I have been training again. Training a lot. Training in the cold wet winter of Vancouver.*(read the foot note before you comment) I am training again to get back to competing and that journey to find a new level. But through the course of this I have been trying to really sort out why. Why am I out here in the rain pounding out the hours? Why don’t I just walk away? It certainly would be easier. The sport is mired in a shadow of lies that has covered all of us participating to a point where we are starting to become unrecognizable. Yet I carry on and continue to explain that there are clean riders. There are riders who love to race.
This is what I have been trying to wrap my head around in my absence from the sport. Yes it has been an absence. I have trained but I have been away from racing for nearly 6 months. In that time I have had the luxury to at least honestly re evaluate my perception of what this sport is all about. Through a moment of serendipity I believe I have found my answer in my roots. Bike racing in its purest most instinctual form is Sled Dog Racing. At least in a lot of ways it is for me.
Now I have to explain. You can’t make a nuthouse statement like that and not explain. So I will do my best.
A friend of mine from the Yukon sent me this video not too long ago and I was very taken by it. At first I was not sure why. I had never raced dogs or really identified with that specific cultural aspect of my upbringing. Then I realized it was my present more then my past that allowed me to identify with the content.
It is a video of the start of the Yukon Quest. This is a grueling multi-week dog sled race held every year in the Yukon. These teams of dogs embody everything that I think is amazing about bike racing. You have the Dog Musher (he is the guy on the sled) who plays the Director Sportif role. He picks the dogs, handles the logistics, tells them when to go fast, slow, when to eat, when to sleep. You have the lead dog at the head of the team that is the experienced dog, almost shares a mind with the musher. That dog guides and captains the team. You have the work horse dogs that are closest to the sled…they pull, or pull, and sometimes they pull. In a pinch they can also pull harder. The dogs in between are all there for a reason, their personalities add something to the team.
As you watched that video you may have noticed these dogs love what they do. They have all kinds of personalities, and builds, and jobs. Some get nervous, some are cool under pressure. Some of the dogs can hardly keep their feet on the ground before the start (reminds me of days racing with Francois). But they all love to run and race. They live for it. These dogs don’t win any contracts, or sign any clothing deals. The only incentive they have is that racing is fun. Going fast is fun. Working hard is fun. It is built into them. It is their instinct.
I think bike racers, or most of us anyway, are the same. We started racing because we want to go fast, and it is fun to do that. That is a natural thing to enjoy doing. Maybe I am just a dog person so I can see all the similarities. From the slop food to the small “formula 1″ (the hotel, not the auto racing) style dog houses to the need for a balanced team. These two sports just seem to have so many parallels. I think that is a message that could guide this sport into the future. A bright future that brings the sport back to the purity that racing should be. Racing is an animal instinct. When that is all that is at play it is a beautiful ballet of passion, power and tactical precision. Cycling is not war, it is not win at all cost, life and death, “no choice” situations. Yes there is a ruthlessness in the competition and I am not saying that we should all just get along out there. But there is value in being a formidable opponent. I would like to think that the 2nd places finishes I have had have been the catalyst to create great moments for other athletes. Just as my greatest achievements in the sport have come from being pushed to overcome the greatness of others. The winner/loser paradigm is what taints that natural instinct that creates a respect between adversaries. You lost, so you have no value, so the only way to regain that value is to do what is needed to win. If we, as a culture, champion the clash rather then the outcome the sport will be better for it. The fight is the exciting part anyway. Watching some pasty underweight string bean try to climb 2 steps is boring in comparison. I know there has to be winners, but finding a winner is the catalyst for creating a great spectacle. We don’t race and watch racing to see who wins. We engage because of the event that occurs in pursuit of that win. That event is an unveiling of our animalistic nature which allows us to examine what we truly are as a species.
We need to go back to being dogs and celebrating the spectacle of the sport. There will always be winners, with or without cheaters. We need to create a culture, as fans and participants, that can separate champions and winners. That might remove the the pressure to undermine the sport. It might help all the athletes understand that the sport can be amazing if we are all just willing to race like dogs.
*(I know I know, its not the coldest, its not the worst. But I think it is the worst condition you can handle and still get the proper training job done. If you go anywhere colder or more damp you can’t do the work properly. So lets not start a “who is tougher” argument.)