Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why we Ride

In a bombastic and obliquely sexual informercial, Calvini has announced a radical shift here at Bikerackheads. He promises newly-virile lexical punch, and he does so in megachurch poetry.

I'm here to reassure all of you loyal 'heads readers that verbosity has not left the building. I pledge my word: whatever the shock and awe dropping down on you from Calvini's keyboard, I'll continue to serve up unhealthy portions of the self-indulgent reflection and windy academic diatribes you know and "love". No flashy videos. No pictures. Just a rambling, bloviating imposition on your time.

As my spine has been fusing and my ass fattening over these past weeks, I've been pondering the "Why?" of bike racing. Why do we devote our free time to this kind of suffering? Why is it such an addictive high? Whence and wherefore the bond we feel with teammates, even rivals?

I took up this question once before, and it led me straight into a pit of intellectual darkness: the problem of free will. This time, I tacked away from philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology and towards anthropology instead. I read a lot of pop-anthro books on human origins and I've finally got a pretty cool answer to my question.

Here it is...

We evolved to persistence hunt.

Our bodies are uniquely equipped among land mammals for cardiovascular endurance. We're weaker and slower than virtually everything else out there in the animal kingdom, but we can also outrun them all, eventually.

Some bushmen still hunt this way, running kudu to exhaustion over a period of hours. No shooting, no stabbing, no smell of blood to draw other predators.

But here's the thing that really got to me: the bushmen don't hunt as a solitary activity. They go out as a group. The strongest runners hang back, while the others fan out in front, isolating the animal from the herd, tracking it, and chasing it out of the shade when it tries to rest. As they tire from all of the zigzagging, they drop out one by one and hand off their remaining water to the trailing runners, who've taken the more efficient path.

The hunt is as much mental as it is physical. The kudu disappears for long periods and tracking it is more than just reading prints. It's also a matter of guessing where the animal would go, under these particular circumstances, which the bushmen discern by simulating the animal itself.

Likewise, the hunt is social. The hunting party communicates and coordinates constantly, each bushman doing his part: the stronger and weaker, skillful and less skillful. And of course, they share the kill at the end.

What does that sound like to you? Sounds like a fucking bike race to me.

I mentioned before that athletic competitions are selection mechanisms: means for females to identify the hardy genetic stock and pass it along. There is surely some truth to that. The strongest bushmen runners probably have an easier time in the Calahari club scene.

But the heart of bike racing is the team. The team is the hunting party. It strategizes together, uses each niche skill, and then shares the spoils. We weren't built just for zero-sum mating games, but also for the kind of coordinated action you see in cycling. Sprinters, rabbits, climbers, and diesels each making a contribution.

I remember handing off one of my water bottles to Tim Rugg at Conestoga, watching him glide uphill past me, seconds ahead of a gasping, dwindling peleton. Rugg was the strongest of our hunters that day, taking second; he later split the kill (pizza) with Calvini and with me. Calvini got dropped in that race and I got lost. But we both rode back from PA grinning like idiots.

The "bow and arrow" is a recent innovation. The atlatl is much older, but still a novelty in historical terms. For the vast majority of human history, maybe two million years, we hunted with our feet. That's how deeply entrenched it is in our collective unconscious. We were built for team bike racing. It's more than a straight up competition. It's a group hunt.

Why are we drawn to the sport? Why do we enjoy it so much? The answer is simple... and astounding: if we didn't, we wouldn't have survived.

More to come...


Anonymous said...

and the thrusting spear older yet, and the found stones, simple unaltered manuports, ultimately hurled or wielded to bash and some charms, even older still.

they tried to say that love is fleeting and that stone tools last forever but I don't believe that.

the social aspect of hunting is often looked down upon by some who fancy themselves as elite and progressive. their prejudice is better because they progressed rooted from their supposed wisdom which is the foundation of their elitism. its the kind of culture that has a small c - as if it ever needed to be stated as such in the first place. the elitist is always trumped by the purist, though.

there's magic in the tragic, keep on rolling thunder!


Calvini said...

thank god you've written again, brother.

i'm sick of faking being smart.

qualia said...

Mike: thanks for reading, man.

Brother: I'm sick of faking intelligence too. And the funny.