September 20, 2011
With some post-race blues and in London:
I hate to say it, but I’m going to: oftentimes, cycling can become very selfish– this is a sport that favors those of us who stick to our routines, those of us who care about my power numbers, my nutrition, my races, my training, and my sleep schedule. And I don’t blame anyone for it. I do the same, and to tap into your potential with anything, you have to have a certain level of focus and dedication. However, this is not without some sacrifice, as the bike widows and widowers know. So I’d like to spend some time thanking all the people who have become very selfless in order to allow some of us to do something we love: race promoters, marshals, sponsors, partners/husbands/wives/kids, team managers and mechanics, very special athletes, the naked guys who ran up the mountain and every single person who can get and got out of their own “autopilot”, that uncontrollable, manic “I” and “me”, to make that race in Kerry as amazing for all of us as it was.
Once in a while, I like to go back to a speech American writer David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in Ohio called “This is Water” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction) (note: I am by no means an avid reader of DFW, nor do I claim to know much about his other works besides this speech and a handful of essays. Furthermore, by no means is this whole thing a book review. I’m just using this speech as a stepping stone to explain something I felt was reinforced throughout the Ras.) A good friend of mine forwarded me the speech while we were both working in New York City a few years back, and at the time when I read it, I didn’t really think too much about it other than that it was a good speech. I liked it. And that was it. Then I turned on my “autopilot” and probably returned to my work and thought about my weekend. These days, I reread it every few weeks to remind myself about DFW’s capital T “truth” and an escape from the “autopilot”.
There are a few things that really get to me in this speech: one of them is this concept of the natural way in which we can only experience things from our own perspectives, and in order to survive, have to turn off some of that outside “stuff”. Our solipsism is the “autopilot”, and we really can’t blame ourselves for it. However, DFW argues that it is exactly this solipsism that traps us into every day miseries, keeps us bound to our insecurities and fears. He explains very beautifully:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out… the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I think I’ve found myself at fault for all these types of worship in some form or another. Sometimes, I think an unaware obsession with cycling can fall dangerously into that “worship of body”. And before I know it, I’m afraid of what will happen when my body begins to fail me in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, whether this sport is something I can hang onto infinitely, or whether – as DFW says – I will always be fighting to not lose that infinite thing I can never have.
So what is the solution? I think there’s something to be commended about DFW’s argument that a care and love for others – a sensitivity and giving during circumstances that are especially trying – is a real freedom, the capital T “Truth”. I have spent seven days with a small group of people and have seen every single angle of them, in all forms and stresses, and they have seen mine. As selfish as cycling can become, because it is so easy for it to be selfish, it is also where some great acts of “turning off the autopilot” can be seen and most importantly, was seen during this race.
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And who are those athletes that are immortal? Those are the athletes we remember, athletes with great accomplishments but whose accomplishments gave something back to us – gave us hope or inspiration, provided us a role model of sorts. The rest we forget, and we put their records down in a book for someone else to come along and break.
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No one has a choice of what natural talents they are born with – what their natural VO2 max is, natural power, natural weight. Those are things that are given to us. They are gifts and don’t really belong to us. The rest, we work for, and hard work belongs to us since it is what we choose to do or not do. And if we work really hard, and if we’re given the right opportunities, we can be come really successful. Maybe one of us can become a professional cyclist, the leader of a team, the protected rider. But then, what is truly hard? The hard is no longer those power numbers: those are given us. Sure, we do have to work for some results, but it’s natural to want to win; everyone wants to win. What becomes truly hard, then – I think –, is to recognize and give thanks, to appreciate and think of others when the entire world seems to tell us that we matter, that we’re the protected rider, that we’re really really good. Because in the end, what does being really good in cycling mean if all you can do is win a race? Races will come and go. Riders will come and go. As seasons pass, and years go on, one day you will retire and give up this sport. Perhaps some people will remember you as being really fast – until someone better comes along (and what does it really even mean to be really fast? No one is saving anyone else by being speedy on a bike.). So, in the end, isn’t it more meaningful for someone to say, “Hey, she was really fast, but really, she treated her teammates decently, and she was just a really pleasant person to be around”? Otherwise, as DFW said in that speech, as we age, we will begin to die over and over again before we’re even buried.
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A lot of people know Louise as being really fast (like, come on, check out her Wikipedia page). But I know Louise as being a good friend who pushes me up hills when I’ve hit the wall two hours earlier, who brings me jelly candies on rides just in case I didn’t have enough, who spends hours eating lunch with me when she knows I’m having a hard time, who organizes children’s events and marshals just minutes after coming off a stage during the Ras. I know Louise as the girl who organized rooms for all of us, cars for each of us to be picked up from the airport, and who wanted to win a stage not for her CV of “cycling wins” – because let’s get real here, she’s got plenty of them, and she doesn’t need any more to give her self-esteem a boost – but so that she can inspire the local kids who ask everyday, “Louise, when are you going to win?”. I know that. I don’t know if she knew I was watching that, but I know it.
I know Louise smiled and told us she was feeling good, when inside, she was still hurting from her fall a week earlier and still bruised. I know she was exhausted from a summer of traveling and working. But she’d never say it. I know when she’s gliding away on the hills, with a smile on her face, perhaps, that inside she’s grinding into some deeper part of herself just so that she can motivate us. That’s athleticism that’s not easily forgotten. It’s remembered because she’s given that to someone else – those kids in Sneem, to her teammates, to anyone who has been observing the races carefully.
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So here we go, all the acts of selflessness that inspires me more and more to turn off the “autopilot” once in a while:
Thank you Helen for sharing all of your food with me since I didn’t prepare my own or have anything– all the gels, jelly babies, drink mixes. I know it sounds silly, but if you’re involved in this sport and have ever been to a serious race weekend, you know just how sacrilegious it is to eat a teammate’s food. Thank you for trying to pull me up the second climb in Stage 2, and for keeping me company and trying to make me laugh when I was hurting. You have a way of being kind even through stressful situations, and this is exactly what “turning off the autopilot” is, and it’s inspiring.
Thank you Jo and Anna for taking care of, literally, every logistical nightmare throughout the entire race (the driving, the administrative stuff, the cleaning). It’s not easy work, and we couldn’t have functioned without that effort. Also, thank you both for making us laugh over and over again, even when we didn’t want to. Anna, thank you for being witty. Jo, thank you for the dance moves.
Louise for being Louise.
Ger for taking care of – physically and emotionally – five women for five days during a stage race. Thank you for the box of matches, the tissues for crying, the encouragement, and the subtle ways of knowing what to say and when. I think it must have been an 80 hour work week for him without pay. Enough said.
Tim for washing and fixing our bikes in the rain. For entertaining us. Also for coming by to say goodbye at 5am.
Mik for volunteering his free time just to help Ger and Tim. We wish you the best of luck in your races this week.
Louis Moriarty for being the “Papa” of self-sacrifice. If you get a chance to go to this race – and you will certainly be lucky if you can – just observe how Louis personally does everything: promotes the race, takes care of the riders during dinner (he’s in and out of that kitchen as much as the dining staff), marshals, cheers, inspires, makes sure every rider gets to the hotel safely, manages the hotel, takes care of the local kids. He does the work of three people, and he supports women’s racing more than any other person I’ve met. And of course, what he does for the kids in Sneem is just inspiring. Next time you find yourself complaining about your job or how busy you are or how tired you are, think of Louis – at age 70 – doing all this.
Val for making this race possible. It’s amazing; it’s unforgettable. Val is a rockstar. Helen thinks so too.
The marshals, volunteers and town of Sneem. The staff at the Sneem Hotel.
Charlie, Sam, Elise, Nik, Lydia and the home base of LMNH for being such support. We hope we can make you proud – always. We have also successfully branded the town with LMNH gear.
Thank you to all the families and partners of the athletes who support them and allow them to be away from home for so long. Your support keeps these girls going. I know it. They tell me all the time.
Thank you to the really fast riders that made this race all international and pro-like.
Thank you to “my people” in the back for the company. We didn’t really talk much, but I think we bonded.
To the semi-naked dudes in lime green strap-ons + chicken costume man who ran up the mountain during the last stage; with all due respect, it wasn’t really pleasant to look at, but it certainly was entertaining.
For the guy who drove up next to me and said, “Look Mum No Trousers” and pointed at the naked men. Bro, next time you want to make me aware of something like this, please wait while I am not moving at 6mph and at LT. Thanks.
To the manager of one of the Dutch teams who shouted at every rider to go faster and to climb on a harder gear and to enjoy the scenery while doing all this.
To Mick Murphy, whose legend terrified me into pedaling faster.
To the inventor of chamois cream and baby oil.
To the manufacturer of jelly babies.
To Mom and Dad for giving birth to me.
To the person who thought it would be a good idea to race bicycles.
To the person who invented the bicycle.
To the person who invented the wheel. And all those people who subsequently reinvented the wheel.
And so on.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all this. We’ve enjoyed doing it. Next time, be there with us.
Yours truly, from London on September 20, 2011, Pan Pan Fan