Friday, July 09, 2010


Of Miles and Shoes

Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.
Then, when you criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.

- Ancient Proverb

The much anticipated Stage 3 cobblestones have come and gone, and with another win by Petacchi in Stage 4, a redemptive Stage 5 victory for Cavendish, and the Alps looming, all the chatter about whether or not cobblestones belong in a grand tour has died down a bit. Perusing the media just two short days on, you hear a lot less about Jens Voigt’s criticism of the organizer, about protests and apologies, about the injustice of it all. But while the peloton seems to have literally and figuratively moved on, a thousand online and group-ride debates still rage over about whether the Tour peloton were being a bunch of sissy boys about the whole thing. And wherever such debates rage, so rages the sub-debate over just who is or isn’t permitted to call them a bunch of sissy boys.

The formula, by now, is predictable: A professional cyclist speaks out in the media or in his diary or on Twitter, maybe calls a stage too hard, a competitor's move reckless, a finish too dangerous. Or maybe he’s had an off day or an off year, performance-wise. His statements or poor form become the issue of the day in one online forum or another, be it newsgroup, message board, blog, or media outlet. If a rider complains, one reader will agree, another will disagree, and yet another will disagree and call the rider a whiny little girlie-man to boot. If results are the issue, someone is sure to note that the rider is overrated if they’re feeling kind, or, if they’re not, that he sucks. And as soon as those sentiments hit the server, as if by some modern miracle of automation, the inevitable responses will spring back, “He’s a professional. What have you done in the sport? Pack fodder in a few Cat. 3 crits? If you rode with him, you’d be dropped in the first five minutes. Who are you to disagree? To criticize? What gives you the right?” And on and on and on.

And that perspective, my friends – that notion that the fans have no right to disagree with or criticize the professionals because they are not, themselves, professionals – is bullshit. Yes, they’re professional cyclists, meaning they get paid to ride a bicycle because they’re very, very good at it. They’re better than most of us could ever hope to be. But that doesn’t mean people who aren’t as good at riding a bicycle or who haven’t ridden a mile in their shoes don’t get to disagree with them or otherwise opine on the subject of bicycle racing. Professional cyclist is just what the name implies – a profession – and freedom from the criticisms of the lay public isn’t a privilege that cycling or any other profession, from paperboy to pope, gets to enjoy.

For instance, I am, on certain increasingly rare and unimportant occasions, a professional writer on cycling, as are the many people now covering the Tour de France. And occasionally, when the racers disagree with what’s been written or how it’s been written, they let that dissatisfaction be widely known, often in fairly blunt terms. Now, these men, while they are terrific cyclists one and all, are not journalists. They might not know all the intricacies of the profession or the rules that govern it, understand its daily trials and tribulations, or care about how or why certain things get written. And most of all, they might not be able to produce particularly compelling copy themselves. But they certainly feel free to see some professional journalist’s finished product and call it shit. And they should – because being able to write better than me or any other cycling hack isn’t a required qualification to critique or disagree with the work, or indeed to aim some barbs at the writer themselves. You just have to be a consumer of the product. Sometimes the rider’s opinion will be right, sometimes it’ll be wrong, sometimes it’ll be neither here nor there, but that’s not really the issue. Nobody tells them they have no right to disagree with the journalist because they are not journalists themselves.

Let’s speed this up a bit in the name of getting on with things: I don’t have to be as good as Matisse to not like a painting; I don’t have to be Secretary of State to disagree with foreign policy; I don’t have to be a better director than Coppola to think a movie is terrible; and I don’t have to be a web designer to think a site looks horrible. Why should I have to be a professional cyclist to suggest that neutralizing a stage finish wasn’t the right move, or that, contrary to Jens Voigt’s opinion, a few cobblestones might be OK in a grand tour? Participation in the debate only requires an interest and an opinion; it doesn’t require a UCI license. Or tact, intelligence, or common sense, for that matter.

You can argue, of course, about whether the opinions expressed are valid or not. In fact, I encourage you to do so, early and often, because it’s that sort of fan interest that fuels professional sports and keeps them vibrant. And frankly, I don’t know why some people spend so much time trying to quash some lively debate in cycling by holding up a given pro’s take as an unimpeachable verdict on an issue. I’m not saying people need to be rude in their criticisms of the men who make the sport what it is, or that the pros’ opinions shouldn’t carry due weight. But all that second-guessing, critiquing, and maligning of poor performances by armchair shlubs is the lifeblood of sports like professional soccer and football (yes, yes, that’s “football” and “American football” if you’re not from here). So cycling might as well embrace it, or at least not be offended by it, instead of reflexively and viciously defending the honor of a bunch of pro riders who don’t care terribly much what we’re saying anyway, and who are actually better served in the long run by the fans having the discussion, even if that discussion happens to currently center on how we think they suck and couldn’t sprint their way out of a wet paper bag.

In closing, I’ll just add that I think part of the “mile in his shoes” problem in America is that cycling is very much a participant sport here. In the U.S., if you’re a pro cycling fan, chances are you spin the pedals a bit yourself, and that somehow tends to cloud some folks’ ability to accept that what they see on TV is different from the cycling they do. And it is – even if you race every weekend, and even if you're pretty good at it. As indicated by the fact that it’s on TV, professional cycling is a spectator sport, just like football and baseball and hockey and any number of other sports where fans aren't expected to actually be a professional before voicing a contrary opinion. So when people are having a good time talking pro cycling, about who’s great and who sucks and who’s just being a wimp, it’s just not the same context as talking trash about a guy who will destroy you on the Sunday ride. In that context, a swift “well, he’ll drop your sorry ass” is a perfectly acceptable retort. In professional sports, though, it’s just not a valid part of the athlete-fan relationship.


Labels: , , ,

submit to reddit
Great points.

I wonder at times if the urge to silence criticism is also related to what people see in the media. For the most part, US cycling fans are exposed only to cycling magazines and websites that are less likely than the mainstream media to run negative stories.

At pre-race press conferences for races like the Tour of California, a lot of people would be surprised to see that the tough questions tend to come from the journalists who theoretically know less about the sport, while the cycling press asks, "How are your legs?"

Perhaps the biggest difference is that mainstream outlets like L'Equipe and the Wall Street Journal have the resources to fund investigative journalism and their advertising revenue doesn't come from the sponsors of the people they're investigating.
I think you meant to say that Gore tried to elicit the illicit services...

Josh: Great points yourself, and I think you're definitely on to something there. SportWereld, L'Equipe, Gazzetta and all the mainstream European (sport) papers definitely come in from a different angle than the US/Anglo cycling press. Over there, the post-race mob around a rider who's had a bad day can be a lot less of a sympathy party and a lot more of an interrogation. Almost like mainstream papers covering a mainstream sport...

DB: You’re right! Damn homophones. Thanks.
I kinda sorta agree with you, but I'd say "STFU" a lot less if people armed their arguments with a couple facts.
Great analysis! It reminds me of the time I had an argument with my mother. She basically said because she had a master's degree (and I don't) her opinions were more valid than mine. If you don't like the message, don't present a valid argument-just attack the messenger!
That's a good summary of the right of the rest of us to opine on the riders having opinions. Except that the fact that they're riding the Tour and we're not gives them some additional credibility.

I have to say, I've been a critic of Evans, but this year, I'm absolutely loving the guy. He's racing well, and focusing on not just the TdF. And he's interviewing better. Definitely one of the hardmen. Chapeau.

I love that the cobbles flipped the assumption that the climbers would suffer. Another example of when the entire world assumes something is true, believe that the opposite will happen.

Been watching Contador closely in interviews and mannerisms during the TdF, and have to say that the guy might not actually be a d-bag as some would portray. Giving interviews in English, bearing gifts to rivals, he might actually be the real deal.
Case in point:

In the latest issue of ROAD, John Summerson calls the Tour of California as an "unqualified success" - twice in the same article. Apparently, the fact that the race loses money for promoter AEG is inconsequential.

(I write a column for ROAD, but my involvement only consists of emailing a Word doc once a month. I've never met John.)
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?