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The Carletonian

Will You Watch Bikes With Me?

< a talk this summer by this bigshot Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, the first outside investor in Facebook, and doer of other things that are impressive if you’re into that entrepreneurship stuff. Anyway, I don’t remember much about what he said but this caught my attention: he says the first thing he says in every job interview is “Tell me something that’s true that 99 percent of people will disagree with you about.”

I’ve thought about this question for some time and couldn’t come up with anything and so felt bad about myself for being a sheep. But the thing is, the concept of “Truth” is pretty dubious these days; we don’t really have disagreements, just differences in emphasis. We live with and respect each other’s horizons. You have your way to thinking, your issues and I mine, and who has the time to spend figuring out if we’re even talking about or working towards the same thing? And that’s just with regards to individual people, to say nothing of opinions contrary the majority of the public.

But then it occurred to me something that there is something objectively true which most people would dispute and that is that bicycle racing is the best professional sport to watch.

I know what you’re thinking. No it’s not and this article is stupid. Hey! Shut up. I’ll write what I want and you’ll read it (please?) It’s not obvious, obviously, but indulge me for a few moments as I explain why you should follow cycling.

First though, some history: the sport began in fin de siècle France when some newspapers weren’t making enough money covering the news and so decided to make the news themselves by sponsoring long-distance bike races that they could subsequently write about.

In its early days, bike racing had all of the charm of Saturday morning cartoons. Riders falling asleep or taking trains during the race, fans blockading or spreading tacks over the road once the riders they supported had passed, organizers creating inane rules like teammates not being allowed to pace each other.

Another ridiculous rule was that competitors had to do all bike maintenance themselves and so when the leader of the 1913 Tour de France had his fork break on a descent in the Pyrenees he had to walk 10 km downhill to a blacksmiths shop, where he had to forge the new part himself. He ceded to the eventual winner 3 hours and 50 minutes on the stage, 10 of which was additional penalty time because he asked a small boy to work the bellows in the forge for him.

Of course, every sport was pretty hilarious before television and reasonable rules and safety concerns sucked the fun out of everything (check out the Wikipedia pages for the 1904 St. Louis Olympic marathon or baseball’s Disco Demolition Night).

Another delight of following cycling is its plethora of great names, although I suspect for every Bo Hamburger, Konstantinos Konstantinou or Oscar Egg in the peloton there are plenty of Goose Gossages and D’Brickashaw Fergusons in the other major sports.

So what’s so distinctive about cycling again?

When I was at sleep-a-way camp back in the day my dad would write me long letters describing the epic rides of Floyd Landis and I remember thinking, “geez this is boring, why is writing all of this?”

As it turns out, Landis’ heroics were owing to the fact that he was juiced to the teeth, and eventually we learned that so was every other major winner from the past twenty years, especially Lance Armstrong.

It turns out also that those charming commentators on the quaint Outdoor Life Network (later changed to “Versus” and then “NBC Sports Network”) probably were complicit in all the doping. This news was probably more devastating than the news that the riders were cheating. Cause, I mean, you trusted those guys – Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin – they had English accents after all, and could produce perfected French pronunciations and historical trivia bits to accompany the camera panning over the castles and rivers and mountains in the background of the race. You closed your eyes and those bikes became horses and you were transported to the days of the nobility, of honor, of real Europe. I learned later they didn’t actual know about each and every château but were simply reading out of a travel guide prepared by le Tour organizers.

Biking is like baseball in a lot of ways. Drugs. Disappointment. Dull, hours-long events with no action. When you’re watching baseball, there’s so little action that all of the non-action things become interesting – the smells, the sounds, the batter’s stance, the way the outfielder adjusts his uniform. Cycling’s like that, except twice as long and there are no replays to tittle you endlessly.

You’re forced to come up with your own narrative, your own excitement. It’s no longer a race to the finish line. It doesn’t really matter who wins (they probably cheated anyway). Whereas the magic of baseball exists only within the confines of the stadium, bike races wind through cities, across highways, up mountains, over cobblestones,  into forests, everywhere there’s open road (except sometimes when there isn’t, like when French union members decide they want to protest by lying accross the street).
Space and speed are universal. Appreciate them in a bike race and you’ll see them in your own life, wherever you go, wherever things whiz by, it will be one big univeral bike race.

The world is different after you watch cycling, I promise.

Here I am walking to 4a, a sophomore tries to make a pass, there’s sweat circulating around the hairs on his collared neck, sleek salmon shorts slightly creased perhaps. That’s something.

Or maybe not. But I’m lonely sometimes when no one wants to watch bikes with me. I have a friend Cosmo on who talks to me for ten minutes a week. I suppose ten minutes is all we have time for nowadays, but you gotta make those ten minutes spread like bread all week long. Bits and pieces here and there. The water bottles, the neon colors, hum of the helicopter, the spandex, angry European gestures, it’s all there, all around you if you pay attention. Who knows, you might see one lone knight ride Rocinante up the Tourmalet.

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