" Cycling does not belong to sponsors, or to organizing committees. It also doesn't belong to people who choose to associate themselves with it. It just doesn't. Cycling belongs to the people for whom it circulates through their veins naturally. It's all they've ever known."
– Matt Rendel, author of Kings of the Mountains
Venturing into a discussion about the ownership of a human construct is a difficult and dangerous affair. As you begin to scratch the surface of the matter, you quickly realize that you may very well be making judgement calls. One group's engagement with a subject or activity is deemed as being more legitimate than another. This is all made more complex by the fact that even cultural property, as outlined by the Hague Convention, only addresses physical objects (or places) of cultural significance. So who's to say what the correct or most "pure way" to do something is? In reality, a great amount of leeway should be given, because cultural surroundings ensure that each of us act and enjoy things our own way, and we should be completely free to do so without judgement. I firmly believe this.
But while I know this to be true, I have to admit that the quote that I started this post with (from this interview I did with Matt Rendell some time ago) kept bouncing around my head last week while I was in Medellin. That's because when you are there, and you are around cyclists, particularly young ones, you quickly realize that you are looking at the real article. There's no pretense. No talk about beauty of the sport, or the fluidity of one rider or another on the bike. No one talks about suffering, or aesthetics. There are no rules about riding (tongue in cheek or not), about clothing or how it's worn. Bikes are tools, and in Colombia, you shut up and you ride. It's a startlingly different milieu.
I completely understand that all this sounds like a heavy-handed and likely unecessary cultural judgement call. And perhaps it is. But unless you've been there, and you've lived it, and been around it (and thus realized the amount of pretense and pomp that surrounds cycling and all that goes with it in places like North America and Europe), you are free to think that I'm wrong. But in my mind, the citizens of industrialized nations often define themselves by that which they buy into. By the things that they chose to engage in (hobbies, alliance to sport teams, subcultures they belong to).
But in places like Colombia, it's the things you can't control, those that are an innate part of you, that truly define you. It's a drastic cultural difference, but not one that makes one more valid than another. Who is anyone to say that one approach to life is more valid than another? Such a call should probably not be made at all.
This is something that I spoke to Matt about, in another portion of the interview I conducted with him. Forgive me for merely quoting and earlier post, but I feel Matt raises some interesting points.
In your podcast, you recently spoke about the manner in which cycling is often portrayed these days...in black and white photography in an effort perhaps to bring forth the sentiment that is so common today, which is that of being “epic”. Cycling fans and companies didn’t invent this, but I do find it curious that fans are even willing to dress up in period garb in order to celebrate previous eras in cycling at times. It makes me feel like they’re missing the here and now. And perhaps I should include myself in that, because I think back very fondly on the 1980s. But I wont dress up in period-correct costume.
See, in a place like Colombia you wouldn’t have that [people in costume]. Under all circumstances, if someone gets on their bike, they’re being who they are. There is no costume. I find it slightly disturbing really, that the need for drama and costume exists in an attempt to assume another identity. And I think it’s something that Anglo-Saxon cultures have always done, dating back to Victorian anthropologists. Going out into these cultures, looking around, taking notes, and then coming back to write a set of rules or standards. Thus electing ourselves to be the arbiters of good practice.
After having observed the “savages” for a certain amount of time, and getting a taste of just how “real” their culture can be. And yet it's the pageantry that many are attracted to down the line.
Exactly. But I guess my take on how some see cycling is just me being out of step with my own culture. Because that’s just the way that British culture is going at the moment. You buy into things, and that’s a very telling expression, isn’t it? You “buy into” whatever it is that you are fascinated by.
And those fascinations largely define individuals.
Whether it’s cycling or whatever we buy into, we believe that whatever we choose to buy into, defines who we are. That’s the Anglo-Saxon way, we exercise choice, that’s a big thing, and through those choices we define ourselves to the world. But in reality, I think it’s the other way around. Our basic values have a claim on us. It’s not we that have a claim on those things. Like when we are ashamed, we don’t choose to feel ashamed. It’s those things that we have no choice over that define us. So people in Colombia for whom cycling is life, not a hobby they took up, those are the people that in my view truly own cycling. Or dancing, or whatever it is that they do.
And in the United States, that concept of choice is framed as Freedom, with a capital “F”, because a large amount of importance is placed on the things you chose through your Freedom. That has become a substantial portion of the ongoing American narrative.
If you think I'm way off, or your understand and/or agree, feel free to let me know in the comments.
1. Alps & Andes is on Instagram. Check it out here if you're into that sort of thing.
2. My trip to Colombia generated a fair amount of potential content and (as always) fantastic insights and new friends. It will take me some time to process all of it, but I'm hoping bits and pieces will start making their way into the blog. In a very concise sense, a couple of things already have made their way here, namely some 4-72—Colombia socks. Check them out here. Likewise, you can find some Duarte water bottles here.
3. And lastly, I leave you with this pleasant musical outro. Hope you enjoy it.