Critérium National: Brutish, Short, but not Nasty

I could take the easy path here and simply say: It was bonkers. I wasn’t fast enough. I got schooled.

You didn’t come here to read that. Yes, we’re talking bike racing here, but there’s always more to it than, ‘It was hard.’ ‘I went for it, and it just didn’t work out.’ ‘I put my head down and got it!’ The experience of pushing harder than ever before in a bike race, or any number of physical endeavors, offers the opportunity to draw connections to other aspects of human existence.

Because I have a background in philosophy, my mind goes there sometimes…most times. Such was the case on Saturday, September 12,  after 27 minutes of bike racing. I have a terrible memory for a few things, French grammar being one, so I love it when nuggets from my past resurface at just the right moment. Thinking about how I might characterize the Criterium National on avenue du Parc, Montreal, Thomas Hobbes’ famous statement, where he characterizes human nature, filtered through the headache and bemused self-questioning I was experiencing as I stood on the sidewalk, speaking with a friend just after being lapped.


[Photo credits: Michel Guillemette,  Jonathan Villemaire-Krajden ]


For Hobbes, in the ‘state of nature,’ before social systems and ‘civilization’ (and, one might argue, after too) life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Chapters XIII–XIV).  In this state, everyone is willing to fight everyone else for the sake of survival; it is a state of war of all against all.

I’m just a guy who races bikes. I’m not a PRO, so there is a lot about living the life of a career bike racer I don’t and never will understand. When it comes to mixing it up with guys who are either PRO, or are working toward attaining that designation, I sometimes find myself in a somewhat conflicted position. I think Hobbes can help us understand why.

If we think of the peloton as a group of individuals seeking their own personal success in a given bike race, one has to ask: why isn’t it simply a matter of ‘war of all against all?’ Some races are like that, mountain bike races and cyclocross races come to mind. But road races? Well, it depends. In PRO races, full teams line up, pitting syndicates against every other. But in other cases, you’ll find perhaps one full team lined up against other teams of lesser size, along with solo riders. If the course is easy, and the largest team is strong enough, they can manhandle the rest of the racers, because the rest won’t tend to form functional alliances. This is what the Garneau team tends to do.

There is already a sort of ‘social contract’ in place when riders, be they with team-mates or not, toe the line. Beyond the obvious: team-mates ought not battle their team-mates, there is a degree of mutual respect that permeates a peloton, built on a foundation of reciprocity: ‘Don’t be a dick and crash me out, and I won’t be a dick and crash you out.’ Of course, what constitutes a ‘dick move’ versus an ‘aggressive move’ is a subjective matter/decision, which means when the pressure is on guys will try to push the boundaries of the ‘contract’ as it pertains to safety. In more extreme cases, they’ll break the contract in terms of teamwork (see Slaying the Badger). Perhaps coaches and directors will encourage riders to ride selfishly more often than not, the safety of other teams’ riders is of little concern. I’ve been told this is not unheard of.

The Criterium National was weird enough and hard enough to strain the contract in an interesting way, and this posed the conflict I mention above. It was raining, and the hotdog shape of the course, peaked in the middle, dropping away on either side of the start/finish, was bookended with 180 degree turns with a bit of painted lines to contend with on each end.  While riders would have to slow drastically to navigate the turns, they were nevertheless tricky to do anywhere near ‘fast’ and safely at the same time. Because conditions were difficult, everyone seemed to be riding somewhat conservatively on the descent into each turn, then unleash on the climb out of it.  I didn’t see one dick move. I didn’t pull any myself either. But I was tempted to. The resounding question in my mind remains: should I have been more aggressive/dickish on the descents? After all, I wasn’t about to pass anyone on the climbs!

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to cause crashes, particularly when other riders’ lives, day jobs, and racing careers are at stake. I held myself back from passing more than a couple guys each descent while the race was in full war mode early on. I could have passed more on the inside, swung wide, made the turns. I chose not to, because I didn’t want to spook guys, let alone crash them. I didn’t want to be a dick. I could tell myself that if I’d just done it, passed more, I’d have made it. That’d be bullshit.

The odds that I’d have been able to make it to the end of the race without being lapped are slim to none. This race was all about sprinting out of each turn uphill. Over and over again (88 times, to be precise). Except for Garneau, team alliances meant nothing. The pace went to 100% right off the gun, and it was all out war the rest of the time. I held back a little on the first straight – which I regret, probably foolishly – didn’t get into the first 15 wheels, then tried to hang on for dear life as I accelerated from 12kph up the hill, turned, repeated, the line of riders extending in front of me, guys passing as I lost my ability to sprint at 100% power. It only took about 4 laps for my legs to be shredded, full of lactic acid, prompting me to ask myself: ‘Am I done?’

At 5 laps in of 44, the pack I was broken off of seemed to slow a little, giving me hope that the prime was taken, and we’d now settle down. Yeah, right. Instead, Derek Gee and Remi Pelletier-Roy were off the front with another guy, drilling it. I couldn’t connect up, but easing a little on the climbs allowed the acid to clear enough to feel somewhat human.

I just kept riding as hard as I could, each lap,  friends and family shouting encouragement to keep trying. Every shout helped, I simply couldn’t do more. After trying to work with a small group to catch onto a small pack ahead for a while, we were reduced to two, soon to be lapped by Remi and Derek. 27 minutes in. 27 minutes done.

I didn’t feel bad about getting pulled when I did. I was too shell-shocked to comprehend what just happened. Head pounding, I could barely conjure up what happened in the first laps. Everything. But the feeling of peace with the outcome made me ask myself: Why am I ok with getting thrashed?

Out of something like 56 starters, 9 finished the race. Derek and Remi, despite crashing on the second-last turn, stayed away, Remi taking the sprint. Derek, at 18, rode nothing short of a stunning race. I had no idea he could pull off such a performance on a course like that, but I’m happy he did.

Brutish and short, but not nasty. Why not? Social contract? One might say, as Lance did back in 1999 with U.S.

Postal: ‘Hey, if we don’t do this stuff (dope, blood transfusions), we’ll be at a disadvantage, because the other teams will.’ He was speaking about cheating, and in the Tour de France where Motoman ran drugs for Lance’s team, it seems likely they were the ONLY team doping at the race. In the case of racing tactics/imperiling other riders, one might argue that you have to take chances with others’ safety because they are going to do the same to you. If you don’t you’re a sucker.

I won’t argue along those lines. Bike racing might seem trivial when things are going well, but when things go wrong, it’s as real as anything gets. Injuries and deaths are real. Young riders might get the impression that they need to take risks with other people’s safety to get ahead in bike racing. They might be told this is the case. I don’t think it’s true now any more than it ever has been. Regardless of where one lands on this question, it’s up to the best riders to model respectful racing tactics and to police the dick moves. Not only is it better for everyone to care about what happens to each other, it might also be a truer reflection of who and what we are. Consider Maria Popova’s rendering of John Cage’s thoughts on the matter:

[H]uman goodness, Cage argues…is a collective accomplishment — much like external influences can train us out of our inherent goodness, they can also amplify it. Human beings, he reminds us, can goad one another toward evil or ennoble each other with the belief that we are, if given the chance, inherently good. http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/09/15/john-cage-silence-human-nature/

Returning to the question that started me on this whole line of thought: Why was I ok with getting thrashed? The paradoxical thing about the Criterium National was that it was both the most violent and peaceful race I’ve done at the elite level. The Preston St. Criterium, with its sunny weather and flat turns was much more a war of all against all. I didn’t like the feel of the last two laps; the social contract did not seem to be in effect. In contrast, Montreal – from my perspective – was both respectful and exceedingly painful. I found this juxtaposition both unique and fascinating. And though I got my ass kicked, I was happy about how it happened. It’s not all about outcomes; it’s about how we race, and more broadly, how we live our lives.

Sport doesn’t have to be about winning and losing, beating and being beaten. It holds the potential to showcase both the best and worst aspects of humanity. On Saturday I was proud to be part of a race that showcased the good we all have in us, even when we are pressed to our limits.

And now, cyclocross season begins.