Obsession and ritual within cycling make the sport like a furry convetion, but without the clip-on animal tails or the debaucherous sexual practices


Faith, luck and superstition play a significant role for participants in any sport. In cycling, the importance of these forces appears to be heightened due to the risk of crashing, the obsessive nature of most cyclists, and the fact that we wear wrestling singlets out in public. Perhaps cycling serves as a magnet that attracts certain personalities, often obsessive ones, that have been cast out from other groups for any number of reasons. As such, cyclists gather in order to enjoy an obsessive activity that they love but few understand, all while wearing outfits that even toddlers would identify as ridiculous. So in a sense, I guess you could say that cycling is a bit like a furry convention, but without the clip-on animal tails, or the debaucherous sexual intercourse.

The ever-correct and peer reviewed journal called Urban Dictionary describes individuals who are "furries" as being "immensely withdrawn or self-absorbed persons who actually believe, or want to believe, that they're an eagle-winged fox-like versions of themselves". If you replace the last part about eagles and foxes with "that they are super awesome, extremely fit version of themselves" you pretty much have a perfect description of every cyclist.

Animal suits aside, the fact remains that professional cycling has an obsessively ritualistic component to it, and riders adhere firmly to a seemingly random list of do's and dont's that is longer than the one observed by most cult members (or furries). How many other athletes at an elite level eschew things as varied and seemingly random as pasta sauce, shaving their face before races, air conditioning, soft breads, mashed potatoes, and chocolate mousse? Do you even know why many professionals won't eat chocolate mousse? If you don't, please let me tell you. It's because....hold on to your wrestling singlet...they believe it causes excessive sweating. Seriously. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Even my mom, who is crazy enough to probably believe that you can get tuberculosis from eating overcooked cauliflower, would tell you that's a ridiculous belief. Could it be that these guys are sweating because they're riding in July, not using air conditioning, and often wearing a ton of clothing because they fear colds like they're the plague?

With that in mind, I think we can safely say that rituals, eating habits and preparation at the highest levels of the sport can border on obsessive compulsive. Which reminds me, please allow me to take a quick detour here to mention something that I detest. I hate when people say the following about themselves: "I'm so OCD". First, obsessive compulsive disorder is rather serious, and you are only saying that about yourself because you alphabetized your laser disc collection, or because you'd rather not wear a shirt that is missing a button. As such, you're not obsessive compulsive, you're just a normal person...aside from the fact that you still own laser discs. Secondly, OCD is the abbreviation of a noun, not an adjective. So you can't "be OCD", in the same way that you can't "be tuberculosis", and you can't "be speedboat". Perhaps someone with a better understanding of either medical terminology or the English language will disagree...but I just felt like I had to get that off my chest.

Anyway, in the words of Snoop, let's get back to the lecture at hand. Yes, I know and understand that many of the obsessions that professional cyclists have are a result of the fragile nature that their bodies are in when their form peaks. Their body fat drops, the risk of illness increases, and the temptation of chocolate mousse becomes frighteningly real. I know that this is why Jens Voigt was wrapped up in towels and looked like a mummy when I met him last year, even though it was like 90 degrees that day. The guy was scared to death of catching a cold or, god forbid, some chocolate mousse-induced sweating. Still, the list of do's and don'ts that these guys subscribe to is so odd that you could almost add anything to it, and it would sound believable. For example, if anyone told me that professional cyclists chose not to wipe with toilet paper, but instead used their hands to prevent upsetting their taints and causing possible saddle sores, I would believe it. As a matter of fact, I just made that up...and I already believe it. It makes sense.

Possible health issues aside, some of these quirks probably come about because the sport is so unpredictable. After all, once you are clipped in, almost anything can happen. It would appear as though some of the helpless feeling that we all had during our first low-speed (or no-speed) fall always remains at every level of the sport. Racing can be unpredictable and dangerous, the body doesn't always perform as a rider expects it to. The variables within the race are endless, and the potential for disaster is always there. It's perhaps for this reason that riders take every chance they get to influence matters when they are off the bike. The seemingly endless number of possible outcomes must be controlled, or at least a rider's brain must feel like it's helping control it. Not eating certain things, wearing a certain lucky bracelet, it's all part of the mind's need to feel as though its in control. Have you seen how many times most Spanish riders give themselves the sign of the cross before a time trial? Last time I counted, Contador did it three times, accompanied by a kiss of his own hand each time. Even race organizers have to accommodate riders' superstitions, allowing them to place their race number upside down if their number for that race is 13, as it is for Cancellara this year at the Tour. In the book Lance's War, the author details a certain rider (the name escapes me as I type this, and I'm too lazy to look it up) who mocked his team and their superstition regarding salt. At the dinner table during a Grand Tour, the rider threw salt all over the place as other riders gasped and shook their head. He laughed while doing it, pointing out how silly the whole thing was. Sadly, that very rider crashed the next day, and had to retire from the race. While some abstain from spilling salt, others abstain from showering. That was the case with Spanish rider Izidro Nodal who refused to shower during the entire length of Grand Tours, to the delight of his roommate no doubt. The reason? He was sure that showering or bathing in any way would bring on the absolute worst luck of all, a cold.

Nodal looking rather...uh...sticky at the Vuelta. Did he just drink a pint of Elmer's Glue?

Obviously, cyclists are not the only athletes who obsess about details, and try to control their luck through ritual. Baseball player Nomar Garciaparra is famous for his pre-batting rituals, which included the following procedures, always performed in this same order without fail:

Adjust armband on right arm
Tap home plate with bat once
Touch bill of helmet once
Touch end of bat
Touch bill of helmet again
If it's the first time time at bat, make one sign of the cross
While balancing bat on right shoulder, adjust gloves, the dig cleats on dirt
Pull right glove with left hand
Right hand crosses over left and pulls left glove, repeat this four times

So while cyclists are not alone in their fear of illness, or their obsessive rituals, I do believe that the nature of the sport makes these tendencies more pronounced. Now that the Tour has started, keep an eye out for the endless display of lucky pendants, chains, charms, Madonna del Ghisallo medals, as well as the endless signs of the cross, and Carlos Sastre's gigantic wooden necklace. Are all these things silly? Yes. Should these guys be put into mental institutions as a result of their uncontrollable fear of mousse? No, but if one of them starts wearing a furry animal suit, and claims that he does so to aid in recovery, by all means, call the gendarmerie, because we have a freak on the loose.