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The Joy of Bike Racing — A Photo Essay with a Scary Video at the End

- March 5, 2008

I’m a biker.

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No, I’m not that kind of biker. I’m this kind of biker:

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(Okay, that’s not me. Notwithstanding the amazing resemblance, it’s actually Mario Cipollini, The Lion King, the most stylish cyclist in the history of the world. My role model.)

Anyway, I’m a “cyclist.” And a racer at that. Why, quelle surprise!, here I am, so very splendid in my red team kit — though not quite so splendid, I am forced to concede, as Mario Cipollini.

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(More pictures and the headlined scary video are below the fold.)

More accurately, I was a racer until non-bike-related physical infirmiities did me in. Now I’m a former racer. (Some other political scientists who race(d) are Jacob Hacker at Yale, Barry Ames at Pitt, and John Petrocik at Missouri; and some other serious riders have the good sense not to race, e.g., Bob Stein at Rice.)

Anyway, I’m here to tell you that if you’ve never ridden a bike really fast, in cramped quarters with other bikers (say, a hundred or so others, all jammed together within a few inches of one another, left and right, fore and aft), you’ve missed something amazing. Out there riding fast, you enter a state of zen-like mindlessness, with reality rushing by you but in a sort of slo-mo, dream-like way. Your body is seemingly on auto-pilot, somehow — even miraculously — attending to the many details that are involved in riding fast surrounded by other people who are riding just as fast or even faster, and who want to get to exactly the same place you’re going.

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And sometimes, because this is very complicated business with millions of ways to go wrong, you crash. If you race or even do group training rides long enough, you will crash. It hurts when you crash. Road rash and broken collarbones are small change in a bike crash, and even then the true biker’s first question is always “Is the bike okay?” If you think cyclists are wusses and NASCAR drivers or hockey players are macho men, think again.

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If you’ve never watched a bike race, then look in on the Tour de France next summer. You’ll see lots of beautiful scenery even if you get bored by the sight of a couple of hundred guys in gaudy spandex outfits making circles with grossly overdeveloped legs that are hanging down from grossly underdeveloped upper bodies. Or, better yet, mosey on down to a bike race somewhere near where you live. A criterium, where the riders race laps around a route of a mile or less, often in a city or town, is preferable, as it’s likely to have lots of fast-paced action; on the other hand, watching a road race or a time trial can be like watching a baseball game — something’s bound to happen sooner or later, but when it finally does you’ll probably be in the restroom.

To get a sense of what riding a bike really fast can be like and of the crazy skills that good riders have, watch this video of bike messengers racing through New York City. It’s pretty scary. Do not try it at home. (The video lasts several minutes, so you may want to unclick from the pedals and get back to work before it’s finished; but do stick around long enough to get a good sense of what it’s like.)