Words to Ride By

The language that we use to talk about bikes treats them as filled with personality.  Bikes are lively, sprightly, twitchy, springy, relaxed, stiff, and eager, to use just a few of the adjectives that crop up regularly in bike reviews and casual post-ride conversation.  It is a thing we humans seem to do, attribute personality to inanimate objects (a category that also includes many people) with whom which we spend a lot of time.  But bikes are like cars in that we invest them with much more personality than other everyday artifacts like an office chair or a flat screen TV (both objects with which I probably spend about the same amount of time as my bike).  Bikes literally and metaphorically take us places; as such they are not simply extensions of our personality (or attempts at counterbalance; cycling certainly has no shortage of guys (usually) and gals (occasionally) who are obviously over-compensating for something).  Rather, they have often helped to shape our self and personality.  Sometimes those changes are obvious (the most recent issue of Bicycling has an impressive series of stories of people who lost dramatic amounts of weight through biking), sometimes they are more subtle, reflecting a new level of confidence or calm.

Yet this tendency to see our bikes as imbued with personality is countered by another cycling trend: riders’ willingness to de-personalize both themselves and their bikes visually.

Domesticating the Domestiques

In road cycling in particular the depersonalization takes the form of riders’ willingness to suit up in a generic team jersey, turning themselves into a mobile billboard for companies and “sponsors” that have not in fact sponsored them.  Obviously if you are actually part of a cycling team with sponsors giving you money and/or swag and/or discounts at the local bakery, then that is a slightly different situation.  Only slightly, however, because road cyclists also show a marked tendency to wear their club kit everywhere they go.

In part this love affair with real or fantasy team kit is an act of homage to one of the most important aspects of road cycling: that it is genuinely a team sport.  As such, cycling and the fandom associated with it, is a little different from that associated with other professional sports in the US.  Increasingly, many US team sports are populated by “teams” that are more aptly described as a collection of stars temporarily occupying the same geographical and organizational space.  Your NFL “team” is made up of the star quaterback, the star running back(s), the star wide receiver(s), the star linebacker who dishes out sacks like a priest handing out communion wafers.  Nowhere is this more visible than in fans’ own star-struck team support; rarely will an NFL fan show up to a game in a generic team jersey; more likely than not that jersey bears the number and name of a specific player.

You can’t do that with cycling–for the most part.  A couple of the pro teams are starting to experiment with jerseys emblazoned with rider names.  This is a regrettable trend (I’m looking at you, Team Sky) because it takes away from one of the best things about professional road cycling, which is that while particular riders may from time to time gain individual glory, the story is all about the success of the team, and that team success is often seen to depend on the critical efforts of the domstiques, the unheralded (to the casual cycling fan) riders.  For the majority of the pro peleton it is still the case that even the “stars” wear the same jersey as everyone else.  As a fan, when you buy a team cycling jersey, you buy a generic team jersey.  You are honoring all the athletes on the team who ride for group glory rather than the promise of a shoe contract.

Look at Me Don’t Look at Me

So I do get the whole cycling fan team jersey thing.  I do.  At the same time, it is hard not to notice the obvious fact: you can hide behind that team kit.  You disappear into an anonymous mass of people who also have the same kit.  It says something about your preferences, sure.  Indeed, one of the greatest triumphs of modern capitalism is that it has persuaded us to believe that our commercial purchases need to be articulated as allegiances (branded clothing!  Like us on Facebook!) and that these purely commercial decisions represent key facets of our personality.  Butyour team kit really doesn’t say as much about you as you might think it does.  I suspect that a lot of wannabe roadies imagine that strapping on their replica Radioshack kit says the same thing as someone sporting a Steelers Roethlisberger jersey.  No, not that you support sexual harassment, but that you are a bad ass.  What it actually says is simply that you are scared to stand out from the crowd and make your own statement.

The “must wear my Liquigas-Cannondale kit for Saturday group ride at all costs” mentality is heavily influenced by the way in which cycling as a whole is defined by the needs of racing.  The number of cyclists who race is a tiny percentage of all cyclists; the number of miles ridden in anger (although this also would also describe a fair few miles ridden by anyone who cycle commutes in a major US metropolitan area) is an even smaller fraction of all miles biked for all purposes.  Yet the discourse about racing and the needs of racing cyclists dominates the cycling market: bike design, bike marketing, bike magazines, the inventory in bike stores, the people who work in bike stores, the accessories sold for bikes.

But this desire not to stand out seems to be part of the larger world of cycling.  For example, what happens when we look at the world of triathlon, a sport that is not team-based but highly individualistic?  Unfortunately, triathlon gear and bikes both completely re-define the word boring.  Lots of solid blocks of the same color: black, white, red, blue.  The bikes?  Black.  White.  Occasionally Red.  And then someone really goes over the top and produces a bike that is. . .silver.  Or Gray.  Be still my beating heart.  If it weren’t for the occasional rogue design by manufacturers like Orbea or Quintana Roo many riders and spectators would fall asleep during a race. Triathletes, in my experience, are also much more likely than other kinds of bike riders to treat their bikes purely as tools: an object whose purpose is to help achieve a certain distance or time.

The lone cycling domain of personality is still mountain biking.  But I suspect that is only because riders are for the most part safely ensconced amidst isolated terrain where no one can see them or comment on their personality choices.

This has caused me to wonder what this says about the US national psyche.  It is one of the strange paradoxes of the US: for a nation supposedly founded on a radical individualism our behavior indicates nothing so much as a powerful desire to disappear into the anonymous crowd.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.  There are plenty of amazing bike jerseys out there: goofy, retro, thematic, product- or company-focused (e.g. beer jerseys), or just downright bizarre.  These jerseys are boring, beautiful and sometimes simply hideous and to anyone with the use of their fingers the power of the interwebs puts just a couple of clicks between image and the product on your back.


If cyclists are reluctant to express their personality on their backs, they are even more reluctant to express their personality on their bikes.  The world of road bikes gives you a few more funky color choices than the world of triathlon bikes (although that is a pretty low bar), but it is unlikely you will find that color choice in a bike that fits you or that suits your riding needs.  Most bikes are made in such small quantities that they can’t offer a wide range of color-schemes.  (And when they do, it is often–no surprise–a bike in a replica Team livery of some description).  So functionally you are left in the position of someone buying a brand new car and being forced to choose the color gray (on a side note, I’ve never understood why people buying new cars choose gray.  Why announce to the world that you are a gray person?).

Indeed, some people actively seek to make their bikes even more boring.  When I was researching the Surly I stumbled across a lot of posts on various forums where people noted that they were happy that the logos on the bike were in fact only stickers rather than painted on, so they could remove them.  Maybe this was a reaction against the whole corporate branding thing that I also railed against above.  But the effect is to, again, de-personalize both the bike and yourself.

If you are a monied individual you can of course go the custom bike route.  If you are slightly less monied individual there are a few companies that specialize in custom paint jobs to help tart up the stock yawnfest appearance of most bikes.  There are also  several companies that allow you to create logos and images for your bike.

Which brings me to what was the original point of this post, before I got side-tracked by the flow of writing on a comfy couch on a sunny winter’s day.

I put some stickers on my bike.

I’ve never been averse to putting my own stamp on my bikes in the form of decals.  The header image of the blog shows the downtube on my Tri bike and inspired the web address name for the blog.  I also bought my partner a couple of her favorite inspirational mantras to apply to her bike prior to her last Ironman.  There are obviously certain rules here.  No stick figure families. No “My child didn’t poop his pants today at Whackamole Academy for the Terminally Privileged.”  And you need to show some restraint; less is definitely more.  Of course, saying that, I recognize that based on what I’ve been saying up until now, even the mere thought of adding anything to the stock paint and logo job of their bikes will likely cause some cyclists to need to sit down immediately.

So here is what I went with:

Close-up of new bike logos

Proudly Displaying My Multinational Heritage

I got mine from Velo Ink, but Victory Circle and Velo Stickers also provide cheap customized bike decals.  The name logo is pretty self-explanatory.  I have a split national identity which stubbornly refuses to resolve one way or the other so I embrace both my Kiwi and Yank sides.

The French is a little difficult to translate into English.  Souplesse means, roughly, suppleness, or flexibility.  But before anyone gets a mental image of me trying to do the splits along my top tube (Hah!  Planted that one in your mind now haven’t I!), this is a term of admiration that French cycling commentators use to describe the occasional professional rider; Paul Sherwin has also used it in his race commentaries from time to time when he forgets that he isn’t communicating with a polyglot European audience.  The word connotes a cyclist whose pedaling action and entire disposition on the bike is easy and fluid.  Because of that ease, souplesse describes not simply their technical proficiency but the way that he or she rides, flowing effortlessly over the landscape.  For me, the phrase is in part a technical reminder; it is something I ended up whispering almost as a prayer during parts of the rather brutal “Woodbine Wallop” 200K recently (long-story short: cold, head-wind on the way out, a mechanical, and more than 10,000 feet of climbing).

The phrase also captures something else, however; a sense in which an aspect of cycling bleeds over into an attitude toward life: remain flexible, be adaptable, try to accept whatever the ride or the day brings and work with it to the best of your ability.  I’m not saying that it is something that I am always very good at.  But like all mantras, it is something for which to strive.

So am I simply being pretentious rendering the phrase in French?  Mais bien sûr! In part the appeal of the phrase is that to my ears it sounds like what it represents: lightness, fluidity.  But I also see it as a way of honoring cycling tradition: the many French pioneers who laid down the basics of cycling in general and randonneuring in particular.

But I think the best English translation of this French phrase would be simply: roll with it.

Words not just to ride by but to live by.


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