Of Flesh: David Foster Wallace, Roger Federer Moments, and Cycling

I wasn’t prepared to be hit smack in the face by ideas that resonated at such a frequency as to render me awe-struck.

My younger brother gave me David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not for Christmas. Books are gifts that keep on giving, a fact known well within my family. Published in 2012, Both Flesh and Not is a compilation of 15 essays. Upon opening it and perusing the table of contents I knew immediately I’d like the book.

Lightening struck barely 10 pages into the first essay, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not.’ I’d picked up the book on a Friday night, planning to read for about 30-45 minutes before sleep. Immediately upon starting the Federer essay I knew I could not continue. If I did, ideas would flood in, the gears would turn, sleep would….not happen. I know how my mind works.

On the heels of a team training session at Euro-Sports the following Saturday morning, sitting down with a coffee, I was ready. Little did I know what was in store.

The context Wallace sets up describes the incredible ability Roger Federer, possibly the best tennis player ever, has to make seemingly impossible shots. “Matrix-like,” Federer’s moves defy physics and reason, inspiring awe in those who witness his feats. Wallace coins these occasions ‘Federer Moments.’ The key to this almost spiritual experience, a Federer Moment, is actual physical co-presence. In other words, seeing Federer on television is great, but experiencing Federer Moments only happens when you watch him play live, when you feel the sun on your skin, as he does, when you taste the air, as he does. Being there with him matters.

For Wallace, Federer Moments are not about power, speed, precision, dominance or violence. They are about grace and beauty:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war (8).

Immediately I think of cycling and ballet. What? Cycling is a discipline you are likely familiar with, given this is a cycling blog. But beauty in cycling? I’ll elaborate more below, but for the moment, consider this often used term in reference to cyclists’ movement on their bicycles: souplesse.

For those unfamiliar with French, souplesse translates to suppleness in English, which connotes a fluidity of motion. Souplesse is not about raw power. It’s about the graceful articulation of effort. While the rider with souplesse might be riding at her limit amidst a chaotic melee of competitors, her effort will appear so smooth and rhythmic it will seem easy.

In ballet, the equivalent is grace. In this context, grace connotes an ease of movement that flows through space with not just an appearance, but a feeling of weightlessness, always effortless. Underpinning a dancer’s ability to achieve this height of performance is an incredible level of supple, flexible, agile, coordinated, athletic, strength. But ballet is absolutely not about strength. Ballet is about beauty. Yet, in order for that beauty to manifest through ballet’s framework of movement, dancers must be incredibly strong.  The discipline’s blending of athelticism and art is absolutely fascinating, particularly as a husband to a former ballet dancer, and father to a developing one. My respect and appreciation for the art form grows with each passing year.

Returning to Wallace and Federer, the next paragraph made me say: Holy shit.

The human beauty we’re talking about is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body (8).

Nailed it.

I’ll unpack this paragraph and explain why it matters.

First, kinetic beauty is a brilliant, elegant term for the subject at hand. I’ve never seen it used before, but it’s perfect. A quick google search pulls up a great blog post on LeBron James’ kinetic beauty. The term is about the beauty of movement, and thus, is a matter of aesthetics. Cool.

But the “reconciliation with the fact of having a body” part is the more important bit. Why? RATIONALISM.

In short, rationalism, or Cartesianism derives form the philosophy of René Descartes, one of western history’s renaissance men. Essentially, Descartes established a clear dichotomy between the ‘rational mind’ and the ’emotional body.’ For him, the mind is bound to the soul, and its the body’s influence on/mediation of perception that leads to imperfect apprehension/understanding of ‘reality.’ Once free of the body, one can understand reality as it really is. The body devalued and is to be transcended; it’s just ‘meat.’

Since Descartes, the human body has been conceived as a mechanical assemblage, an automaton with a soul directing it.  An atomaton (plural: automata) is a ‘self mover.’ The first automata were clocks; we call today’s automata ‘robots.’ HAL


While rationalism isn’t exactly in vogue these days, Descartes’ mechanistic view of the body still reverberates. How often do you hear of human minds as analogous to computers? Often.

For Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a great thinker of the 20th century, it is not “a question of a mind or spirit coming down from somewhere else into an automaton” (‘Eye and Mind‘ 163). Certainly, we have bodies that regulate, heal, and restructure themselves, but at the same time, we are our bodies. Circling back to where we began, the intellectual understanding of the mind/body Merleau-Ponty speaks to continues to be superseded by a mind-body dichotomy everywhere one looks. But Wallace points to sport as a means of welding the two back together. Again,

What [kinetic beauty] seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body (8).

Sport (and dance!) provides a context within which people can develop the ability to display kinetic beauty, and it is critical to understand this facility as a form of intelligence that is no less valuable than the usual ‘rational’ form of intelligence we tend to use to rank individuals in relation to each other. It is also an ‘upside’ to being a mind/body that is prone to physical decline and the rest.

Focusing on cycling, there is a spectrum of dynamism across disciplines that makes it hard to make broad claims. If we take road cycling as an example, kinetic beauty is very nuanced and difficult for the casual observer to glimpse. However, kinetic beauty and Federer Moments are two different matters. While the souplesse of a rider is invisible to the unitiated, there are nevertheless moments in road cycling that make the observer sit up and say: WOW; Federer Moments.

At 2:23:

This was probably a Federer Moment for the camera-man.

Danny MacAskill’s videos tend to be composed of strings of Federer Moments, even if they are really only such for the few who experience them in the flesh; what does that make them? Federer Spells? One can’t help but sit there, mouth agape, in front of these.

No only does MacAskill achieve super-human feats, he does so with finesse. Burly kinetic beauty.

UPDATED March 21 : Cancellera and Sagan avoid the inevitable by doing the impossible

I can recall three true Federer Moments, witnessed in person.

The first occurred at a World Cup downhill race at Bromont some time around 2000. It was a wet, foggy day as the best pros in the world raced down the rocky, rooty, slick track. A couple friend and I stood alongside a particularly rocky section as a rider – an Italian, as I recall – plowed into a big rock and endoed. As he approached the tipping point, he yanked up on his handlebars so hard he pulled the front wheel up and over the rock and keep on rolling down the hill. It was incredible, a Federer Moment. I couldn’t conceive pulling that off, and before I saw him do it, I’d not have believed it possible.

Next occurred while riding with Shaums March and a few members of the Canadian Giant downhill team, perhaps in 2001. We went out for a ‘street’ ride to mess around and stunt stuff. March was known for his exceptional skills on the bike, a Schwinn Straight 8 with Shimano’s prototype dual rotor 6 piston brakes (which were as powerful as they sound, btw). While March would end up pulling off a huge step-down gap at Strathcona Park in Ottawa that was truly impressive, it wasn’t a Federer Moment; I expected he’d do stuff like that. Instead, the Moment occurred when he bunnyhopped his downhill bike onto the back of a flatbed truck (4 feet high), rode up a 2×4 leaning against its cab, then wheelie dropped onto the sidewalk. WTF? Sure, trials riders do stuff like that all the time, but on an downhill bike with 8″ suspension front and rear? Astounding.

The third instance occurred the same year, but days away. At Camp Fortune for a Canada Cup downhill race, I’d finished my run and was on the course watching at a rock face section. A Norco rider entered the woods from the open skin run and managed to somehow endo as he rode onto the large, flat rock face we were beside. He maintained contact with his bars and pedals while rolling onto his back, then his back wheel, bringing his front wheel back onto the ground and rode off! A front somersault on the bike! It was probably a fluke – who the hell would practice that? – but it was mind blowing; another Federer Moment.

Have you ever experienced a Federer Moment? Tell us about it!

Related Reading:

The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram

Neuropolitics: thinking, culture, speed, William E. Connoly

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human ExperienceFrancisco J. Varela, Eleanor Rosch, Evan Thompson

Related Posts:

Good job(?)

Confessions of a noob

Timothy Austen: The races you didn’t ride.