Monday, January 28, 2013

Sweetness & Light on South Park Drive


What is “Sweetness and Light?”  It’s one of the mottos of my bike club, the East Bay Velo Club, for one thing.  But where did we get it?  I’ve asked this question over the years, and nobody actually knows for sure.    According to Marty, John Leslie came up with it, but he thought it was Marty, though Todd has also been linked to it.

In the photo above, I’m wearing my arm warmers on the wrong arms.  The intention, Marty tells me (now, when it’s too late because the photo has already gone to the printers), was to have “sweetness” and “light” printed on the inner forearms so we can read it while riding and be reminded.

In literature, the phrase “sweetness and light” first appears in a tale by Jonathan Swift.  Aesop (in this tale he’s a book, but also a character—it’s weird) is weighing in on a debate between a bee and a spider, and compares ancient writers to bees who “fill their hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”  Another old (dead, white, male) literary figure, Matthew Arnold, used the phrase (as Wikipedia has summed it up) to “designate the positive effects of a (predominantly classical) humanistic culture in arts and letters.”

Obviously a cycling team isn’t that interested in arts and letters.  Our club’s use of this phrase goes back to around 2000, when a bunch of former UC Berkeley cyclists returned from years of cycling exile and started beating each other up on the road again, physically and verbally.  “Sweetness and Light” was an admonition to back off a bit when things started to get ugly.  When the guys founded EBVC (a reincarnation of the last cycling team they’d formed just after college), “Sweetness and Light” appeared on our socks and water bottles.

I learned all this while fact-checking this blog post.  The original usage of this phrase is not widely understood among the team now, and certainly not written into the by-laws (of which there are none). The phrase has always given me a sense of mystery ... I cannot think of it without also being aware of its  flip side:  something darker, heavier, and more bitter lurking beneath the surface.  In this post I examine this notion through the lens of a chance showdown on the road, on one of my favorite climbs, South Park Drive in the Berkeley hills.  Specifically I’ll try to shine light on the matter of how, as we roll into our autumn years, we might embrace the Sweetness and Light ethos without giving up the intense drive and combative spirit that made us bike racers in the first place.

“I was just riding along”

The preamble “I was just riding along” actually derives from the bike shop, where customers bringing in a bike (usually one that looked like it had been dropped from an airplane or run over by a tank) would begin their warranty request by saying, “I was just riding along, minding my own business, not a care in the world, when suddenly, out of the blue” (etc.), “there was just this big noise, wa-ka-PANG!” etc.  Well, that’s how my tale begins:  I was riding alone, not looking for trouble, and had just ridden around the closed gate at the base of South Park (the road is closed at this time of year for the newt crossing), when an angry biker appeared behind me.  He wasn’t actually angry, per se; as a very handy online cycling dictionary puts it, an angry biker is “a biker who has a fancy bike, fancy clothes, and usually a stern expression, who really needs to lighten up.  In other words, just about everybody on the road.”

I guess I’m kind of smurfy in that I think it’s nice for cyclists to greet each other on the road, and that if they’re going the same direction, they should exchange a few pleasantries before one of them inevitably outpaces the other.  At a minimum, a nod or a simple “hi” is customary—or ought to be.  Actually, the “angrier” (i.e., more expert) a cyclist is, the more likely he’ll be too self-important for this.  (Novices, I’ve noticed, are more likely to flash a huge smile; on a recent ride, as I headed up a hill, a woman coming down toward me, riding a basic bike and wearing a huge puffy neon windbreaker, actually yelled, “Yay!”)  So, this guy looked like a serious angry biker, but nevertheless  I looked back and said, “How’s it going?”  He didn’t respond.  Perhaps he wanted it made clear that this wasn’t some muffin ride or social outing.


The guy rolled up alongside me.  Again I greeted him:  friendly, you know.  I nodded, an uplift of the chin, because he was he was wearing headphones.  Finally, he acknowledged me, minimally (half a grunt), and then he picked up the pace.  What was he listening to?  Heavy metal?  He continued to accelerate.  Maybe he just didn’t like me and wanted to be alone—but would it hurt him to give a quick “hi” before being on his way?  Did he have to appear so grim?

My instinct said this was an act of naked aggression.  Of course I wanted to match his pace, on general principle, even before I noticed his physique, which was….  How can I put this?  He was … chubby.  Not chubby for an average joe; in any random lineup he’d be one of the fitter-looking guys.  But he was chubby for a cyclist, particularly a cyclists who thinks he can just blow a skinny guy like me away on a really hard climb.

Skinny is relative, of course.  I’m a bit heavier than usual right now; I can finally wear my jeans without a belt.  Kate Moss wouldn’t angrily call me a bitch or anything.  But still, anyone encountering me in a weight room (if I ever went to such a place) would snicker at me.  Of course, appearances aren’t everything.  This guy could well be faster than I uphill.  But given that I have to go around looking like a scarecrow all the time, couldn’t he humor me and let me keep up, and maybe wait until the downhill to drop me?

I normally keep a little in reserve for such situations, so I can dig deep and, for example, manage not to be disgraced by an antisocial chubby guy on a climb that ought to favor me.  But I’m not stupid.  This guy was just going way faster than I could go.  If I matched his pace, it would only be a matter of time before I blew sky high—not a pretty site.  It was a pity; I was rocking my brand new EBVC uniform, with its resplendent blue and orange, and felt like I was showing my club in a poor light.  But that’s life.


On a positive note, this experience would increase my stores of self-loathing, which would fuel my training in the coming months.  “Self-loathing” isn’t exactly right, since I don’t actually loathe myself, but let’s just say defeat is motivational.  Sweet-Self-Loathing-Lite, you might say.

Meanwhile, I had a small hope that if I couldn’t keep up that pace, perhaps he couldn’t either.  Some guys count on bluster:  if they demoralize an opponent, and he just caves in, the supreme effort doesn’t have to be kept up.  I’d seen it too many times before to fall for it now.  So I figured I’d just go down swinging and make this guy earn it.

For the next three minutes I suffered mightily, and in vain.  I was in my lowest gear, though machismo suggested I should shift up, just to improve my morale.  But it’s January and I couldn’t do it.  But I had a pretty decent cadence, and maybe that’s the better thing, since I’m getting older and all.  And besides … after a point the guy’s gap was no longer increasing.  Plus, he was looking worse and worse on the bike.  His upper body bounced with the effort.  His cadence slowed.  He should have downshifted, but maybe was too proud, or was in denial.  It was starting to look like he’d written a check he couldn’t cash.

To put it another way, the guy was having trouble “controlling the narrative.”  I’ve borrowed his phrase from Lance Armstrong.  When Oprah asked him why he was such a bully, rolling over anybody in his path, Lance replied, “I felt I needed to control the narrative.”  On a much smaller scale, this is what people often try to do during competition.  But sport doesn’t really work like life; the athletic narrative is more like that junior high creative writing project where you write a story for five minutes, then pass it to the student on your right who takes it over for the next five minutes, and so on.  There will always be some kid who takes the story to outer space, and then another who turns everything that came before into a dream sequence, etc.  It can be a pretty frustrating project, and so it is when we try to script an athletic showdown.  The trick to these sporting narratives is to be the last one holding the script.

Gradually I closed the gap to the guy.  He was riding like a man possessed.  No he wasn’t.  Don’t worry, I think we’re done with that hackneyed expression.  He was riding a Wilier.  Something about these spontaneous road duels brings out my most ornery side, and suddenly a Wilier seemed like the lamest bike money could buy.  “Ooh, I’m just like Jan Ullrich on my Wilier!”  There is no bike this guy could have been on that I wouldn’t have scorned, unless he was on a cheap mountain bike or something.  But he wasn’t.  He was also wearing some fancy-pants club kit, not as cool looking as mine, of course, and I made sure not to note what club it was, because surely they didn’t deserve to have their good name tarnished by Punky Chubster.

Remember those reserves I mentioned?  Well, now I had a good business case.  Extra adrenaline was swiftly allocated, along with some sweet endorphins.  Suddenly I was flush.  I latched onto the guy’s wheel—there was a slight headwind—and began to plot his defeat.  This was no time for irrational exuberance.  I was going to behave responsibly, budget my resources, and not make the mistake he had in underestimating a rival.  Maybe the guy was toying with me, or maybe he had a Plan B.  There was still a lot of climbing left to go and the grade had further steepened.  I wished I could downshift and spin the legs … I looked down and—what?  I wasn’t in my lowest gear after all!  I’d been torquing along the steepest part of this climb in my 24, at that higher cadence!  Wow, we were really going fast.  I wished I had my bike computer but the thing had crapped out the week before and I was flying without instruments.

I sat on Wilier’s wheel; he bobbed more and more, and eventually wasn’t riding in too straight a line.  He got out of the saddle, thrashed around a bit, then sat back down.  I could hear his panting as he tried desperately to wring more speed out of himself and his machine.  The thing is, as wise as it might have been to sit on the guy, I was sick of him.  I got impatient and decided to storm the citadel. 

I came up on his right side, and then changed my mind, remembering a previous showdown that hadn’t gone my way.  Some guy—a rather thick, I would almost say chubby guy—had started to come by on my right, then faded back (giving me false hope) only to show up out of nowhere on my left.  I’d found this temporarily disorienting, and then the guy had finished me off, handing me a humiliating defeat.  Well, I was the cleverer for it now.  I let the Chubster catch a glimpse of me in his right periphery, then drifted back and passed him on the left.  I hope this produced the right effect.  But I didn’t attack … I very gradually accelerated, as if silently offering him my wheel.  “Really, take my wheel.  I want you to.  I want you to have it … really.”

Of course I didn’t want him on my wheel for long—just long enough to ride him off it.  Then I hoped to crush him utterly.  Substantial penalty for returned checks.  I was really digging in, completely slaving on the bike, but you know what?  It didn’t actually hurt that bad.  The strain was serious and my breathing was like a turbine, but the pain was being masked very well.  This wouldn’t last, of course; it was a temporary effect.  No payments for 30 days! 

I could hear him back there huffing and puffing, but needless to say I wouldn’t look back.  He didn’t deserve that satisfaction.  Who did he think he was, scorching the bottom half of this climb like that, making a bold move on a scrawny guy like me?  Now the pain hit me full on, but I could handle it.  I’ve suffered like this for years.  I was probably suffering on a bike while this guy was still into wind-surfing or lacrosse or whatever.  I’ve paid too many dues to let my form go to crap just because I’m dying, and I knew this road too well to miscalculate like he had.  By the time I got to the final stretch of the road—which is particularly steep—I knew I had it in the bag.  I couldn’t hear him anymore, and didn’t sense him either.  Only as I approached the gate at the top did I finally  look back.  Wet Wilier wasn’t even in site.  He must have given it everything and then detonated.  I’d foreclosed on him.


I came to a near-stop as I swung around the gate.  The guy had been with me at the halfway point; how far back could he be?  I put on my jacket.  My breathing slowed all the way down.  I really hoped the guy would appear, so I could make some friendly chitchat, just to show how little our clash had meant to me.  Something like, “Great day, but it’s colder than it looks, huh?”  You know.  Sweetness and light.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! I was really rooting for you at the beginning, then began to lose hope when Chubby dropped you, felt the tension as you clawed your way back, and was downright elated that you left him in the dust!