Monday, May 11, 2009

Taking responsibility for your character

Andy Hollinger asked me to review his book Hangin' On for the The Racing Post. I just sent him this:
After finishing Andy Hollinger's Hangin' On: Struggling in life and the Peloton I had to get on my bike and ride, to let the story air out and chew on some of its ideas.

Before, I'd read Tim Krabbe's The Rider and I bought Hangin' On thinking I was picking up another race novel or at least race season novel. Having cycling as just a theme, though, rather than the sole subject of the book was valuable to me because it's closer to my own life. I wish I was as singular of focus as Krabbe's first person account, but I'm not. I'm struggling to balance my marriage with my work, with my riding, with the rest of my family, with my goals, with my faith, with everything. Sometimes I need more from a book than a metaphor for life; sometimes I need life, embarrassing and fractured.

I'm from North Dallas, having grown up in that Mobius strip of suburbs so there's a very recognizable texture to the setting for me, and, of course, as a cyclist, I constantly drew parallels with Jerry, the main character. I was with him one-hundred percent as he fawned over his Cinelli, stealing away time to ride and race. And his inabilitiy to communicate to his wife the experiences he's having with the team and on the club rides, the personal growth, the sense of purpose, the sense of place, well I was with him there too.

In the thousands of pedal strokes during a bicycle race there exists unspoken and largely unnoticed moments of heroism, of daring and sacrifice. Because of this subtlety, because of the very impermanence of a bicycle race and the indistinguishable but dramatically individual efforts of its riders, there is poetry woven in the struggle. And when presented with heroism and poetry, who would not choose to see their entire life in a bicycle race.

But riding and racing are not reflections of real life; they are real life. Training and racing aren't escapism. I think that's what Jerry ultimately learns, that his bike doesn't, in fact can't, take him away from his family and his work. The bike isn't a cathartic vehicle from which we learn lessons to be applied off the bike. Life is what happens when you're riding. And the race shows our morning commutes and culs-de-sac for what they are: prostrations before idols of inevitability, surrender and fatigue, paved Calvinism. A man, in his riding, can recreate himself. And so the bicycle race is an affirmation, it's taking responsibility for your character. That's the epiphany we share with Jerry, that you don't have to wait for promotion to be respected, to be noble. You simply have to perform nobly. And cycling presents that opportunity with every pedal stroke.