about the son. Wanting to make a good impression, I didn’t mouth off with a statement like, “Oh, Pop’s on the dole” or “He sells narcotics and hallucinogens to junior high kids,” but I did consider asking, “Don’t you care what my mom does?” Instead I replied, truthfully, “He’s a rocket scientist” and let the matter drop. (I wasn’t quite craven enough to say “aerospace engineer.”)

A stay-at-home mom of my acquaintance—I’ll call her Alice—and her husband were visiting an old friend of his. I’ll call the friend Bob. Bob and his wife had never met Alice before. Bob had his own business and Bob’s wife was a successful artist; her work was hanging on the walls of her and her husband’s elegant dining room where they were all having dinner. Halfway through the meal Bob popped the career question. Of course he meant well, and was just curious, but he neglected to consider whether Alice worked outside of the home: “I forgot—what is it you do?” After a brief pause, Alice replied, “Nothing.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Which is pretty good,” Alice’s husband remarked, “when you consider that’s where the rest of us are hoping to get eventually!” There was laughter and supportive statements were offered all around, but it can be hoped that the brief awkwardness conveyed a small lesson.

Sometimes this inquiry can cause awkwardness if the person asked has a particularly respectable or glamorous career. I met a guy at a barbecue who turned out to be a medical doctor. I wasn’t sure what to say about that. After a slightly awkward pause I said, “Wow, that’s really ... great!” He replied, “Dude … I am really, really smart.” It’s hard to evoke here how obviously facetious his remark was. It completely dispelled the awkwardness and I immediately liked the guy: he was a joker first, with his vocation a distant second. His response was a splendid recovery from the morass of “What do you do?”

How to respond

Bearing in mind the downfalls of “What do you do?” and also the tendency of chitchat to be excessively anodyne to begin with, I encourage you to equivocate, dodge, parry, and otherwise neutralize this question. I’m not asking you to lie; just take the topic off into the weeds until it slowly rolls to a stop. (Not that I haven’t lied myself. I ran into an old college friend a couple years after graduation, and when she asked the question I said, “I work on an assembly line de-burring plastic parts.” She said, “Oh, that’s great!” I replied, “No it isn’t, I’m miserable!” I did eventually set her straight about my real, slightly less humble occupation.)

So: if you’re asked, “Where do you work?” you can just give the location: San Francisco, south of Market.” Sometimes this is all the person was wondering, in which case you can be really relieved you didn’t misconstrue the question. If he says, “No, I mean what kind of work do you do?” you can say, “Indoor stuff” or “You know, I’m just a weary cog of the corporate machine like everybody else.” (Often I just give a straight answer, but then I feel like a coward, hiding behind the fact that my title is fairly respectable.) Get creative. You could do worse than, “Look! Krill!” Or you could use the Socratic method: “What makes you think I’m employed?” A final ruse: “I already told you.”

I’ve thought of one response that I’m waiting for just the right opportunity to try. I’m picturing myself at a cocktail party where, just as I’m starting to nibble on a little lamb chop I’ve plucked off a passing tray, some stranger walks over and introduces himself. I will forget his name instantly (one of my failings) and then he will ask what I do. “I’m a vegetarian,” I’ll reply. He’ll say, “No, I mean for work.” I’ll reply, “Yes, it’s a lot of work.” He’ll persist: “I mean for a living.” I’ll say, “It’s a living.” He’ll point at my lamb chop: “But you eat meat!” I’ll reply, “Yes. Yes I do.” By this time the conversation will have gone completely off the rails and I’ll be left to chew my hors d’oeuvre in peace. Or, he’ll appreciate the humor and we’ll have a nice chat on some more noble topic.

More benefits of avoidance

Beyond defending your own role from being placed within a social hierarchy, avoiding the “What do you do?” question has additional benefits. For one, it frees you from talking about work. I suppose some of us have really compelling job titles—surgeon, cop, prison guard, actor, assassin—but others of us may not relish the idea of explaining a complicated and/or boring job to somebody else. Meanwhile, if you answer the career question, you may well feel compelled to turn it around and say, “What do you do?” This can give the other guy an opening you might come to wish he didn’t have.

At a party once I carelessly asked a guy what he did for work and for the next twenty minutes he went on and on about how he hosts a radio talk show about sports. I’m one of those oddballs who doesn’t care about sports, at least the kind that get radio programs. Throughout the soliloquy I was dying of boredom. The guy’s speech sounded almost rehearsed, and morphed into a motivational speech (“I was really just lucky—right place at the right time—but I did manage to take advantage of the opportunity I had,” and so on). I desperately hoped somebody would come rescue me, but instead some other guy came over to listen in (out of real interest or schadenfreude I have no idea), and then my wife arrived to watch with amusement as I slowly rotated on the spit. Finally—around the time I wished the whole building would catch fire and the ceiling would collapse on us—the radio guy finished his monologue and said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m an outside sales rep for Science Diet. It’s the premier ultra-premium pet food on the market. I’m basically doing it out of my garage at this point but I see that changing eventually.” He said, politely, how great that was, and then somebody burst out laughing and the radio host stormed off. See? Better to avoid this topic altogether.

A friend of mine never asks what anybody does. (He himself does a little of this, a little of that. I once asked him about a business venture of his I suspected had failed and he replied, “We’ll talk about that,” and then never did. Well played!) Once, during the early ‘80s, this friend was at a marketing event for Coors, with whom he had some business. He was bored and struck up a conversation with some random dude. I don’t remember much about the story except that the two of them didn’t talk about work. Their conversation was cut short when the man was called up to the stage. Turns out he was Al Unser Jr., in whose honor the event was held. My friend had had no idea.

This same friend had a similar experience at a cocktail party. He chatted up some random guy for a good while, mainly about the guy’s newfound love of the guitar. My friend didn’t learn until much later that the guy was none other than Gary Larson. How different would the conversation have been had my friend learned Larson’s, or Unser’s, identity up front? He’d have been unable to resist asking the typical questions (“Where do you get your cartoon ideas?” or “What’s it like driving that fast?”), thus boring these guys to tears and making real conversation impossible.

When is this question okay?

Of course the question isn’t totally off limits. I just recommend it not be used as an icebreaker. Once you know somebody well, it’s bound to come up, but by then you’re not at the fragile point of first impressions. A guy on my bike club once asked me what it was like being an attorney. “I have no idea,” I said. “You’d have to ask one.” He was puzzled, as was I. The mystery was solved a few rides later when he called me Trevor. He’d totally confused me with another guy on the club, who actually is an attorney. I was flattered—not because Trevor is an attorney, but because he was always a much better bike racer than I.

Oddly enough, I’ve found that this career question doesn’t even need to play a huge role in a job interview, at least in the industry I’m in (which is an indoor one). A former colleague of mine interviewed a candidate and came away laughing. “She asked me if I was ever going to ask her about her qualifications,” she said. “I told her, no, I’m sure you could do the work or I wouldn’t be interviewing you. I’m trying to figure out if we’d get along.” Another guy at this firm asked a candidate, “If you were a flower, what kind of flower would you be?” The guy replied, “A sunflower, because it’s not just an ornament, but has seeds that are nourishing and lead to growth.” (The guy was hired.)

The flower question inspired me, so when I interviewed a guy (for the same firm), I had a list of questions that included, “Are you any good with your fists?” I chickened out and didn’t ask that one, but I did run the candidate through a list of arcane protocols asking if he had firsthand experience with any of them. As I went down the list he replied, “No … no … no … no … no,” which was good, as I was making sure he wasn’t a Toward the end of the interview I glanced at his résumé and said, “I see you have a double major in political science and philosophy. What makes you think that will help you in this [unrelated] role?” (I was seeing how easily he got flustered.) He replied smoothly, “It will make me more interesting to work with.” And he was right: I’ve enjoyed his workplace banter ever since.

One of my favorite Woody Allen movie scenes is in “Take the Money and Run.The protagonist, Virgil Starkwell, a failed criminal, lies his way through a job interview. “Mr. Public, have you any experience working in an office before?” the interviewer asks. “Yes, I have,” Virgil replies.
ooooo“What kind of office was it?”
oooooHave you any experience in running a high-speed digital electronic computer?”
ooooo“Yes, I have.”
ooooo“May I ask where?”
ooooo“My aunt has one.”
ooooo“And what does your aunt do?”
ooooo“I … can’t recall.”
ooooo“You said before you worked in an office. Did you deal in products or services?”
ooooo“Is this something found in the home?”
ooooo“No, it’s not. One down and nine to go.”
ooooo“Is this product edible?”
ooooo“No, it wasn’t. I think our time is running out and I’m sorry you haven’t guessed my occupation. So I’m going to flip all the cards and tell you what I used to do. I used to manufacture escalator shoes for people who get nauseous wearing elevator shoes. I’m sorry you didn’t actually guess my occupation, but you did win $10 and I want to thank you very much. Better luck next time. You’re a good sport.”

The point of quoting all this is that this scene makes a fine blueprint for your response should you be asked what you do for a living.


I don’t actually expect my albertnet readers (if any) to dodge the question of what they do for a living, but I hope my point here is well taken. At least we can refrain from always asking this question upon meeting somebody. We can ask ourselves first, “Do I really want to know? Is this important?” If the journalistic mode strikes us as the most natural for conversing with a stranger, at least we can remember that there are more questions than just “What.” To run through the reporter’s standard six:

WHO: A classic opener, nothing thorny there.

WHAT: See if you can skip over this one.

WHERE: Where do you live? Where are you from? No harm there.

WHEN: Not likely to apply unless you’re delivering the classic line, “Come here often?”

WHY: Now we’re getting somewhere! “Why do you do?” could really open up a dialogue.

HOW: Fine thank you, how are you?

After my wife and I had a really fun dinner party recently with the parents of our younger daughter’s school friend, we got an e-mail from the mom. She wrote of her husband that he “marveled at how we didn’t just sit around talking about work, saying happily ‘I don’t even really know what Dana does!’”

See, it works: don’t ask, don’t tell.
dana albert blog

Monday, July 26, 2010

From the Archives - Letter from UCSB


As a college freshman, I already had a blog. Of course, I didn’t call it that or think of it that way. Blogs hadn't been invented yet, nor were college kids using the Internet, but I regularly sent printed copies of little stories and essays to friends and family. To save paper and reduce postage costs, I’d use a photocopier to reduce four pages to fit on a single piece of paper.

In the beginning, before I had a PC, I wrote these on a typewriter, so I have only paper copies of the first seven or eight stories. All the way through college I kept paper copies, which now fill a two-inch binder. Leafing through this binder recently, I came across something I found amusing, from my first month at the University of California at Santa Barbara. When I first moved to Isla Vista, the run-down, sleepy beach community near the UCSB campus, I didn’t know a soul, and struggled to fit in while dreaming of becoming a writer.

Here’s the story, written almost twenty-two years—more than half my lifetime—ago. (As I typed this into the computer, I made minor tweaks, such as changing the names of the characters.)

Letter from UCSB — September 21, 1988

So I might know just what you’re thinking: this boy is churning out page after page of micro-print material. And that’s what it is: material. I’m not even sure I like it. What is the deal here? Well, I’ve come across some advice by a fella name of Scott Rice, who has dozens of helpful hints for getting stories published. (I’m sort of leaning toward becoming a writer, perhaps by default, since bike mechanics seems to be a limited field and math and science bore me to tears.)

Rice writes, “Getting into print is simply a matter of knowing your market. At ‘Redbook’ magazine, for example, they get about 36,000 short story submissions a year, but they publish only fifty. Simple math tells you that you should be able to crack this market by submitting 720 stories annually.”

I was really inspired by those words, since even if I took five days off a year, I could submit 720 stories easily by writing only two a day. The only problem I’m having is that I’m not really writing stories at all; it’s just material. Besides, I know nothing about the subjects dealt with in “Redbook” so my one story per year might not get maximum coverage. So it’s about time I tried my hand at fiction.

The trouble is, I never know where to start with fiction. So I’ll start with some vignettes about my real life, and see if they take me in any useful fictional direction. Here goes.

* * *

oooooI just sat there on the bucket-seat style sofa of my quaint Isla Vista apartment, turning redder by the minute. My new roommates, Steve and Alex, were rambling endlessly about my apparent pure blood. Steve, a thirty-three-year-old grad student, has the uncanny ability to speak on any subject with captivating skill and ease, but excessively so, to the point that after a long discussion, you somehow feel ripped off, like after long documentary that demanded your full attention only to destroy its own credibility with a huge generalization at the end. Alex, on the other hand, came from Ethiopia three years ago, which makes him a very interesting character all around, except that in Santa Barbara there are so many beautiful girls around that our discussion usually ends up being about girls, and Alex starts going into all these babe-getting strategies that I lack the nerve to ever put into play.

oooooAnyway, the current topic of discussion was my supposedly Aryan-like features, which my roommates contended would make me virtually irresistible to the ladies. Amid comments like, “Just let me have the ones that fall off of your arms,” and “I’ll just follow you around and pick up the pieces,” I was beginning to get a bit whelmed. Not overwhelmed, mind you, but thoroughly whelmed. The most disturbing comment was, “Just don’t let us down, huh?” To think that these two are relying on me to bring home enough women for all of us almost makes me lose all hope.

* * *

Not very much scene or setting there, alas, and no action. Certainly not enough for “Redbook.” Local color, that’s the thing. I’ll try harder this time.

* * *

oooooIn return for fixing his bike, my new roommate Steve took me to lunch at a small café on Embarcadero del Norte called The Blue Dolphin. Strangely enough, its menu lacked any seafood, featuring burgers and omelettes; certainly no dolphin here. The main attraction, not on the menu, turned out to be the waitress. Working solo, she had her hands full, running from table to table clearing dishes and taking orders. For Steve or me to mention our interest in the bodacious girl was completely unnecessary.

oooooSteve lowered his voice and said, “Hey, I happen to be a very smooth operator when it comes to the ladies, so I think I can arrange to have this one introduce herself to you. Heck, I think she’s eyeing you anyway. So you can just take it from there, how about that? And hey, don’t let me down on this one.” Immediately, two things came to mind: one, he’s planning to have a little fun at my expense, or two (more frightful): he actually thinks I can make a good impression.

oooooOur lunch was fairly uneventful; we sat at an outdoor table, ate burgers, and discussed the topic of laying tile (which he’d done all summer). In fact, he discussed this to death, and I decided laying tile was probably not for me. After we got the check, Steve excused himself and said, “Just wait right there. You’re my tip hostage.” Well, a few minutes later, out strutted the pretty waitress. Naturally, at this moment I was in the process of standing up to check on our bikes, and my grasshopper-like leg kicked the table, tipping over the catsup and knocking the silver napkin dispenser to the ground.

oooooAs I struggled to regain my balance, my face reddening, the waitress said, “So you’re Dana, huh? My name’s Carolyn. So, you like won the Coors Classic? You must be quite the biker then.” My roommate was nowhere in sight. I can’t believe he missed this glorious opportunity to scavenge some delight at my discomfort and embarrassment. My tongue had become as thick and fluffy as the omelettes my aunt makes (she whips the egg whites in a blender), so speech was futile. While I steadied the table with one hand, I offered the other in a handshake. It was a pretty fair handshake, really; her hand was wet from scrubbing tables, mine black with grease from fixing my roommate’s bike (which had got me into this whole mess).

oooooStill, my roommate’s words echoed through my seemingly hollow skull: “Don’t let me down on this one.” The words “Nice to meet you” fought their way out of my mouth, with surprising clarity. Originality of content, though, was at an all-time low, especially after I cleared up the little won-the-Coors-Classic fallacy. (Ever since my roommates found out that I’m going to race for UCSB, they’ve decided I’m world class and that the whole world should know it.)

oooooI felt rushed to take the conversation up a notch, because the waitress was now moving about the café with remarkable speed. In a last-ditch attempt to establish some kind of association with this pretty young thing, I moved around the restaurant with forced ease and composure. A heartfelt comment found its way to the surface: “They keep you pretty busy here, don’t they?” While her simple “Yes” was technically a response, I felt our dialog was not moving in the right direction. Another sincere thought made itself vocal: “I wonder where my friend went.” I couldn’t believe he’d missed what had just transpired. Why would he set me up and then miss the mêlée?

ooooo“He’s in the bathroom,” answered the waitress before disappearing into the kitchen. Steve arrived a moment later, looked at our table (which I had managed to restore to its original splendor), and said, “So, did the waitress clear our table?” I told him yes, she did, let’s go. Outside, the inquisition began. “So, what happened?” Steve asked. “What did she say? Did she introduce herself?”

ooooo“Yeah, she introduced herself, asked if we were into biking, I said yes, and that was about it.”

ooooo“That’s it? You didn’t talk about anything else?”

ooooo“Oh, yeah, there was something else. I asked if they kept her busy and she said yes.”

ooooo“Man, you have got to refine your technique.”

ooooo“Yeah, I guess I do,” I replied, almost relieved that, now that I had displayed my ineptitude with females, he would stop touting me as the next great hope of Apartment Seven. Little did I know that the legend was yet to be born.

* * *

Well, that bit about the “legend yet to be born” seems promising as a jumping-off point for fiction, at least at first. But on closer inspection, what, really, do I know about achieving legend status with the ladies? Nothing. And while the story only described what didn’t happen with the pretty waitress, there could be nothing more. I need to write about something I know, in a realm where I might have some chance of achieving something exciting. So, cycling it is.

* * *

oooooI figured with all the rampant rumors circulating among my new roommates about my cycling prowess, I had to at least maintain some sort of fitness so I wouldn’t humiliate myself in every aspect of life. The only problem was finding a place to ride. Southern California, as near as I can figure, is just a bunch of small towns connected by huge six-lane freeways. The UCSB campus abounds with friendly-looking roads, seeming to promise canyons and prairies, only to betray me by dead-ending after only a mile or so. Please try to understand, it is very disheartening, not knowing where my next mile will come from. Turning around does help me brush up on my bike handling skills, but it fails to leave the mind free for drifting, which is the only way to log miles without going insane.

oooooAfter an entire afternoon of gleaning one tedious out-and-back mile after another, I finally decided that the dreaded, ominous US 101 North was the only path to cycling bliss. Perhaps in hope of gaining support toward my decision, I asked my roommate Steve—who had been at UCSB for a couple of years already—what he thought about riding on US 101.

ooooo“Well, heck, I’d never ride on it. It’s illegal, plus you’ll get killed on top of it all. But hey, if you’re gonna represent the US in next year’s Tour de France, you might not have a choice.”

ooooo“I’m not going to ride the Tour de France, next year or any year.”

ooooo“Sure you will, at the rate you’re going. I mean, you’re the premier rider on the national champion UCSB team. Hell, I think it’s great: there you are, putting it all on the line. Risking it all for dreams of athletic godhood. I’d never do it.”

ooooo“Well, I’m going to go ahead and tackle 101.”

ooooo“Good for you. Do you feel lucky today?”

oooooI set out, very timidly at first, feeling guilty about my reckless disregard for rules intended to protect me. Despite the ten-foot shoulder, I hugged the side of the road like a street cleaner, trampling weeds or the occasional shard of tire retread. Roaring semis rattled my bones to the marrow. I was a mouse in a herd of stampeding elephants, US 101 a vast safari.

oooooGradually, however, I began to lose my fear of the crazed drivers, shifting my hatred toward the brutal headwind that threatened to tear the “beer cooler” helmet from my head. Soon I learned that an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer truck pushes a lot of wind, and can provide enough of a wind-block that I can temporarily shift up a gear. Soon I was pedaling happily away, finally free to let my mind drift. I pondered what makes good fiction. Something has to happen, I decided. Something exciting. Reading about a cyclist just pedaling along … that’s no good. He has to get in trouble. A crash might be good. And maybe a gun-wielding nut should appear on the scene!

oooooA siren wailed in the distance, then drew closer, and then a highway patrol car whizzed by—and to my amazement, because I didn’t know this was fiction—the car lurched into a half-spin, screeching to a stop right in front of me. I braked too hard, flipped over the handlebars, bounced over the hood, and flopped on the ground, flat on my back. My head spinning, I looked up to see the stubby legs of a highway patrolman, capped by the holster belt which only partially eclipsed the huge man’s ample gut. His right hand twitched above his service revolver. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing, son?” he demanded, his booming voice hastening me to my feet.

ooooo“I, uh, was just out for a little bike ride,” I managed, sputtering a fine mist of blood and saliva as I spoke.


ooooo“Uh, for fitness…?”

ooooo“Fitness? Well, hell, that’s why they got jazzercise shows for, you know. Raquel Welch, aerobics, and all that other calaesthetic crap.”

ooooo“Um, I prefer my bicycle.”

ooooo“You kids these days, I dunno. I had a bike once. The Schwinn Stingray. I rode it on the sidewalk, or down to the A&P now and then. Look at you, you’re what, how many years old?”


ooooo“You know what I rode when I was nineteen? A frickin’ Harley Davidson. What are you doing messing around on a highway on a danged bi-cycle?”

ooooo“It seemed like a good place to ride, sir.”

ooooo“My god, son, you’ll get hit, goin’ so dang slow out here. That’s why those little old ladies get hit!”

ooooo“Well, actually, sir, in the big scheme of things, since the earth is spinning at 600 miles per hour, I’m only going a little slower than the faster automobiles.”

ooooo“Is that right?” The officer scratched his head. “Wait a second, you aren’t tryin’ to be a smart aleck, are you?”

ooooo“No, sir, I would never do that.”

ooooo“Good. But I’m writing you a ticket anyway.”

ooooo“Okay, but Highway 101 is legal for bicycles from Goleta up to Buellton, home of Andersen’s pea soup.”

ooooo“Uh, yeah. I know that, I was just testin’ ya. Now look, the important thing is, you have fun. I mean, while you still have the chance. Hell, I was young once too. Just try to be a man about it, awright?” He got back in his car and sped away. I picked my bike up, climbed back on, and resumed pedaling, continued my reverie.


Was this enough of a plot? A cop, a bike crash, a lecture? No, not really. Rising and falling action, building to a climax before a resolution? Not quite. Does my character learn anything? No, but that’s okay, the story is at least done, it just needs to be typed. Only 719 more of these to go, and I’m on my way to a memorable career as a writer for “Redbook” magazine.

dana albert blog

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Problem with Soccer


This is a post about soccer, kind of. I will start by saying I’m no expert on soccer. When forced to play it in gym class I was completely incompetent, and other than occasionally watching “Soccer Made In Germany” on PBS as a kid, I’ve never been much of a fan. Most of the games I’ve seen have been those of my daughters—hardly representative of the professional sport. (I’m not one of the rabid soccer parents. Though I’ve been tempted to offer an occasional suggestion to the coaches, I’ve never had the nerve. My main idea for improvement was linguistic: the post-game cheer “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” should be “2-4-6-8 whom do we appreciate?”)

That said, I feel I can offer a legitimate perspective on what’s it’s like to be a newcomer to watching the World Cup. Since seeing the second half of the final game a week ago Sunday, I’ve pondered the experience at length, and think I can offer a couple of insights into why this can be a tough game for a non-aficionado to watch. I’ve even done a little research so I won’t be commenting from a position of complete ignorance. If I’m way off base, you can savor the pleasure of silently excoriating me, and/or giving me a piece of your mind via the comments feature below or e-mail.

Disclaimer: in this post I’m going to talk about men’s soccer, because I’m basing my opinions on the last game I saw, which was the men’s World Cup event, and because I can’t be bothered with the clunky “he or she” construction. Rest assured that what I have to say here would apply equally to men’s and women’s sport (so far as I know).

The viewing experience

I watched the World Cup game simply because my family was visiting friends, self-proclaimed huge soccer fans, when the game was on. I’d been curious anyway, and it was great to watch with those who could explain what was going on.

I enjoyed the game, but if I had to describe the experience in one word, it would be “stressful.” This surprised me, since I wasn’t really rooting for one team over another. The continual heartbreak of one missed goal after another really stung me emotionally. Our hosts weren’t heavily invested in the outcome either—they just wanted to see a good game—but they seemed stressed as well. I’ve talked to several others who watched the game, and they had similar reactions. I even found an article online warning of World-Cup-related heart attack risks, citing a 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which reported that “watching a stressful soccer match during the 2006 World Cup more than doubled the risk of a cardiovascular event.” 

The players look really stressed, too; where calm and cool would seem to convey poise and confidence, players instead tended to fall to their knees and tear at their hair after a missed shot.
Most team sports involve a certain amount of frustration and excitability, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I mostly follow cycling, and watching it is a completely different experience. Even when I care hugely about who wins, there’s excitement but no stress. Even the racers often describe their state of mind as “tranquil.” During this year’s Tour de France—the biggest event in cycling—veteran racer Damiano Cunego told, “We are preparing for the coming stages with extreme tranquility.” Going into the pivotal final time trial of the 2008 Tour, race leader Carlos Sastre said, “I am relaxed for tomorrow. I am healthy, I am in good physical condition and I am tranquilo.” Even during the most crucial moments of a Tour stage, the top contenders generally wear a poker face. Not for them the tortured, almost exaggerated look of anguish I saw so much in the World Cup coverage.

Why such stress?

So why the stress in soccer? I suppose much of it must come from the barebones strategy intrinsic to soccer and other ball sports: score as often as possible. (In a bike race, meanwhile, the strategy may be more complex; you might let a rival go up the road in a breakaway, hoping he’ll use up too much energy fighting the wind, while your team shelters you, so you can attack later.) And since it’s so damn hard to score in soccer (I’m basing this on the World Cup statistics and what I saw on TV), each scoring attempt seems to have the whole game—and whatever honor that game represents—hanging in the balance. Contrast this to basketball, where each shot sunk represents only a few percent of a team’s final score for the game.

It probably doesn’t help that soccer games seem so totally unpredictable, due to the vast number of factors that can keep that rare, precious shot from going in. During a game that is scoreless even well beyond the regular time, you have the prospect of what a New York Times columnist calls “the dreadful lottery of a penalty shootout.” Our hosts for the World Cup game also used the term “lottery.” I’m sure the role chance plays adds to the tension of the game. By contrast, we can often feel comfortably fatalistic about other sports, especially races of various kinds, where an athlete’s best is either good enough or it isn’t, where our hero tries his best and either has the goods or doesn’t.

Who cares?

Naturally, everything I’m saying—in addition to possibly being demonstrably false—is very unlikely to dissuade the soccer aficionado. He is going to love soccer and keep watching no matter what happens to his blood pressure, no matter how anguished he may be to see his team lose 0 to 1 after an agonizing ninety minutes or two hours of missed opportunities. So who cares what the experience is like?

Surely many people do care. I imagine a lot of soccer lovers in this country are disappointed that soccer doesn’t get the respect here that it deserves, especially considering how many kids play it. Of soccer in America, Wikipedia says, “It is the most popular recreational sport for both boys and girls and has been so for more than 30 years. As a spectator sport however, it is often overshadowed and not considered to be among the ‘big four’ major league team sports.” More evidence of soccer’s lack of popularity in the U.S. is here. Kids love to play soccer; why don’t they grow up into adults who love to watch it?

What is to be done?

I’m sure that sports broadcasters and promoters, at least in this country, have given plenty of thought about how to attract larger viewing audiences for this noble sport (which is, after all, the most popular in the world). At the risk of seeming hugely cheeky, I would like to suggest something, drawn from what I appreciate about cycling. I don’t believe we could change Americans, but why not tweak the game a bit to create a superior American version? (After all, one reason I’ve heard for soccer’s lack of popularity here is that we didn’t invent it.)

Needless to say it’s too hard to score in this game, which tries the patience of American audiences accustomed to viewing success on a continual basis during our beloved football, basketball, and baseball games. I don’t really know how to change that, other than making the goal bigger or no longer letting the goalkeeper use his or her hands. Those changes would of course be far too fundamental to put in place—the resulting game would no longer be soccer.

A simpler tweak, however, might really help the game. I’m thinking about the way penalties are handled.

The referee problem

What I’m mainly struck by, watching soccer, is how big an impact the referees have on the game. They keep penalizing players for what seem like minor infractions, and the penalties are severe. The ref’s calls interrupt the play, make the players angry, and provide players with outsized rewards for failing to avoid being bumped, tripped, or otherwise tampered with. The last World Cup game this year was lambasted for being “ugly”; since the Dutch drew more penalties, they got much of the blame. Me, I blame the refs.

Without the refs and their silly cards, I doubt I would have spotted any lack of beauty in that game. Could it be that the refs and the rules make the sport look ugly? A bunch of guys are trying to kick the ball at once, and they’re tired, and suddenly two of them are on the ground. Does it always have to be one guy’s fault? Can’t we just decide this is what happens when everybody is trying to accomplish the same thing, and let them get up and brush themselves off and keep going?

The die-hard soccer fan will defend his sport: “No, that guy clearly brushed up against the other guy! And his foot was right in the way! He wasn’t being beautiful!” God forgive me, but as a guy brought up with American football, where you clobber a guy because he has the ball, these penalties just look wrong.

Rules in soccer probably exist to keep the play relatively clean, but in reality they almost seem intended to interrupt the game. The offsides rule makes sense (now that it has been explained to me), as it prevents a player from loitering near the opponent's goal waiting for a sweet pass; it’s analogous to the “three seconds” rule in basketball. But why is there no equivalent to the shot clock in basketball, designed to keep players from hanging on to a slim lead by passing pointlessly to each other ad infinitum? Once a soccer team has a lead (there’s no concept of slim vs. huge lead in soccer, of course, given that all the planets have to line up for anybody to score any goals at all), there’s nothing to prevent players from dinking around the rest of the game to run out the clock, as we saw in the final World Cup match.

Moreover, many of the referee’s calls strike me as unnecessary, and the ref’s supreme authority (i.e., how his rule stands regardless of what the home viewer sees on the slow-motion instant replay) rubs me the wrong way. The referee, I read here, may cite a player at his discretion for “unsporting behaviour” for actions “that violate the spirit of the game, even if they are not listed as specific offences.” Isn’t this the kind of arbitrary authority we Americans left England to escape? The American viewer may well decide these pesky foreign refs are enemies of freedom.

The curse of flopping

And that’s just the refs. The players can be even worse. That there’s even a term—flopping—for pretending to be hurt, in order to convince the referee to penalize an opposing player, shows how much is wrong with this game. I don’t doubt that these soccer players are fine, upstanding individuals: but the benefits of getting that penalty kick, and eventually getting opponents ejected from the game, appear to be irresistible. So we get the pitiful sight, time after time, of a grown man flinging himself on the ground, clutching his knee, his face a picture of pain. Of course nothing ends up really being wrong with him, and he’s bouncing back into action seconds after securing his coveted penalty kick. Everybody agrees this is a disgraceful spectacle. To the would-be American fan, these players look like a bunch of namby-pamby bedwetting drama queens.

Why such dire consequences for non-violently interfering with another player? In basketball, fouls result in a free-throw or two, but the impact of the resulting points is diluted by the sheer number of points scored in a game. In soccer, meanwhile, appearing to get fouled is probably the best strategy to score, and there are so few points total, games can be won or lost based on how well a player can fake being hurt. The overall effect, for me, is the same exasperation I get during a long car trip when one of my kids or the other continually cries or whines to me about some minor offense the other has committed. “Daddy! She won’t stay on her side!” or “She’s looking at me!”

The cumulative effect

The cumulative effect of all these infractions and all this flopping is, I think, to turn the viewers into self-righteous prigs who routinely deride a team for not playing “clean.” Listening to the sportscasters after that World Cup game, I was shocked at how judgmental they were. “Well, the right team won, and the Dutch team only have themselves to blame for their loss, with all that foul play,” one said.
His co-commentator replied, “Yes, the rotten stinking Dutch really got what they deserved.”
“It really shows the hollow, soulless character of the Dutch people in general, I think.”
“Yes, they’re nothing but a bunch of heartless, soulless atheists. And now their ill-gotten dream is over and they can go back to their barren, hateful lives.”

I didn’t actually take notes during the broadcast, so I may not have that exchange exactly right, but I can quote verbatim from the New York Times editorial I mentioned earlier: “There has never been so foul an intent in the 40 years I have watched the World Cup.” The writer actually laments the “relaxed policing” of the game—he wanted more penalties assessed.

A soccer fan knows in advance of a televised game that the referees will play a significant role, and that part of the emotional reaction to the game will involve bad or missed calls. A friend of mine, before watching the final game of this year’s World Cup, put a pile of t-shirts on the floor: two orange, two red. Every time a ref made a bad call, or a player made an especially dirty play, she declared, they would switch their t-shirts to the other team’s color.

But what is “dirty” vs. “clean,” anyway? Without a ref showing cards and labeling things dirty, how many bumps, falls, and other minor skirmishes would the spectator decide were really dirty? Who created this zero-contact ideal? American audiences are accustomed to a certain amount of physical contact, and I think we would have extra respect for players who can look after themselves, absorb a bump from another player, and just keep the action going, rather than running crying to the ref for justice.

Just look at bike racing: despite the speeds involved and the danger of crashing, it is a sport fairly free of rules and penalties. Other than doping offenses, we rarely see rules or judges affect anything, even when the action gets rough. Of a recent Tour de France stage finish, reported of ace sprinter Mark Cavendish’s teammate Mark Renshaw, “Renshaw elbowed Thor Hushovd out of the way and then dragged Cavendish clear as the finish line loomed.” This was a simple description, devoid of any pejorative tone. After winning the stage, Cavendish said, “Renshaw did an incredible job, fighting with Thor [Hushovd], with Tyler [Farrar] and with Oscar [Freire]. I knew he’d drop me off at the right place.” No cards, no penalties, and no outcry from the media, the fans, or anybody else.

Even when sloppy riding causes a huge crash like this one, penalties are rarely assessed. As a commentator said after this crash, “Well, this is the rough-and-tumble of bike racing.”

That’s not to say riders are never disciplined for dangerous riding; on another stage of this year’s Tour, Renshaw head-butted one rider, then cut off another, during the final sprint, and was ejected from the race. But for several reasons, this was quite different from the red card scenarios we see in soccer. For one thing, this was the exception that proved the rule, being the first time a racer had been disciplined for head-butting since 1997. Second, the penalty wasn’t assessed until after the race, and didn’t affect Cavendish’s win (even though he’d benefitted from Renshaw’s aggressive behavior). Moreover, the action leading to the ejection didn’t have commentators, racers, or spectators up in arms. During the sprint finish, the Eurosport commentator David Harmon watched the head-butt and cried, “Renshaw gives him a good battering!” His co-commentator, the former bike race champ Sean Kelly, concluded, “That's your job in that situation, making sure your man doesn’t get crowded out.” The cycling world isn’t given to righteous indignation.

The alternative to penalty cards

A veteran soccer player, or spectator, might reasonably assume that without the referees and the specific rules, soccer would turn into a free-for-all, a series of brawls on the field. And who knows, maybe it would. But I think there’s reason to believe that it wouldn’t. Again, I turn to cycling to examine the frequency of infractions in a sport where it’s logistically impossible for a referee to keep a close eye on things.

I mentioned before that cycling doesn’t have a lot of rules. More accurately, cycling doesn’t have a lot of written rules. The sport actually abounds in unwritten rules, policed not by a referee but by the racers and fans themselves. For example, if your opponent suffers a fall or a bike problem, you’re not to take advantage by attacking him. There’s no rule saying you can’t do so, and a racer who breaks this unwritten rule wouldn’t be sanctioned in any way by race officials. Instead, a rider commiting such an act would risk being castigated by the peloton. This very scenario came to pass after a big crash during this year’s race, when a rider started to attack and was immediately upbraided by another rider until he backed down. (To see footage of this, click here and look about ninety seconds in.)

These unwritten cycling rules can be very complicated, especially during a race like the Tour de France where the race leader, easily distinguished by his yellow jersey, enjoys certain privileges. For example, during an early stage this year, the whole peloton stopped to let the race leader pee, even though there was a breakaway up the road. Breaches of such etiquette are mainly noteworthy for their infrequency.

For example, a few days ago Alberto Contador, widely seen as the favorite for overall victory, launched an attack while the race leader, Andy Schleck, was having problems with his bike. To attack any rider who has a mechanical problem would be questionable, but to attack the yellow jersey in such fashion was particularly discreditable. Contador was not cited or penalized in any way by the race officials, but he was booed by fans as he mounted on the podium later to accept his yellow jersey (which he’d taken from Schleck that day, his attack having been successful). As Contador saluted the crowd, his expression was like the cat’s who has eaten the canary.

The stigma factor

Following his unsportsmanlike behavior, Contador had two things to worry about. One, many in the peloton would judge him for his unsporting behavior. As a buddy of mine commented (in the long series of e-mails our bike club exchanged about this incident), “The peloton has a long memory. Contador will get his.” As the former pro rider Todd Gogulski said to me once, “It’s very hard to help somebody win a race, but very easy to make him lose.” Gogulski referred not to nefarious actions of the Tonya Harding stripe, but of perfectly legit behaviors like refusing to help a rider in a breakaway.

The other problem Contador faced was a bad reputation among his fans, which may translate into reduced popularity and the loss of endorsement opportunities. Cycling fans remember how riders behave in such scenarios; for example, in discussing Contador’s recent gaffe, several of my cycling pals recalled how, in the 2001 Tour de France, race leader Lance Armstrong waited for his main rival, Jan Ullrich, after Ullrich crashed, and how, two years later, Ullrich returned the favor when Armstrong crashed. Obviously Contador would rather be famous for his grace than infamous for his opportunism, and after initially defending his attack on Schleck in the race, he issued a formal apology on YouTube. A couple days later the two riders made up on French TV.

I strongly suspect that soccer players would be just as gracious if it weren’t for the system of penalties that exists, and the rigid enforcement of petty rules. I see a certain amount of cynicism in soccer surrounding these penalties. A player who flops, for example, gets groans from fans but also helps his team win, which seems to protect him from a reputation as a bad sportsman. Meanwhile, a player who breaks the rules may do so knowing he’ll get a penalty, but having decided it’s worth it.

The New York Times columnist wrote, of John Heitinga’s offence toward the end of the final World Cup game this year, “In some circles that is seen as a team-oriented act, deliberately accepting a second card to prevent what could have been the winning goal.” It’s as though the formal penalty takes the place of social stigma among players and fans, opening the door for cynicism on everyone’s part. The same columnist wrote, “Yes, the Spanish players retaliated, sometimes with kicks of their own. But when a team is in the World Cup final against an opponent that has said it was prepared to win ugly, it has little choice but to defend itself and show that it will not be intimidated.” Oh, so it’s okay to play dirty if the other side started it? Whatever, dude.

In a setting where infractions are quickly flagged and dealt with, cynical players will inevitably push the edge of the envelope, to see what they can get away with. In contrast, where social stigma is concerned a player might well have to err on the side of caution—that is, of putting sportsmanship first. That appears to be what we have in cycling.

I’m reminded of the study that Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics author, did with day-care centers, about how to prevent parents from being late picking up their children. The experiment was to enact a fine for any parent who was late. The effect, to their surprise, was that the number of late pickups actually increased—in fact, it more than doubled. The vague social taint of keeping the staff waiting was replaced by a set penalty, which the parents were far more willing to risk incurring. By accepting the financial penalty, they bought their way out of being stigmatized, to the ultimate detriment of the day-care center. “For certain types of misbehavior,” Levitt concluded, “social incentives are terribly powerful.”


I won’t say cycling should be a role model where U.S. viewership is concerned; for various reasons cycling isn’t very popular with audiences here either. But given the popularity of soccer as a recreational pastime in this country, I think events like the World Cup deserve a much wider American audience. If soccer players could throw off the shackles of the regulations and referees, and were free to wow us with their ability to stay upright and deflect defenders, all the while maintaining a stoic demeanor, they’d better match our American ideal of what a sportsman should be. The rules of the game, and the penalties, make these fine players into underhanded sneaks, willing to look like total momma’s-boys just to get a penalty kick, all the while chided and disciplined by den-mother-like referees, while we viewers learn to bask in righteous indignation at the players misconduct. Beautiful game, indeed!
dana albert blog

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Victory Salutes

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for a crude gesture.


Check it out:

Is this a little man trapped in my smartphone, trying to bust his way out? No, it’s a large man, the Norwegian sprinting ace Thor Hushovd, who has just won Stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France. Alas, his exuberant—and I must say, macho—victory salute got a little too close to the screen there.

In this post I’ll discuss bike race victory salutes, including my own (albeit limited) history with them, and catalog some of the more interesting ones. I’m well aware I’m not the first person to have blogged about this, but I think I can apply a fairly unique spin. And if you don’t like it, you can just leave.

Why victory salutes?

The victory salute actually serves a very humdrum purpose: it makes a bike racer’s sponsor highly visible in photos. A racer is usually bent pretty far over the bars and if he didn’t sit up and show the logos, his sponsors would feel cheated. Some clothing makers are even clever enough to put their logo on the palms of cycling gloves so they show up in these photos.

Of course that’s not the only reason for victory salutes. It’s also a show of exuberance, like a football player spiking the football on the ground after a touchdown (though I’m led to believe this has for some reason been outlawed). For ages the victory salute was a pretty simple, rote thing, but in the last couple of decades racers have evidently felt the need to constantly innovate with their salutes. They bring in new elements all the time: pointing at the heavens with a reverent look; stabbing their chests with their fingers as if to say, “See? Me! Me! Me!”; or even, in the case of a Tour de France stage win by Carlos Sastre in 2003, crossing the line with a pacifier in his mouth as a way to dedicate the win to his two-year-old daughter. (There’s a much better way to honor a baby, as you shall see later.)

First-hand experience

Alas, most of my own victory salutes have been done in practice. After my brothers and I signed up for our first race, the 1981 Red Zinger Mini Classic, we spent the weeks leading up to the race practicing our victory salutes, just in case. Up and down our street we’d ride, a finish line imagined in front of the house, and we’d throw our arms up in various ways, critiquing one another’s efforts. Occasionally we’d stage a sprint, taking turns “winning” so we could better approximate the feeling of doing a real salute. It didn’t occur to us to actually train for the race, nor did we realize that our chances of needing a victory salute were way down there with winning Lotto.

My brothers and I were forbidden to ride no-handed, of course. Max got chewed out at the dinner table because my dad had seen him riding down a nearby street, Howard Place, with his arms folded across his chest. My dad tried out sarcasm: “Oh, here’s the big … macho stud riding with his arms folded!” Bryan, Geoff, and I laughed and laughed. I think our dad’s awkward phrase was as funny to us as Max being bawled out. (We were also forbidden to race: “You boys are too stupid to race bicycles. You’ll get yourselves killed.” Lack of supervision was a real blessing in that household.)

The first race I can remember winning was the citizen’s edition of the Buckeye Road Race in Colorado in 1985. There wasn’t much of a field there, and I’ll confess that my victory salute—after all those years of dreaming!—was just a bit sheepish. I’d debated about even doing one, and finally decided I’d better, as there were several categories on the road at once, I’d dropped the second-place rider by a huge margin, and I wanted to make sure the referees saw me go by and registered that I was a winner. (This strategy served me well in my 1990 world championship victory as well.)

In the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic, I was second in most of the stages. There was one guy I couldn’t beat, Peter Stubenrauch, who won every single stage leading up to the final one, a criterium. I managed to beat him in a couple of primes during that last stage, almost certainly because he threw them (not being a particularly greedy guy). I didn’t realize this at the time; I just figured I was having a great day. On bell lap, I really psyched myself up, told myself I could beat Pete, just like I'd beaten my own brother on this course earlier in the year. I launched my sprint early, and—amazingly enough—managed to hold Pete off all the way to the line. I threw my arms up, shook my fists, and roared with satisfaction—“YEEAAAH! YEAAAAH! YEAAAH!” As victory salutes go, it was way, way over the top. Finally I looked back at Pete, whose reaction was simply, “Dude, we have another lap.” Which we did—I’d sprinted a lap early and hadn’t won after all! I was completely mortified. In fact, I just about died of embarrassment. (The race director evidently didn’t know you’re not supposed to have a prime on the penultimate lap.) To assuage my humiliation afterward, a friend said disingenuously, “I just figured you really, really liked primes!” If there’s a moral to this story (besides “Check the lap counter!”) it’s “Don’t overdo the victory salute!”

Among my handful of victories in mass-start races, the most satisfying was the 1986 Boulder Cup criterium, around the Pearl Street mall in downtown Boulder. It was a pretty big race, though the junior category I was in was missing the top local team, Dale Stetina’s 7-Eleven junior team (who were doing a big race elsewhere in the country). The problem was, the finish line was too close to the first corner of the course, and I really felt like I didn’t have enough road for a victory salute. (It was a close sprint so this would have been an after-the-line deal.) Also, I couldn’t believe I’d actually won. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the fifteen minute period during which riders could register protests that I really believed I had. Not that I’d done anything worth protesting; it’s just that a) racers in those days always seemed to be protesting every finish, and b) as I said, it seemed too good to be true. Later in the day my friend Bill won his category of the race, did throw his arms up, and just about stacked in that first corner.

Once I joined the collegiate racing circuit, I never won another race, except team time trials. It would be the height of conceited absurdity to throw your arms up at the end of a TTT, of course. The only time I’ve seen a victory salute work for a time trial is with the modern Tour de France, where the overall race leader starts last and knows, from his director yelling in his earphone, that he’s done well enough in the TT to defend his yellow jersey going into the last day’s race (which is little more than a parade and a last chance for the sprinters to have stage-winning glory). A couple of racers I can think of (Lance Armstrong and Carlos Sastre) have finished the last Tour time trial with modest one-armed fist-pumps that were, I think, tasteful.

A brief catalog of victory salutes

Of course I can’t categorize every type of victory salute, as new ones are being created all the time, but there are some classics worth describing. I also won’t position myself as an arbiter of taste as far as these are concerned; that’s what the teeming masses of fans are for. Another disclaimer is that I had to use amateur models for my photos, as I can’t afford professionals and don’t dare post copyrighted photos from race coverage websites. Thus, these won’t be perfect examples of the various salutes, but they should get the point across.

The Classic

The most basic victory salute, of course, is just throwing your arms up. The palms can face forward, or you can make fists, whatever. This was Davis Phinney’s standard victory salute; no matter how much he won, he kept it pretty simple. Nothing wrong with that!

Note that if your eyes are closed and/or your chin in way up, this becomes the “fireballs to heaven” salute most famously used by Alexi Grewal when he won the Olympic road race in 1984.

The Fist-Pump

The simple fist-pump victory salute is useful in a variety of situations. If you’ve sealed your Tour de France general classification victory with a solid ride in the final time trial, this is appropriate (whereas anything else wouldn’t be). The fist-pump is also good if you don’t have much maneuvering room after the finish line, or if conditions are otherwise sketchy. It can also, oddly enough, be the opposite of modest: Sean Kelly won so many races, sometimes he just couldn’t be bothered with a more extravagant gesture.

The fist-pump is often used in conjunction with other victory salutes. When a rider manages a solo breakaway, you’ll often see a combination platter of salutes as he approaches the line, and this is a very common one in such cases.

The Awkward

I don’t think anybody ever does this one intentionally. Sometimes a rider is so wasted at the end that his victory salute is just kind of off. Maybe one arm is higher than the other, or neither is raised high enough. Most often the awkward salute comes from somebody who doesn’t win a lot of mass-start events, so the victory salute is anything but old hat. I’m reminded of Christian Vande Velde’s victory salute when he won a stage of last year’s Paris-Nice. It wasn’t a bad victory salute, but his legs were kind of going one direction and the rest of him another.

Really, I kind of like the awkward victory salute; it’s sort of sweet, like the guy never expected to win and didn’t spend a lot of time practicing how to throw his arms up. (The exception is the guy who forgets to zip up his jersey. That’s just downright unprofessional, and generally unsightly.)

The “I can’t believe it”

This is another charming victory salute. Sometimes it comes right on the heels of a standard or awkward victory salute; the racer suddenly can’t believe it’s really true he won, and clasps his head (or these days his helmet) with his hands. The expression of joy that accompanies this particular salute can bring a tear to the eye. It’s hard to simulate in a photo shoot but I think young Lindsay has done a pretty good job here.

The Rock-the-baby

I first saw this one from Alexandre Vinokourov, though several riders have done it. It’s a tribute to the racer’s infant offspring, though I suspect it’s really more of a peace offering to the spouse left behind at home changing diapers and cleaning spit-up while the pro racer is off pursuing glory. I don’t think you’ll ever see this one after a bunch-sprint, where the guy is going like forty miles per hour and has to worry about being run into from behind. It’s perfect for solo victories, so long as you have an infant child at home. For a non-parent to do this salute would be just plain weird.

Joy from the heart

I’d be surprised if anybody recognized this one; its heyday was in the eighties when cyclists were still very Euro and hadn’t adopted the brutish American no-neck aura of NHL and NFL players. I can’t remember the last cyclist I saw do this one—it’s been a while—but I remember practicing it. I think any racer would earn extra style points for bringing it back.

The Second Place

My friend John used this once. He’d been finishing second to our friend Nico a lot, and though I don’t think John invented this salute, he managed to put it to use. It’s not likely to ever become popular because it takes real presence of mind to remember it, and has to be done just right or the crowd won’t understand it. I once got second in a collegiate criterium and it never occurred to me to pull this one out; I was too busy sprinting and frankly hadn’t really counted on losing. Good for a guy who is dropped from a two-man break just before the line, I guess.

(By the way, my model, Alexa, had no idea that this was a pantomime of a guy shooting himself in the head. She just followed my instructions and chalked the oddity up to another inexplicable cycling behavior.)

The Tyson

Obviously this one is a bit dated. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used, but I practiced it plenty and did get to use it once, in a collegiate team selection race. (We had a series of intra-club races to determine who rode in what categories.) I well remember the joyous cackling of Trevor, our coach, team president, and star rider, watching me from the sidelines.

For years I tried to get my friends Bill and Pete to use this one in competition, but as often as they won they couldn’t be bothered to do the Tyson. It’s a pity. Lindsay does a wonderful job here; her missing teeth lend an extra air of verisimilitude.

The Contador

Alberto Contador wins all the time, and invariably does the pistol-shot victory salute. He’s even taken to doing it while up on the podium, and I once saw him pause beforehand to make sure all the photographers were ready. It has a scripted quality to it, almost like he’s a careful custodian of the Contador brand, but it’s not a bad salute. I wonder if somebody besides Contador will ever dare try it. Surely someone out there has the chutzpah to bite Contador’s style, just to make it fresher….

The Cav

No catalog of victory salutes would be complete without the outrageous victory salute that got the brash road sprinter Mark Cavendish ejected from the Tour de Romandie this year. It ranks up there (down there?) with Alexi Grewal throwing his bike over the finish line at the Morgul Bismark stage of the Coors Classic, or Grewal ripping his 7-Eleven jersey down the middle before a victory salute at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado springs (which antic got him thrown off the team). As irresponsible acts go, this salute beats doping, anyway. (Speaking of responsibility, rest assured that although Lindsay does a great job with this one, she has no idea what the gesture means. Heck, not being Italian, I don’t know exactly what means either. I do have a strong sense that this photo wouldn’t’ be a good one to post in Lindsay’s“My Book About Me” for school.)

And there you have it: a brief catalog of victory salutes. It's never too early to start practicing these, though for many of us it may be too late.

dana albert blog