November 17, 2011

Berkshire Cycling: The Landscape of Home, 4

Touring as Sport?

It was a good start to November. After October's first minimal snowstorm, then its second, 20+ inch snowstorm, the weather warmed up, and the snow melted almost completely. Last week I got in three good rides, including a 25-mile ride in the Connecticut River Valley, where I rode a few weeks ago, and a 50-mile ride in the Berkshires from Pittsfield to Great Barrington and back.

These two rides set me to musing again on the differences in the nature of experience between cycle touring and riding at home. What makes touring so alluring, compelling, seductive ...  required even, for me. Part is the travel, the adventure. Part also, the "grass is greener" phenomena.  Part probably related to goals. More about those things another time. I've written that a part of it is the physicality of riding a bike. But is that physicality any different on a local ride, say of 50 miles, and a touring ride of the same distance?

The blog Le Grimpeur recently got me to thinking about Roland Barthes, a French philosopher I am somewhat familiar with, but Le Grimpeur linked him to sport. Specifically to cycling. I've never associated Barthes with the philosophy of sport. This made me curious. That should not be surprising, Barthes being a French author, coupled with my interest in the relationships between touring, cycling, sport, culture, adventure ... I bought a copy of What Is Sport? and just now it offered a new insight.

It's a little book, and I'd been happily reading along, thinking that of course touring is athletic, and the physicality that I enjoy is athletic. But just because an activity is athletic, does that make it sport? Barthes first chapters got me to thinking that touring is not sport: racing is sport. Yes, I know people talk about "conquering" mountains, and  conquering would be sport, like bullfighting. But I don't buy it, even as metaphor. Conquering by its nature means getting the better of, overwhelming, beating, subjugating. The mountain submits to none of these things. No one conquers a mountain: capable cyclists successfully ride up it, faster or slower, with more or less grace, as the case may be. The mountain goes on with no measurable change in its existence after a cyclist climbs it: it is not defeated.  This in no way diminishes the experience of climbing mountains, on a bike or on foot. I love love love the experience of climbing mountains. It is a language issue, a part perhaps of a philosophical issue.

So, sport or not?  But then I came across this. Barthes writes (in translation) of the Tour de France "...for that is the stake of the Tour: to hold out. To hold out against anger, against suffering. To hold out, which means to begin again." This quote could equally apply to self-supported touring. There are times when anger or suffering need to be ignored, held out against, and you just go on. Just push the pedals around, just keep paying attention to the experience. And it is in the nature of cycle touring that you begin, again, and again and again. The only time I became sad on my last trip was when, at the end I could not, the next day, begin again. It was time to get on a train and head home. Sad didn't originate in the coming home, this is a good place to live. It was caused by not beginning again the next day.

Perhaps there is an element of sport involved in my touring, that doesn't exist on my local rides, and which I miss when riding here, however seriously I ride, and however much I train. Sport may be one component that contributes to the difference in experience.

Anyway, my third ride last week finally provided a chance to ride with my friend Ellen. We rode about 35 miles, climbing the hills up into Windsor, then making a looping route back to town. The day was sunny, in the low 40s and blustery, especially windy high in Windsor and we had cold toes. It was a good and beautiful ride. For me, it was especially fun to ride with a friend ... the first time I've been able to since back home.

By the way, I've been tickled to learn that at least some riders have been using my site for planning trips to France: just what I hoped for. That's encouragement enough for me to put together a listing of the websites I've found helpful in the past. When I can get these organized by categories, I'll put it up.

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