The Perils of Over-Specialization

Apr 26 2013

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

Today’s rant is abbreviated and delayed somewhat by time and circumstance. If you haven’t been following me on twitter, or haven’t seen the previous post at Cyclocosm.com, then you don’t know that I spent yesterday riding from my home base in Hartford CT, to New York City as part of of the Ride on Washington. If I sound a little different it’s because I’m recording a fabulous Brooklyn studio gazing out over the rooftops at the Kentile Sign and VZ bridge.

As part of the ride, I promsed to raise $500 for Peopleforbikes.org, a goal which I’m happy to announced we’ve beaten pretty handily. But just  for your edification, the campaign will remain open until the stated closing date of Friday, May 17, meaning that you can still collect the IndieGoGo perk of having me rant for 20 seconds about the topic of your choice.

Anyway, what occurred to me as I clawed my way over the 130 miles between the two cities yesterday was that cyclists—actually, that’s a dumb word, and kinda part of the problem. What occurred to me was that people who are in someway associated with bicycles could stand to be somewhat less, uh, specific in how they define themselves.

It’s like the newly minted-racer rushing to assign his or her self a label before they’ve even gotten a Cat 5 upgrade. “Oh, hey, I weigh 180 pounds, I’m probably not gonna be a climber”, or deciding that just because they got their wheels blown off in a prime one time, they must be one of those riders who simply can’t sprint

I mean, of course—to a certain extent, you are the athlete you’re born as. But to another extent more immediately relevant to the mass of Category 3 humanity in which I’ve found myself, cycling is a sport with specific skills you can learn, and where serious training can have a huge impact.

For example, it’s likely even the slowest of the slow-twitch could put themselves into the top 10 of most amateur field sprints simply by getting their nose in the mix and learning that savvy positioning is an able substitute 5-second power. Conversely, a reasonable diet, and some serious training could scrape a few pounds off almost anyone—and according to Tyler Hamilton, and few pounds are easily worth a few units of hematocrit as far as climbing goes.

It something that carries over to parts as well—people thinking they need such-and-a-part to gain such-and-such amount of whatever, when leaning to properly hold a wheel would or pick a line serve them far, far better than any upgraded piece of equipment—but after last week, I’m kinda done on wailing on the industry for a little bit.  Suffice to say, there isn’t really any piece of gear you absolutely need to have other than a helmet—yes even tubular cross tires aren’t inescapably a requirement.

But for me, the biggest problem with this rush to specialization is that it inherently segregates groups of the bike riding public from each other. By and large, the mountain bikers don’t hang out with the roadies who don’t hang out with the bearded touring dudes who don’t hang out with the blinky-lighted commuters who don’t hang out with the tight-pants fixie riders, and really has anyone ever even talked to that guy on the the kmart bike with the plastic bag hanging from this bars going the wrong way on the sidewalk?

Even within subgroups, things can get “catty”—get it, like Cat 1, Cat 2? No? Ok. well, you know what I mean—pros want everyone to know that they’re pro, everyone else wants everyone else to know that they aren’t a fred, despite the practical necessity of every one of us being a fred at some point or another.

in some ways, this segregation makes sense—can’t really ride Porcupine Rim on an NJS-certified track bike, you know? But the specialization rapidly becomes nefarious—for instance, a commuter stops at a red light, but a racer or a messenger or even the walmart bike riding behind guy doesn’t really feel the social pressure to stop because hey, stopping for lights is for the commuter subgroup—not the collective responsibility of anyone riding a bike.

The various bike-riding subgroups also waste a lot of energy in the way that they interact with society as a whole. Everyone on a bike—actually, everyone period—has to deal with the government at some level. Not in the “I want my country back” sort of way, but more along the lines of “this is the established system how things actually change”. New bike lanes, access to trails, the right to ride two abreast—or even ride at all—all require the same sort of signature-collecting, hearing-attending, public promotion, and lobbying, and yet for some reason, the various groups of bicycle rider, while all pushing in the same direction, rarely seem to be coordinated in their efforts.

Yesterday’s ride was pretty sweet for me both because I got to draft behind some serious pro cyclist watts, and to cruise around one of the most massive urban areas in the world on hard won, well-planned bicycle infrastructure. And I think it’d be great if everyone on a bike could experience that sort of confluence more often. Which is kind of why I did the ride in the first place. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in supporting, head over to http://cyclocosm.com/pfb today.

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3 Responses to “The Perils of Over-Specialization”

  1. BigPhil 27 April 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Oh may goodness, this is fantastic. The one thing that has always bothered me is people who bike refer to themselves as “cyclists”. Back when Cervelo/Garmin was doing the Beyond the Peleton videos, they interviewed a fan at the Tour of California about who was his favorite cyclists. He said “Thor, we have similar riding styles, we both push the big gears.” And this, to me, is what is so great, and so wrong, about cycling. If you have enough money, you can kit yourself out in identical clothes and bike that the pros have and, unlike football, basketball etc, you could actually use it. But on the other hand, this dude, no matter how good of a rider he is, in no way shape or form rode like Thor.
    Again, to use other sports, if someone plays pick up basketball at the Y every week, when people ask them what they do to stay in shape, do they say “Oh I’m a basketball player.” No, they don’t. And all this becomes a problem when you have people like the dude who intentionally crashed out the pro at some crit last year. His twitter description was “Cyclist trapped in an accountant’s body”.
    Anyways, there is my own rant of something that bothers me. But yay bikes!!

  2. Velosopher 1 May 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Amen. I used to worry about what subset to claim I subscribed to. Now that I commute, ride in competitive group rides, ride paved roads, dirt roads, and sometimes single-track… I just like to ride bikes.

    A lot.

    Which is a very good thing.

    And I feel free to wave to every biker I see out on the road, from Fred to PRO. We’re all on two wheels, outdoors, under our own power. Isn’t that glorious?

  3. Al-Bo 23 May 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    I remember Chris Boardman once saying that hard work can get you on the podium and after that genetics can get you onto the top step.

    He’s not saying genes confer a huge advantage. He’s saying you pretty much have to get to a place where you are so fit that further training will barely have an impact before natural differences really need play a major part in separating riders.

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