Thursday, May 31, 2012

Unintentional Fiction in Bike Race Stories

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.


I’m trying to learn how to write fiction.  I’ve dabbled in it but I’m more comfortable with essays.  And yet, recently I discovered that for years I’ve been telling a story about the French cycling champion Bernard Hinault that I only thought was true—I’d unknowingly fictionalized an account of one of his victories.  Does this count as fiction?  Probably not.  But this got me thinking about the fictions we unintentionally create all the time.  This post explores the different reasons why, and methods by which, we  create “unintentional fiction.”

What, youre not that interested in reading about the act of fiction?  Well, in the following post I explore this topic through bike racing stories, so you might enjoy it anyway.

Would you rather read actual fiction than read about fiction?  Well then, here are some links to albertnet short stories:

Hinault wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Here is the story I have been telling for over twenty years about Hinault winning the 1980 Liège-Bastogne- Liège bike race—the oldest of the classics:

That fake autobiography, “Hinault by Hinault,” got it all wrong.  It was your typical blather about Hinault wanting so badly to win this race for France, since only three Frenchman had won it in its 100+ year history, so he pushed through with unflagging motivation even though the weather was terrible, snow and sleet, etc.  But in his actual autobiography, “Memories of the Peloton,” Hinault told the real story, which is that he didn’t even want to start the race.  He tells his coach, Cyrille Guimard, “This is bullshit, I’m not racing in these conditions.”  Guimard says, “Just start the race, and when you’ve shown your face you can drop out.”  Hinault asks for a jacket.  Guimard says, “No, start without it, and I’ll give it to you later.”  So Hinault starts.  Ten kilometers in he drops back to the team car and says, “Okay Cyrille, give me my jacket, I’m riding back to the hotel.”  Guimard says, “No, just stay in a bit longer until more of the others have quit.  You don’t want to look bad.”  Several more times Hinault is denied his jacket until Guimard finally says, “I’m not giving you your jacket until you finish.  So you might as well race.”  Furious, and wanting to stay warm, Hinault drops the hammer and obliterates the field, ultimately winning by almost ten minutes.  After the race he finds Guimard, who says, “Well, now are you glad you raced?”  Hinault snaps back, “Fuck off.  Give me my jacket.”

It’s a great story—but largely untrue.  As I discovered when I reread “Memories of the Peloton” recently, my memory of this tale has proven seriously defective.  Yes, Hinault won by almost ten minutes, and Guimard and a jacket were involved, but the real story is quite different.  Hinault lined up with everybody without complaint, and “everyone was wearing a cape or a windcheater.”  Hinault continues:

I was riding with a hand up to my face to keep the snow out of my eyes and came very close to retiring.  I told [teammate] Guilloux that it was impossible to carry on and I was all for getting back to our hotel, but he persuaded me to carry on to the feeding-station and pack it in if it was still snowing then.  [At the feeding station, 100 km from the finish] there was a bit of rain and it was cold but the weather looked more stable.  Cyrille Guimard told me to remove my racing cape because the real race was about to start.  My cape was made of a waxed fabric and I was very warm inside it, but I took it off as instructed….  I decided that the only thing to do was ride as hard as I could to keep myself warm….  [After dropping everybody, I was] like a kind of snowbound Tom Thumb protected only by his balaclava, but heading for a heart-warming victory in Liège.

My account was scarcely better than the one I’d remembered from “Hinault by Hinault” (which is out of print so I can’t even check up on how well I’ve remembered it).  In my story, Hinault had railed against authority, but in truth he did as he was told.

How could I have remembered this so wrong?  Well, the idea of Hinault as a rebel is entirely valid.  Later in “Memories of the Peloton” he writes, “The atmosphere at Renault had been cloudy since 1980.  Cyrille always wanted his own way:  the rider had only to pedal and keep his mouth shut.  He gave orders but no explanations.  In my case, it all went in one ear and out of the other.  I tended to do whatever seemed right to me and, as time went by, I found his attitude less and less acceptable.  He treated us like naughty children and it had to stop.”  So he ultimately fell out with Guimard, and went on to start his own team.

Through faulty memory, I took matters of truth—Hinault’s pugnacious spirit and his support of riders’ rights (revolutionary at that time)—and illustrated them concisely through a dramatic narrative, which is exactly what fiction should do.  The only trouble was, I wasn’t aware of my own fictionalizing and presented my fanciful account as fact.

Perhaps the “Hinault by Hinault” writer, far short of the manipulative propagandist I had taken him for, was similarly misled by his own faulty memory.  Perhaps he couldn’t imagine a non-nationalistic motive for Hinault to persevere in such conditions.  (I doubt, though, that Hinault was actually very nationalistic; in his book he reports that, even after his famous rift with Greg LeMond in 1986, “We agreed that, in the world championship, neither of us would work if the other got away.”  This is significant because at the world championship, riders race are supposed for their countries, not for their trade teams, and not for their friends.)

Here’s a photo of Hinault, racing the Niwot time trial in the 1986 Coors Classic:

I thought my brother Geoff had taken this photo, but he couldn’t have because he’s in it (on the right, no shirt, high white socks, cast on his wrist).

Gauchos win national TTT championship

Some years ago, I wrote a story for the Daily Peloton about the 1990 National Collegiate Cycling Championships, where the UC Santa Barbara team I was on won the team time trial.  It had been over a decade since the race when I wrote my story, and I had to rely heavily on memory.  I seemed to recall that only one team started their race after we did, and that was CU Boulder.  We’d beaten all the other teams, and had only to watch them come in to know that we’d won.  But looking back, I wasn’t sure about CU having raced last:  I also remembered  having been really nervous about the Cal Poly team from San Luis Obispo, who had won the collegiate national TTT the year before. 

I didn’t want to get this detail wrong, so I asked three of my former UCSB teammates how they remembered the race.  Without any prompting or leading questions from me, all three of them recalled, very assuredly, that it was Cal Poly who was the last team on the road.  Figuring that three matching accounts couldn’t be wrong, I wrote up my story accordingly:

Ah, the torment! Cal Poly still had four riders together, and they looked a lot faster than we’d felt coming up the home stretch. We looked at the clock. Then at Cal Poly. Clock. Poly. Clock. And then a shocking thing happened: their paceline broke in two. Several seconds went by before the front two noticed. A huge gap opened, fifty meters. The gap never closed. Their third guy finally crossed the line but was six seconds too late. Such a close margin—and suddenly, doubt set in. Could Steve’s [timing] number have been inaccurate? Or approximate? Trevor grilled him. Are you absolutely positively sure? Steve was. No doubt whatsoever. We’d won. Gold.
Pretty specific description, eh?  Well, I had the benefit of a photo my brother snapped of Cal Poly’s finish.  Once I found that photo, I vividly remembered how the Cal Poly paceline had fallen apart at the end.  I remembered this as clearly as if I’d seen it with my own eyes—but actually I hadn’t.  I came across another photo years after my Daily Peloton story was published:

Zoom in.  See the dude in the background on the far left with the red and white helmet?  That’s me.  To my left you can just make out my teammate Trevor.  Our other teammates are obscured by the guys who have just released the Cal Poly riders (in the green and white).  Sure enough, Cal Poly went before we did.  The last team on the road was indeed CU Boulder, as I’d originally remembered.  Dang it!

So why did three of my teammates all remember it wrong?  It’s hard to say, but one explanation comes immediately to mind:  it’s a lot better story if Cal Poly goes last.  That sets up the gut-wrenching suspense at the end.  More likely than not, my teammates had simply remembered things how they’d wanted to.  Unintentional fiction.

How much time is involved in creating such fiction?  If you’d asked my teammates and me about this race a week, a month, or six months after it happened, we’d surely have remembered it right.  But a decade later, such details have faded, and the brain fills them back in as well as it can—which in this case meant that accuracy succumbed to drama.

Mount Evans and the Stelvio

Memory is not the only culprit when it comes to such inaccuracy.  There’s also our fallible interpretation of real-time events.  With simple matters (e.g., is that traffic light red or green?) we do just fine, but with more complicated matters our interpretations are best-effort.  When we make sense of unfolding events, we’re really telling a story to ourselves about what we are seeing.  We do this automatically whenever we imagine another person’s perspective; researchers call this  theory of mind.  (One test for autism demonstrates that severely autistic children cannot employ a theory of mind, while the rest of us take it for granted.)

As an example of inaccurate interpretation of events, I offer a tale of the 1986 Mount Evans hill climb.  Just after the halfway point of the race, the peloton exploded and I found myself in the company of just two other riders:  my teammate Peter Stubenrauch and our friend (and rival) John Cotton.  Pete was the best climber of the three, and normally John was much stronger than I.  On this day, though, we seemed well matched and climbed together for many miles.  I was having the best race of my life, despite a bizarre mechanical problem:  my front hub, a wacky Dura-Ace AX, had these big plastic dust caps and one of them was catching on the fork tip and grinding against the rotating hub.  This made an intermittent but relentless noise, somewhere between a whine and a shriek.  Eventually Pete rode up next to me and asked what the hell the noise was.

Mount Evans is a really long race—27 miles, climbing almost 7,000 feet—so our pace allowed for some light conversation, and after discussing the hub a bit Pete and I somehow got on the topic of my new aero brake levers (among the first type to have unexposed cable housing).  At about this time John was suddenly dropped, and by the finish Pete and I had taken something like five minutes out of him.  A little while after the race, John came over and congratulated us:  “You guys really did some good teamwork there.  I overheard you discussing tactics but I couldn’t make out what you were saying.  Then you timed your attack and counterattack to perfection.  What can I say … there was nothing I could do!”

We of course had no idea what he was talking about.  There had been no tactics in that race except to pace ourselves carefully.  The only thing we’d talked about was my bike.  John imagined that we beaten him through teamwork—which must have been preferable to admitting that he was just slower that day.

A more recent example:  the Giro d’Italia, which just wrapped up last weekend.  I watched the penultimate stage twice:  once on Saturday morning via a live Internet feed, and again that evening on TV.  The morning coverage was from Eurosport so the announcers were David Harmon and the veteran cycling champion Sean Kelly.  As the racers tackled the brutal Stelvio pass, Kelly talked about how this late in a grand tour, on a course this difficult, often the tactics cease to be that important:  either the racers have it in their legs or they don’t.  The evening coverage was from Universal Sports so the announcers were Steve Schlanger and the former American pro Todd Gogulski.  Schlanger made a predictable comment about this being a “chess game on wheels” or some such thing.  Gogulski agreed, citing the importance of teamwork and tactics in the race.

I had to laugh.  These announcers seemed to be saying opposite things.  Who was right and who was wrong?  Well, it’s complicated.  Tactics certainly were in play.  For example, Christian Vande Velde dropped back from a breakaway to help his teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, who was in contention for the overall Giro d’Italia victory.  Damiano Cunego should have done the same for his leader, Michele Scarponi, but unaccountably didn’t.  Overall race leader Joaquim Rodriguez needed to attack Hesjedal but waited too long (setting himself up to lose the Giro in the last stage the following day).  Was it tactics that ultimately determined the outcome?  Probably not—to Kelly’s point, many riders just didn’t have the legs to carry out tactical moves.  (If this was a poker game, former Giro champ Ivan Basso couldn’t even afford the ante.) 

There was no single “accurate” way to narrate that race.  No two racers had the same experience, and announcers can only speculate on each racer’s story.  Perhaps we’ll know cycling has truly come of age in America when we have talk shows where sports pundits argue onscreen for hours at a time about this stuff.

The Stelvio and the Mini Zinger

Unintentional fiction also results when, aware that others are telling themselves stories about us, we try to control or influence those stories.  On the Stelvio, Vande Velde led the group of overall contenders kilometer after kilometer, grinding out a grueling pace designed to paralyze and shrink the group, and yet he wore a perfect poker face.  Looking at him, you’d be tempted to think this was easy for him—but it obviously wasn’t.  After he finally completed his job and dropped from the lead group, he lost over seven minutes in just a few kilometers.

It’s a good bet Vande Velde was deliberately looking as unfazed as possible so he could psych out his opponents.  Even though they were behind him, their team directors, following the race in their cars, had access to the same video feed we viewers did, and could talk to their racers via radios.  If Vande Velde showed how much he was suffering, he might have given comfort, however indirectly, to the enemy.  (Hesjedal, meanwhile, looked like he was really suffering, but then he always does—so his mask of suffering told his opponents nothing.  Maybe his lack of poker face, given with his routinely tireless performances, carries out a mind game of its own.)

In my own humble races I sometimes told misleading stories through my actions.  In the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic, an 8- or 9-day stage race, I got in several breakaways with my friend Peter, who won every stage.  Being much stronger, and a way better sprinter, he was content to do most of the work in the breakaway.  But in the criteriums I was always sure to take my pulls as we went through the start/finish stretch, where there was a higher concentration of spectators.  Here I am on a back-stretch, preparing to once again get Pete’s wheel:

Meanwhile, Pete would often let me beat him in the primes, because he know I wanted to get the sprint leader jersey away from another kid whom neither of us liked.  Pete made it look close:  I’d throw my bike at the line and just barely win the prime.

What were we up to?  Well, I led through the start/finish area because I wanted to glean all the glory I could from a race I wasn’t capable of winning.  Meanwhile, I wanted to make the race look good by seeming to give Pete a run for his money.  He must have also had the race’s image in mind when he pretended to almost win the primes:  if the spectators had known how totally dominant he was, they’d probably have gotten bored.  Not that we thought all this through or discussed it, of course.  We just followed our impulses.

After one of these criteriums, a spectator took me aside.  He was a grown-up and spoke with authority:  “Look, you can beat this guy, but you have to be smart about it!  You can’t be dragging him around the course all the time—he’s taking advantage of you!  You’re almost as fast in the sprint—if you just conserved your energy for the end I’ll bet you could beat him!”  I could have told the guy it was all smoke and mirrors, but I didn’t.  I just mumbled something noncommittal.  I wasn’t telling any stories, per se:  just trying to influence the ones people told to themselves and each other.

Unintentional fiction vs. artifice

The chief difference between unintentional fiction and real fiction is artifice:  that is, intent.  The true fiction writer is aiming for a specific effect, conveying a certain idea, and has at his or her disposal anything imagination can conjure.  The essayist, biographer, or journalist must stick to the facts.  And yet, the truths the essayist conveys are still a matter of insight and intent.  Choices are made, a perspective is advanced, and best-effort interpretations still abound.  Fiction, in its various guises, has us all surrounded.

Perhaps what feels so “honest” and forthright about “Memories of the Peloton” is Hinault’s apparent absence of artifice.  He’s a retired bike champ, not a writer.  The translator, in his preface, suggests “that Hinault dictated his memoirs into a tape recorder and then had them transcribed exactly as he had spoken them.  The result was original and created a very immediate impression of the man and his character, but it lacked the logical structure you are entitled to expect in a book.”  Indeed, Hinault breezes from one topic to another, and one passage that has really stuck with me concerns the training rides he did with local riders during his late teens: 

We used to set off on Thursday afternoons … and ride 100 or 120 kilometres.  We used to amuse ourselves by sprinting for all the signs.  We’d go to a grocer’s to buy yoghurt and sometimes the grocer would lend us little spoons.

I absolutely love that those little spoons made it into the book.  Perhaps this shows how important those early, carefree training rides were to him.  The 1979 Tour de France, which Hinault won, isn’t even mentioned.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tour of California - Riding the Stage 1 Course


This little story was intended as a freelance article for a cycling website.  That didn’t end up working out, so here it is, over a week late, when all the Tour of California racers have gone home or on to other races.

Tour of California – Riding the Stage 1 Course

What’s the best way to watch the Amgen Tour of California?  Well, if you’re wanting a blow-by-blow of the action, TV is really best.  If you want to see it live, you can catch the finish—which will have the biggest, loudest crowd—or, to get a better view of the riders, station yourself on one of the big climbs.

Watching live offers an extra treat for serious cyclists:  you can ride the course, or part of it, and then watch the racers.  What other sport lets you experience the venue firsthand mere hours before the race itself?  Imagine if you got to go throw a football around in your home team’s stadium, or play catch on the baseball diamond with your friends, just before a pro game.  But even that wouldn’t stack up to riding a bike race course, because with ball games the venue usually doesn’t matter much, whereas a bike race course makes all the difference in the world.

Today I rode the main loop of Stage 1 with my old cycling pal Dave, a couple hours before the racers, and then we drove to the finish in Santa Rosa.  Riding the course first gives you great insight into the race—how hard are those climbs, really?—and anticipating the race gives you more motivation during the ride.

Once the flurry of logistic details was behind us—driving, parking, deciding how many layers to wear (it was surprisingly chilly today)—we finally had nothing but open road to occupy us.  This give me the mental space to finally start thinking about the race.  I’d been distracted by the normal work and family obligations, and also—not incidentally—the Giro d’Italia, coinciding with this race but 6,000 miles and nine time zones away.  With many of the same teams racing in both places, I’ve about gone crazy trying to remember who’s racing where.

So as we made our way around the course today I finally had a chance to really think about the Tour of California.  Whom would I be rooting for and really watching closely?  It’s not as simple as supporting your home team; the sport is too international for that, and my favorite riders are the ones who have the most flair (think Bernard Hinault), or whom I feel some kind of special connection to.  A tricky aspect of pro cycling for Americans is finding ways to really care about the racers.  It doesn’t help that so many of them don’t speak English, and it’s no coincidence that my favorites tend to be from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, or Holland (where everybody knows English).

This morning I was thinking about Robert Gesink, the Dutch rider who won the best young rider’s competition in the Tour of California in 2007, his first year as a pro.  The next year, he won the toughest stage of this race.  But I’m mainly interested in him because last fall, he crashed training and broke his femur.  I did the same thing, a couple months later, and am looking to his progress for inspiration.  I cannot imagine being ready to race at any level, much less against a top pro field, two months from now.  I’m just happy to be on the bike at all.

I also have made it a hobby to track the progress of Laurens ten Dam, another Dutchman, who was sixth overall here last year.  I like to think of him as my old nemesis:  we used to race together.  I’d like to tell you I taught him everything he knows, but that’s not exactly true.  It’s not even true that I taught him everything I know.  In fact I taught him nothing, and only raced against him once.  This was in 2003, when he was an up-and-coming amateur and I was reaching my sell-by date.  We both raced La Marmotte, a brutal cyclo-sportif in France, and to be completely honest, I never even saw him.  He won and I was, well … a bit further back.  (Okay, I was 189th.)

One rider I’d like to see win this year is Tom Danielson.  He first caught my attention way back in 2004 when he won the Mount Evans Hill Climb in Colorado (where I grew up).  The record he set that day still stands.  Mount Evans is a brutal race:  twenty-eight miles of climbing, peaking at over 14,000 feet elevation—the highest paved road in North America.  More recently, Danielson has captured my imagination by really hitting his stride just last year, at thirty-three, when he was the top American in the Tour de France—his first.  I’m ten years older and always looking for encouragement that I’m not just running out the clock on my life.  (A few years back, my younger daughter, then around five, asked me, “Daddy, can you die of middle age?”)

Today I was feeling all my years and of course my weakened leg.  That my right leg warmer was sagging didn’t help my morale.  The weather wasn’t what I’d hoped—overcast, cool, and damp—but it was of course way better than last year, when I took my family up to Lake Tahoe to a rental cabin so we could watch the first Tour of California stage, only to get a foot of snow that morning and have the race canceled.  I wonder if there are still Europeans who expect to come out here and enjoy “Baywatch” conditions.  At least the locale is pretty:  quaint little towns like Occidental with old inns and a saloon; deep, lush ferns along the road; a giant hand-carved statue of Babe Ruth and his impressive girth (a true American-style athlete).

And it was as breathtaking as ever when, around Bodega Bay, the ocean first came into view.  I smelled it before I saw it:  a pleasantly rank, salty, briny smell.  This was a real ocean breeze, not like my “Ocean Breeze” scented shampoo which of course smells nothing like an ocean breeze (and good thing).  Does the Pacific smell different from the Atlantic ?  I didn’t get to ask any of our visiting European racers.

As we cruised along, my friend and I chatted.  All that’s worth reporting about this is that we mostly managed to avoid a sad and tedious topic:  doping in cycling.  I hope I’m not being naïve in saying things seem to be getting better.  For a couple years there, my riding pals and I couldn’t help gossiping about all the positive tests and ongoing cases and appeals and suspicions wracking the pro peloton.  Today, the topic of drugs only came up once.  As we began a tricky descent, Dave said, “If you wanna go fast, don’t let me stop you—just wait at the bottom.”  He’s got two titanium rods in his back and is understandably cautious.  My descending mojo is gone, too. 
“Dude, get real,” I told him.  “I’m such a timid descender now, I’m starting to get free Vagifem samples in the mail.”
“Tell me that’s not a real product.”
“It is!  I know a sales rep.  It’s prescription only:  you know, ‘Ask your doctor if Vagifem is right for you.’”
“Isn’t that name kind of redundant?  I mean, Vagiman I could understand … but fem?”
“So if you were on a strict regimen of Vagifem, would you call it a Vagimen?”
I know that’s not very enlightened of us, but we don’t smoke cigars or go on fishing trips or have poker night.  Maybe we were just giddy from managing a day-long furlough from our families—on Mother’s Day, no less.

If there’s a such thing as karmic voodoo, perhaps it struck me on the hardest of the KOM climbs.  It was a monster.  Dave took off ahead to school some other cyclists and to let me suffer in peace instead of watching me with pity, the way you’d look at a dog with a giant satellite-dish ring on its neck to keep it from biting its scabs.  My bad leg wouldn’t fire right and my good leg was getting progressively sorer from picking up the slack.  I’m too proud to ride a compact crank and was having a lot of trouble turning the pedals.  What if I just ground to a halt?  To buck up my courage, I started daydreaming about the latest heroic exploits of my favorite racers.  Since the Tour of California was just getting underway, miles behind me, I thought about the Giro d’Italia.

What I found most heroic might surprise you, given the new stars this year’s race has already produced.  I was thinking about the team time trial, and how the young Peter Stetina was dropped from his Garmin-Barracuda team just before the finish.  No, that itself wasn’t heroic, but I can only imagine he was absolutely on the rivet for most of the race.  He’s no slouch as a time trialist, but is built a lot more like a climber than a team time trialist—and here he was, supporting the winning ride with the best team in the business. 

As a national collegiate champion in theTTT, I know full well the immense pressure this event involves.  In a regular race, if you ride poorly you don’t doom your team.  Sure, they miss your support, but you don’t literally spoil the ride of every one of your teammates.  In a team time trial, there’s nowhere to hide.  If you take weak pulls, you doom the team.  You have to communicate well—which can include swallowing your pride and sitting out of the rotation a few times if you need to—and if you don’t communicate, you doom your team.  And a great stage racer like Stetina introduces another potential problem:  as one of their GC hopefuls, having finished 21st in last year’s Giro (the top American, and third in the young-rider classification), if he got dropped in this TTT, the team would have to consider waiting for him.  That could sink their chances at the stage win and the pink jersey.  He must have killed himself to not let the team down.

What does this have to do with me getting up this dang hill?  Well, Stetina dug deep and managed—though “only” being excellent at TTTs, to be brilliant in this one.  So maybe if I dug deep, I could manage, though being literally lame, to be competent on this climb.  And so I did.  It helped that spectators along the course warmed up for the real action by cheering me on.  One guy even took a bunch of photos, which was flattering until I remembered that nobody uses film anymore, and he was only practicing on me to better photograph the real racers later.  No matter:  I managed to grope my way to the top eventually.

At the finish, we got to watch the race on the JumboTron, seeing the same climbs we’d just been on, and even the same spectators:   “Look, there’s that dude with the Mohawk!”  Watching the JumboTron at the finish line is a lot better than watching your TV at home:  it’s like a really rowdy open-air sports bar.  As the racers approached, everybody started screaming and beating on the road barriers in unison, making a thundering racket you could feel through the ground.  It was almost frightening, reminding me of the power of a giant mob, but of course these were friendly fans.  The pack came by in a blur—my first in-the-flesh sighting of the racers.  And then it was over.  We watched the replays.  Glorious.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ride Report - Tour of California Mount Diablo Stage


This is a tale I wrote for my bike club, but also for you, about riding out to the "saddle" (i.e., halfway-point) of Mount Diablo to watch the Tour of California professional peloton race up it.  I have worked long and hard to set the right literary example regarding rides and races:  that is, to focus almost solely on the food.

Diablo Saddle – Tour of California Spectator Edition

For a two-sentence summary, go to the end.

Breakfast was a bowl of cereal.  Not surprised?  You should be.  I don’t eat breakfast.  It’s stupid and pointless.  You can tell me all you want how important it is and I won’t listen.  Same with yoga, “visualization,” and sleeping with a rolled-up towel under your neck (which some lecturing chiropractor said to do back in ’83).  “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”  That’s the breakfast cereal industry talking.  The same guys who should be put in jail for marketing cereals to kids that are like 60% sugar.

The breakfast was Weetabix  shrapnel.  I love the spelling.  They’re not going to tell you it has wheat in it (i.e., call it “Wheatabix”) because they figure you don’t care.  This is a British cereal and you should be bloody happy just to have something to eat.  I’ll tell you something though:  as a coddled American I was totally displeased with it.  Weetabix shrapnel is what’s left over after your greedy kids have eaten all the biscuits.  Though the British wouldn’t call them biscuits because that’s what they call cookies.  (Note that many American breakfast cereals, and probably some British ones, have 95% of the DNA of crummy store-bought cookies.  But I digress.)  Anyway, the shrapnel just gets soggy and makes your milk taste like cardboard.  I added some Cheerios and the shrapnel ruined them.  Nothing about this meal made me want to become a regular breakfast eater.  In fact, I followed it up with a mini-French-bread pizza, and my taste buds were so pissed off from the cereal I didn’t even enjoy it.  It tasted like aluminum.

I guess I’d have been happier if my stomach were in better shape.  I don’t know if it’s due to the sheer nervousness of knowing I had a Diablo saddle ride with the boys ahead of me, or due to the iffy green chiles I’d eaten the day before, but my lower digestive tract was in an uproar.  (Erin warned me not to eat the chiles, which were rotting and had become slimy, but I didn’t listen.  The way I figure it, wasting food is a crime, and it’s easy to eat something that’s spoiled if you douse it with hot salsa.  Which I did.)  I’m not going to go into too much detail, but suffice to say I was serially detained and thus found myself running late heading to Royal to meet the guys.

So, I called Sean at 9:25 from the intersection of Ashby and College.  He didn’t pick up, but I discovered a voice-mail from him, saying “It’s 9:17 and we’re rolling out.  You should head directly up Tunnel and we’ll catch you.”   Well, needless to say I was pretty far behind that schedule and my days of actually chasing and catching the group on Tunnel are long over.  But I figured if I totally hammered, and they stopped to pee etc. at the top, I could still catch up.  So I slayed myself all the way up, and when I got to the top  I was shocked—shocked!—to find like a hundred Ewoks flattened on the ground, like what would happen on South Park if they didn’t close the road during newt mating season.  It was just carnage, vultures feasting and the whole bit.  Ritual mass suicide?  I hope so.  Okay, I didn’t see any such thing but I see a few of you napping in the back there and want you to pay attention.

I waited five minutes and nobody showed so I was certain they were well ahead of me.  Oh well.  This didn’t bother me too much because I happen to believe that sociability is a sliding scale and though I never get very close to the Dale Carnegie end of the scale, I do sometimes slide down toward the Captain Ahab end.  It’s almost a shame I already named my bike (“Platino”) because “Pequod” would be a fitting name.  If you accept Hemingway’s metaphor of “hills like white elephants,” perhaps thinking of Mt. Diablo as a white whale isn’t that far-fetched.  I was determined to get to the saddle in time to watch the racers.  I couldn’t remember what time the road was supposed to close—my plan had been to leave the logistics to my EBVC teammates who possess the lobes of the brain required for such a function—and now found myself lunging blindly at the challenge.

Being late and solo meant not stopping anywhere to pick up lunch food.  This bothered me very little.  A sub sandwich (the proposed food) is about the most useless cycling food I can imagine.  The white-flour bun probably burns up faster than pure glucose, and has fewer calories than like half a gel.  The “meat” (who knows what they actually press into that gross ribbony stuff they call turkey or ham, the fruit leather of the protein world) isn’t a source of energy and the protein won’t help until it’s too late and you’ve already bonked.  And mustard, to me, is like spackle:  it has exactly one real use (putting on a hot dog) and pretty much no other.  Mayo?  Please.  My dad and I were talking about cycling food once and he said, “You know, in terms of calories per unit volume you probably couldn’t do better than mayonnaise.”  He loves mayonnaise.  I don’t.  He’s never been the kind of cyclist to hammer along mile after mile (he’s more the bike-picnicking sort) so I don’t think he has any idea how nauseating it would be to eat packets of mayo like they were gels.  Plus, they’re not carbs.  I’m starting to get angry ... not at my dad, but at the memory of how little I had on this ride in the way of carbs.  I still haven’t recovered and my blood sugar is low, making me dangerously grumpy.  More on this later.

So I hammered and hammered and discovered along the way that the giant handful of gels I’d hastily grabbed somehow numbered only two.  I had two bottles of energy drink but no mix.  By the time I reached the ranger’s station on Diablo I’d gone through 1 2/3 bottles of the drink and both gels.  I had money but no plan.  The guys found me immediately and we had a very strange sort of conversation about how we’d managed to miss each other.  The conversation veered wildly between apology and accusation from both sides.  They’d actually waited for me at Royal though I’d been given the impression they were rolling.  I blame these smartphones.  I’ve had mine for three years and have missed like 90% of the calls made to it (including a work-related one today so I guess it’s not all bad).  Suffice to say, mistakes were made.

We hung around for like two hours waiting for the racers.  It was a mob scene up there.  A happy, friendly mob of angry bikers.  My brother Geoff coined the term “angry biker” and it simply refers to somebody who dresses all in Lycra and uses words like “efforts”—e.g., “we did some efforts today”— and spends a lot of money on bike stuff and is real fit and all that.  So I’m not saying this was a dangerous scene, like the fans at a British soccer match or something.  American cycling fans don’t get unruly because they all do yoga and Pilates and eat sprouted wheat and brewer’s yeast.  If we ate bangers and mash, and crisps, and if our ancestors had loved to pack a picnic to go watch an execution on Tower Hill, we’d be more macho and hot-blooded and riot-prone.

There was a guy up there, a couple of them actually, hauling around rolling coolers with popsicles in them.  They were from a gelato place in Berkeley and I’d love to give you the name, but it’s actually against the law for bloggers to promote products for which they’ve received free samples.  Advertisers get away with fricking murder, but bloggers are basically told, “Down dog, and kennel!” (to return to my Ahab metaphor from earlier).  Anyway, the product was called “gelato on a stick” and although it was fairly tasty (I’m allowed to say that because I’m not telling you the brand) it had nothing to do with gelato.  It was a pretty mainstream popsicle product, though a bit more authentic in its flavor than a normal popsicle; I knew the pink one was something other than strawberry or cherry, and when I heard somebody say it was pomegranate that didn’t seem obviously wrong.  The white one had some fancy name designed to convey the highfalutinness of green tea, like it was a “concept” flavor, but I just can’t remember what it was called.  It tasted like lotion, that expensive lotion you get at spas.  Frankly I didn’t care for it whatsoever except it was free, it had 140 calories, and as I said before I had no plan for feeding myself. 

Another bit of luck:  some friend of Lucas’s gave me some beef jerky.  Jerky must have the absolute dregs of the cow in it.  Prions are pretty much guaranteed in that stuff, but I didn’t want to be rude, plus couldn’t afford to be selective about my calories.  It tasted like a scrap of gristle that had been sprinkled with that weird red stuff they put on Buffalo wings, run over by a car a few times, and then left out in the sun.  But good.

The Tour of California breakaway came by and I took ten photos a second in burst mode.  Exactly one photo came out (the others were of motorcycles and some spectator’s back). 

Here's a rider in the four-man breakaway.

I decided to shoot video when the peloton came by.  That was like nine minutes later.  We had all visibly aged by that point.  I got the video rolling, zoomed in like 16x, and then kind of forgot to un-zoom as the racers got closer.  Fortunately this made them look like they were a lot closer to running me over than they really were, which made up for my poor response time.  I managed to shuffle backward into the dirt without getting run over or messing up my filming, other than getting footage of the rider’s pores instead of their bikes and bodies.  At some point I must have un-zoomed because I did get some okay footage I’ve lifted some photos from.

Here's the front of the pack:

The Rabobank rider below is Laurens ten Dam, from Holland:

Here's Tom Boonen, the Belgian champ (ranked #1 in the world right now if I'm not mistaken):

Now I’ve had dinner, between that last paragraph and this one.  This means I’ll probably start to get all woozy (you’ll understand when you find out what I ate) so now I’m in an even bigger rush to finish this report before I pass out.  (If you couldn’t tell, I have been in a rush this whole time.)  So after the racers went by in a ten-second blur, we had to get home.  By four.  Or else.  I was pretty worried about making it 36 miles with only a third of a water bottle and no other calories, especially since I’d burned all my matches and the book getting to the Diablo saddle. 

We headed down South Gate among the myriad riders.  Before dinner I’d have probably said “shitloads,” as in “out here in the sticks, things are measured in shitloads,” to quote a great writer whose name I’m sure you don’t care to learn.  Some of the riders were Fredtastic descenders, like this mountain bike guy who passed me who must have been pushing his knobby tires to the limit.  At Danville Sean and Lucas, and presently a couple of their pals from Morgan Stanley and Berkeley Bike Club and some guy in an expensive blank jersey dragged me along at a good clip, rescuing me from the wind and my own frailty.  I would have loved to take off my leg warmers, stop for some food and water, etc. but didn’t dare derail the train.  So there I was, going harder than I thought possible, getting a sweet draft, and being way overdressed and way underfed.

At the bottom of Wildcat, Sean announced his intention to do the climb slowly.  Lucas, seeing his opportunity, dropped the hammer.  (He probably would have dropped it anyway, come to think of it.)  I told Sean I was glad for the company but that he’d surely drop me soon because I was about to bonk.  Now, I’m not above begging for food, and surely would have done so had the thought occurred to me, but I’d become oddly fatalistic by this point in the ride.  It seemed that bonking was simply inevitable.  Normally I try to be more existential, embracing my radical freedom (though never to the extent Lucas does, whenever he realizes “I have the physical ability to go faster than this, so I should do that starting now!”).  Sean offered me a gel.  What a guy.  His gesture seemed not only generous but frankly genius.  It was a vanilla Powerbar gel and it was very liquid-y, which was a good thing because I had nothing to wash it down with:  my mouth, probably due to dehydration, had completely run out of saliva.  Somehow, that gel carried me all the way home.  It was a glorious ride, and at 72 miles was my longest of the year.

Post ride I had Greek Gods yogurt (which is da bomb, by the way, which I can tell you because they’ve never given me free samples) with organic strawberries.  If you are defiantly avoiding organic strawberries, as a safeguard against  the kind of tree-hugging local-this-local-that NPR-addicted Prius-driving Berkeley dogma that pervades us, go pick another battle.  (Like, eat Oreos once in awhile even though they’re RJR-Nabisco.)  Organic strawberries are small, sometimes weird, tend to rot suddenly, and can have insects milling around, but they’re so much better than the Squire of Gothos non-organic ones that are the size of your fist, tend to be mealy and oddly pale inside, and are totally flavorless (hence the Squire of Gothos reference—look it up).  That little parfait was glorious.  I had a banana too but it was on the firm side, like only Ian likes it.  I had to compost the peel but I’ve gotten rid of the bin because it was a breeding ground for annoying tiny flying insects so that was a problem that stymied me for several minutes in my exhausted state.  Then it was time to shower, take Alexa to violin, take her to soccer, and fetch Lindsay from a play-date.  After that, I had time to start this report, but not enough time to cook, before picking up Alexa from soccer. 

You guessed it:  no post-ride meal at all.  For the rest of the evening I was this close to just losing it.  (Erin was off taking a CPR class; I couldn’t exactly tell her, “Could you forgo the opportunity to save human lives so I can run off to a taqueria, or ideally the taco truck behind the Hotsy Totsy club, and come back at like 2 a.m., because I rode today?”)

Finally I had time to make my family-famous Southwestern Corn Goo, a pasta dish with cream style corn, oil, and gobs of cheese.  It’s probably more calorically dense even than mayonnaise.  It’s so far from the South Beach diet it’s probably against the law in Taos, Boulder, and Aspen.  The “Southwestern” bit refers to the green chiles I put in it (don’t worry, not the rotting ones) as a way to gradually make my kids embrace spicy food.  They love Corn Goo passionately so they’ll tolerate the spiciness (which actually comes from cayenne pepper) and also the semblance of spiciness, which comes from the green chiles (which are all bark and no bite, unless slimy and rotting as I learned this morning).  To keep from getting in too much trouble with Erin and with my conscience, I served the kids a giant portion of spinach with their Corn Goo.  I’d like to say they love spinach, but I won’t lie:  they hate it.  But they can’t even think about having seconds on pasta until they’ve eaten all their spinach.  This is called “parenting.”

Myself, I ate a hypocrisy-preventing portion of spinach (drizzled with a bit of olive oil and some lemon juice—actually quite good) and a breathtaking quantity of Corn Goo, perhaps a few thousand calories worth.  I can feel it in my bloodstream, like a mild anesthetic gradually infiltrating my body.  It feels so good.  My legs have even stopped hurting.  I feel a growing love of all mankind, so different from what I was feeling earlier.  Riding is fun and all, but nothing compared to the sweet dopamine binge I’m on right now.  In fact, I’m not going to ruin it by continuing to type.

Summary:  Epic pass/fail.  I failed to rendezvous with my EBVC brethren until the Diablo saddle, shot some iffy video of the racers, and made it home without bonking.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Altruism and the Inner Tube


My dictionary defines “altruism” as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.”  I have always found it a slippery concept.

Quite recently I had a brush with altruism that has caused me to ponder it afresh.  This post describes this incident, provides some quick background on how biologists deal with the concept, explores my misgivings about the prevailing explanations, and—via another incident—tiptoes into the murky realm of pseudo-karma.  At the end you’ll get to weigh in on an ethical quandary.

Incident #1

I was bike riding with a pal in the Berkeley hills the other evening, and we came upon another cyclist standing on the side of the road with his bike.  My pal asked, “You got everything?”  A pause, and then the guy gave a tentative, Doppler-shifted response:  “Uh, actually, no.”  We stopped.

It’s an unwritten rule that if you ask “You got everything?” you have to be willing to stop and help.  (Riding on and calling back, “Sucks to be you!” is simply not done.)  The help you provide is usually really straightforward:  putting a chain back on, showing a guy how to get his tire off, etc.  (One time I asked a guy, “Got everything?” and he said, “Yeah,” but I stopped anyway.  He was trying to remove his tire and tube without removing his wheel.  I was able to fix his bike, but the guy’s tendency toward delusion is somebody else’s problem.)

I don’t always ask if a stopped rider needs help.  Often, I have a limited window of time to ride, and I’m not willing to be late getting back.  Sure, it’s a bummer to be stranded on the side of the road, but it’s a bigger bummer for my daughter to be waiting around a park after soccer practice wondering where her dad is.  Besides, the places I ride are well populated with cyclists.  Probably that stranded person I ignore will get help from someone else.

That said, I offer help when I can.  After all, I myself have been helped out a number of times.  I once broke my chain on the Golden Gate Bridge and some anonymous cyclist pushed me for five miles, all the way back to my San Francisco apartment.  Another time I broke a spoke about nine miles out, and, astonishingly, my bike wouldn’t even roll.  Within minutes a friendly motorist picked me up and drove me all the way home.

Back to my recent episode:  the guy announced, “I have a flat tire.  I’m a total novice and don’t have a spare tube or pump or anything.”  He had a brand-new, decent quality road bike.  I asked him if he’d hit a bump.  He asked why that mattered.  “If you bottom out the tire, you can get a pinch flat, which can’t be patched,” I explained.  “I’m perfectly happy to patch your tube, but I’m a lot less happy to give you my spare.”  By this time I had his wheel and tire off and was running my fingers along the inside of the tire, checking for an embedded thorn or shard of glass.

The guy said he hadn’t hit anything.   That boded well, but on the other hand I wasn’t finding anything in the tire.  My pal was inspecting the tube but couldn’t get any air in it. “Uh-oh,” he said, “looks like the valve.”  The valve was separating from the tube—probably due to being jerked sideways when the guy (or the shop) pulled the pump chuck off.  The tube was toast.  Thus my dilemma.

My friend was off the hook, because he was riding sew-ups and didn’t have a spare tube.  But I did:  a Vittoria Evo 55g.  It’s about a $12 tube, is light enough to be mailed with two stamps, and is virtually seamless, and these things matter to a gearhead like me.  Plus, its valve is 42mm long:  exactly the right length for my slightly deep-dish rim.  (Other tubes have valves that are either too short, making it hard to pump them up, or too long, which is an aesthetic blight:  the valve looks aroused, almost lewd.)  Moreover, I can’t find Vittoria Evo 55g tubes anymore.  This was almost the last one I had in my stash.  It seemed a shame to waste it on this dorky stock Fuji.

And don’t even get me started on the rider.  What kind of irresponsible person goes out on a ride so totally unprepared—not just lacking a tube and some tools, but not even having a phone?  If he’d been a teenager, that would be another story—teens’ brains aren’t fully wired yet and I have a soft spot for young fools.  But this guy had to be at least twenty:  an adult, supposedly.  If he were a well-equipped rider who had just had really bad luck—two pinch flats, say, or a spare tube that was defective—I’d feel more generous.  But why should I give up a tube just because this guy is lame?

Then there was the matter of his brand-new bike:  why hadn’t he bought the accessories he’d clearly need?  This particularly rankles me given my bike shop background.  Shops barely make any money on new bikes, because the markup is low to begin with, and by the time they’ve assembled the thing, talked a customer into buying it (which can take multiple efforts, as customers frequently take half an hour of Q&A before saying, “I have to test ride like twenty other bikes from five other shops before I decide”), and done the two free tune-ups, the shop is lucky if they’ve broken even.  The only reason to even sell a bike is the hope that the customer will buy some accessories for it.  To pass up the accessories is practically like robbing the shop.  Surely the salesman recommended these items; how did this guy respond?  “Naw, I’m good”?

I weighed these considerations against my original snap judgment that giving up my tube was obviously the right thing to do.  Of course I had an airtight justification for holding out:  if I gave away my tube, I’d be at risk of subsequently getting a pinch flat and being stranded myself.  But of course this was just rationalization; in all likelihood I wouldn’t get a pinch flat and I knew it.

I silently decided I’d let the guy use my cell phone, and only if he couldn’t reach anybody would I give him my tube.  On his second try, he got somebody.  His end of the conversation was suggestive:  “C’mon, man, I’m totally stranded!  You could be here in like 15 minutes!”  I pictured his roommate back home on the couch, groaning at the prospect of bailing him out.  Finally the guy gave me back my phone and said help was on the way.  My friend and I took off, leaving the guy behind with his wheel off his bike and his tire off his wheel, his useless tube lying in the grass like a dead snake.

What is altruism?

At least I helped the guy get home.  But had I  behaved altruistically?  I don’t think so, because my assistance hadn’t really cost me anything.  But as I said before, altruism is a tricky concept.

The first time I came across this term was in a textbook, in sixth or seventh grade.  The text on this subject was accompanied by a photo of a fireman carrying a child out of a burning building.  I was immediately confused; after all, a fireman rescuing somebody from fire isn’t behaving selflessly—he’s doing his job.  Imagine if he told the fire chief, “I’ve decided not to go in there—I could get hurt or killed!”  He’d be out of job.

Far greater minds than mine have struggled with the idea of altruism.  Charles Darwin worried that it would contradict his theory of natural selection.  As described in a recent “New Yorker” article, a satisfying explanation of altruism didn’t come about until 1964, when a British grad student named William Hamilton came up with a mathematical formula:  rB > C, which stated, “genes for altruism could evolve if the benefit (B) of an action exceeded the cost (C) to the individual once relatedness (r) was taken into account.” 

E.O. Wilson, a respected entomologist, began promoting this idea a year later and it was gradually embraced by the scientific community.  It became known as “inclusive fitness,” as it “expanded the Darwinian definition of ‘fitness’—how many offspring an individual manages to have—to include the offspring of surviving relatives.”  In other words, selfless behavior can be explained by the instinct to help your genes survive, even at your individual expense. 

But what about altruism outside of your family line?  People sometimes help out complete strangers who aren’t going to perpetuate their gene.  I was intrigued to learn, from the same article, that in the last few years Wilson has turned against his original position on inclusive fitness, calling it “a ‘useless gyration’ characterized by a tendency to ‘theorize without precision.’”  (The scientific community is royally pissed off by Wilson’s reversal, by the way.)  Wilson’s new tack follows an early theory of Darwin’s that helping others in your tribe helps your chances of prevailing over enemy tribes.  Most evolutionary biologists dismiss this because “the benefits of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness.”  Wilson refutes this neatly:  “Selfishness beats altruism within groups.  Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.  Everything else is commentary.”

Lingering questions

I’m still not satisfied with these explanations for altruism because the scientists seem to focus too much on the idea of survival.  Sure, for most animals, and for most of the history of the human race, the stakes were high—literally life and death.  But as humans have gotten more organized and society has evolved, the decisions we make are almost never a matter of life and death, and usually don’t even remotely affect our chances of survival.  I could give small change to literally every homeless person I see and I still wouldn’t lose my home.  As we move up Maslow’s need hierarchy, the ways we expend our resources have less and less to do with mere survival.

So, especially when we focus on humans, the idea of “cost” gets complicated.  The equation rB > C is hard to apply across all of humanity because a legitimate cost to one person is trivial to another.  If I donate $500 to a charity, that’s a significant outlay.  But that were all Bill Gates gave to charity, he’d be scorned.  Now, say I give fifty cents to a homeless guy.  No sweat.  But for Bill Gates to incur the same relative cost that I just did (i.e., the same percentage of his net worth), he’d have to buy that homeless guy a car.  No sweat—to Bill Gates.  Meanwhile, based on that homeless guy’s net worth, if he gave away fifty cents, that would be the equivalent of Bill Gates giving away 300 Learjets.

The B in the equation is even trickier.  The original equation depends on notion of relatedness, r, to confer benefit.  But I’ve already rejected r.  This leaves B > C, which looks too simplistic even if C were a simple matter.  And doesn’t the conventional notion of altruism involve selflessness—which requires that no benefit accrue from helping? 

This is where I start to doubt the very existence of pure altruism.  Why?  Because whenever we commit a selfless act, we’re bound to feel good about it—and isn’t feeling good a solid benefit?  Think of those MasterCard commercials, comparing tangible prices of things to a feeling that is priceless.

Sometimes I think that the pleasure of simple generosity isn’t even the whole story.  Consider this scenario:  you see a homeless guy sitting outside a sandwich shop.  You offer to buy him a sandwich.  He says, “Wow, that would be great.”  You find out what he’d like, go buy it, and give it to him.  Without a word he tears off the paper and starting chowing down.  As you walk away, you can’t help but notice he didn’t even say thanks, but you decide that’s just because he was so dang hungry.  So you’re feeling good.  But then the guy yells, “Damn it, man, I wanted Havarti with dill!  Not provolone!”  Suddenly you don’t feel so contented.

But why not?  Is the homeless guy’s need any less just because he’s a prick?  Suddenly, it matters very much to you exactly how bad off this guy is.  But should it?  Don’t you have a nice house and car, and isn’t he still a beggar?  Is your good feeling dependant on feeling that your action wasn’t only generous, but also just?  And maybe it’s not only justice that motivates you; maybe it’s your own ability to dispense justice.  In the sandwich scenario you have the strange sense of being duped somehow, and it rankles.  In this light, the good feeling you’d initially had—that you’d bought, essentially—starts to look almost petty.  Not much like the lofty ideal of altruism.

Earlier I mentioned that I’d much rather surrender my spare inner tube to a responsible, well-equipped cyclist who merely had some really bad luck.  Why?  Because in my mind, the well-equipped cyclist is more deserving, as his plight isn’t his fault.  If a better equation could be developed to explain human altruism, one of its components might be d, the discretion I enjoy (as a human vs. a mere an army ant) in allocating my largesse.  Giving is an exercise of power.

Meanwhile, if I give a tube to the irresponsible guy, maybe my satisfaction would be soured by the fear that I’m an enabler, teaching this guy that it’s okay to mooch off others instead of having his act together.  As a stranger, I can’t exactly lecture the guy on being responsible, but the person who drives out and picks him up can.  (Or maybe this is self-deception—maybe I’m actually judging the dude for his wheel reflectors, or for the brand of bike that tells me he went with a mail-order outfit instead of a proper bike shop, or for the fact that he’s tucked his damn jersey into his shorts.)

Incident #2

Two days after the inner tube incident, this same friend and I are ten miles into an ambitious ride on a glorious morning.  Everything is just peachy until—BLAM!  My friend’s front tire explodes.  He manages to stop the bike without crashing, but inspection reveals that his tire—a brand-new $80 Continental 4000 4-Season—is shot.  Our plan for the day is ruined.  The first word out of my friend’s mouth is the same one that’s already in my head:  karma.

“You should’ve given that guy your tube, and this is what we get,” he continues.  I can’t deny it:  ever since leaving that hapless newbie on the side of the road, I’ve felt guilty.  Sure, I can tell myself it’s not right to be an enabler, and remind myself that I needed that tube in case I pinch-flatted, but the fact is, it all came down to the cost of parting with my Evo 55g, which was more important to me than the benefit of doing the right thing.  At least, it was at the time.

I tell my friend that the only problem with his karma theory is that his tire blew, not mine.  Not missing a beat, he says, “No, I’m being punished for my complicity.”  And it’s true:  I’d been on the fence, so had my friend simply said, “Dude, give him your tube,” I certainly would have.  Of course we’re not talking about karma in the true sense of our behavior in this life affecting our next incarnation; we’re using the popular connotation (karma-lite, you might call it) of “what goes around comes around.”  Taken one step further, I might say my friend had a case of second-hand bad karma.  I’d love to know what E.O. Wilson would make of this concept.

Final considerations

Whether or not we choose to acknowledge the fanciful notion of karma-lite, the fact remains I’m still thinking about the spare tube incident, and still second-guessing my choice of action.  What bothers me isn’t the plight of the guy on the Fuji (in fact, I’m beginning to resent him), but the disconnect between my head and my heart.  No matter what I tell myself about pinch flats and enablers, my heart knows I should have given him my tube—but I didn’t.  Is it okay for the brain to trump the heart?  Should the brain trump the heart?

A final thing to acknowledge is the cost of not helping.  If the benefit of helping is emotional, the cost of not helping is as well.  Altruism, at least the human flavor of it, has a whiff of moral imperative about it.  I’ve talked to my wife and two friends about Tubegate, and so far I haven’t been excoriated, but all three had conflicting feelings about it.  (My wife posed this question:  if the cyclist had been a young female hottie, would I have given her my tube?  That was an easy one:  no, because I’d have figured the hottie had slyly saved money on accessories by counting on her looks to solve all her problems.  You know, playing the damsel-in-distress card.)

One friend contends that the issue of my culpability hinges on being straight with the stranded cyclist.  Because I told the guy “you can’t have my tube,” I’m fine.  But if I’d lied and said, “Sorry, I wish I could help but I don’t have a tube,” then I’d be clearly in the wrong.  This distinction hadn’t occurred to me. 

Questions for the reader

Perhaps you’ve been forming your own opinions as you’ve read this.  I’m interested in your answers to the following questions:
  • Do we have a moral imperative to help another person, if we can do so without much sacrifice?
  • Would you have given that guy your tube?
  • Should I have given that guy my tube?
  • Should my friend have exhorted me to give that guy my tube?
  • Is safeguarding myself against being stranded a legitimate reason to keep my tube?
  • Does it matter that the guy was irresponsible and ill-equipped vs. a responsible rider who ran into very bad luck?
  • What’s worse:  helping people while judging them, or not helping them at all?
  • Suppose the guy was on a crappy old bike:  does that change anything?
  • Do you believe in karma, quasi-karma, and/or second-hand quasi-karma?
  • Does true altruism exist, or do we always get some benefit from helping others?

You can respond anonymously, in mere minutes, by clicking here to launch a simple online survey.  You may answer any or all of the questions.  If I get enough responses, I’ll share them in a separate post.