The Importance of Fandom

The conventional wisdom in the Midwest, is that in order to be a serious cyclist, let alone a competitive racer, one must either have the mental fortitude to suffer through a very long winter of indoor training, or the resources to travel regularly to warmer climes. And while it is true that Computrainer culture rules the day in these parts, over the past decade we've watched the latter strategy play out, mainly as the community has growth older and wealthier. I had a recent exchange with some folks about the topic, and a well respected coach pointed out that it's entirely possible to get through a Chicago winter, with a healthy mix of indoor and outdoor training, without burning out or going insane. But we all had a bit of a laugh when I observed that his own experience included trips to California and Europe each winter…

But let's back up a moment. One of the things I've been wondering about for a long time is why there is so much of an emphasis on racing as the natural outcome of recreational riding in our region. The simple answer is that cycling must compete with other hobbies, most of which are better suited to our flat, featureless Midwestern terrain and challenging winter climate. That, combined with a generational shift in the demographics of amateur racing, might explain the unique culture found both in individuals and clubs here. This explains the very temporal nature and short lifespan of most folks' cycling lives. For years, I've been fascinated and frustrated by it, but recently, have thought about ways to enrich the experiences of those who might not fit this mold.

Racing culture is, and always will be exclusionary and elitist. Folks themselves aren't (for the most part) intentionally excluding others - but they only seem to understand the community through the lens of their own experience. Fan culture, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. But sometimes connecting these two ideas is difficult in the American context, particularly when there are very few elite riders being generated from a given region. In Europe, it's not unusual to cheer on a hometown boy (or three) in the Giro or a big Six Day. Fandom takes the sport out of the participatory context and immediately flattens meaningless social hierarchies: Cat 1s and Cat 5s are still just "fans," as are retired racers, little old ladies, obese middle aged men, and crazed children with face paint and fistfuls of Haribo.

That we, as amateur racers, are doing anything other than playing dress up is patently obvious - but a point too commonly forgotten. The trappings of it all: the powermeters, the focus on winning, the costly and contemporary bicycles, the training camps, the aerodynamic rubbish, the Strava, the coaching, the nutritional supplements, The Rules… have kind of spun things out of control a bit, and when this environment is combined with a community of highly motivated, well to do, Type A personalities… one can see how, at least from a novice's point of view, it's a little intimidating, overwhelming, and downright distasteful. That said, I firmly believe that those who can see and understand the continuum between "that awesome local Cat 2" and "the kid who made it onto the regional dev squad" and "the guy who raced a season for Sharecare" and the few who go domestic pro and all of those who were washed out along the way… And then watch something like the Tour of California, might step back for a moment, and question their own approach to the discipline.

It's entirely possible, then, to be a super fan of the sport at the highest levels: to honor and respect its rich history, and to have an obsessive, if childish love for the silliness of it all… an attitude which, for some, enriches one's experience on the bike: whether those experiences consist of pottering over to the shops on a folding bike once a week, or bike camping across the Gobi desert, or mixing it up in a local parking lot crit. Fandom isn't for everyone, I realize, but I wish more folks shared this peculiar obsession. It's great that there are still a few folks who follow the Protour happenings in the post-Lance era. But domestic racing also has its appeal! It can take the form of chalking up a climb at a local circuit race, or taking the train out to Glencoe to watch the pro events, or streaming the USA Crits series into your cubicle with the sound off. Or maybe it can take the form of combining road trip, bike camping tour, race weekend, hunt for handbuilts, and pro spectating into one singular experience.

This approach might not maximise one's potential for racing, to be sure. But it might put one's potential in context. One might, for example, meet the young woman professional who works two jobs, shops for dented canned food, and shares a two bedroom apartment with four others. Or one might encounter a team of teenage Cat 1s, none of whom have coaches or powermeters or anything other than durable, functional equipment. And for those without great resources, it might put to rest the myth that equipment matters more than genetics, or for that matter... the myth that highly enjoyable cycling in exotic locales must necessarily be a costly endeavor of the more fortunate. But more on that later.

#hobocyclist out.