Thursday, July 21, 2011

Two Ways of Seeing Bike Racing

I'm at work, but right now, on the other side of the world, the world's best cyclists are climbing three HC climbs. I don't know what's happening, but I'm dealing with the usual requests from friends, also at work, for live streaming video feeds. My oldest brother, whose vocational future rests on his finishing his dissertation, has spent the morning anxiously combing the web for feeds--future be damned!

The suspense of this year's edition has, in my opinion, made it one of the best Tours in recent memory. In contrast to the Giro, whose tension resolved early in the race, none of the contests in the Tour have yet been decided.

Last night it was almost 100 degrees at the start of Greenbelt. When the whistle blew, I suddenly put in a 1,000 watt sprint to get off the front. I was flying, for about five minutes, then the heat became too much to rid myself of, and I had to stop and adjust my front brake. Catching back on put me over the edge; as the race went on I began to sweat so profusely that my feet were wet. My shoes are still soaked this morning. Five were away, and the meaningless sprint for sixth simply petered out, and we all rolled in, blank-faced. The discord of the race never resolved, for me at least.

It makes me think of Leonard Meyer and his analysis of the fifth movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp minor. I'm not a highbrown guy, mostly, but Meyer offers an interesting explanation for why we like music that is applicable to bike racing. Meyer looks at fifty measures of Beethoven's piece. He finds that Beethoven never repeats himself throughout; although he often returns to the same chords and motiffs, they are not exactly the same chords and motiffs. Beethoven establishes a pattern, alters it slightly, alters it again, and so forth. He never returns to the tonic--the chord that anchors the piece--until the very end.

In the same way that narratives remain unfinished until the final sentence, good music, Meyer argues, keeps our attention by suspending resolution until the final note.

Other music theorists say we enjoy music because it is "connotative;" that is, it refers to the real world of images and experiences. The growl of Hubert Sumlin's overdriven slide guitar--run backwards through an old tape deck--on the old Chicago blues track, for example, sounds like the post-war machinery of the factories and engines of industrial American cities. We like Chicago blues because it sounds like our world, but ordered and controlled instead of chaotic.

But Meyers argues we find beauty in music, in the words of Jonah Lehrer, from "the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations)."

How the Tour resolves will determine its worth, and therefore its beauty. Although music is usually planned (musicians read it from pages) and bike races are usually not, the aesthetic effect is the same: unanswered questions compel the action and spur our brains to pay attention. To say, "this is beautiful!"

Applied to a bike race on the screen, viewed in the same way as a painting, this is straightforward, but when you're part of the action, it's a bit more complicated. When is the resolution? There is no end to bike racing. There are little ends, finish lines.

One way to measure the beauty of your own bike racing is to isolate its action to the race. You attack, you get dropped, you hit the finish line, it's over. That has the advantage of resembling the confined action of paintings and music: it happens within a frame, within the 50 measures of the song.

Another way is to see bike like life itself--a pattern which never repeats precisely, full of individual races. The beginning and end are, of course, quite definite: birth and death. To celebrate the beauty of bike racing in this way is to celebrate the many questions and failures, to not see any single finish line as the end. But it's also to race and ride in uncertainty, since the finish line is unknown.

The latter has the advantage of paralleling life, and I guess you could say it might be healthier to think of your bike racing in this way, since it doesn't single out moments in time to glorify/lament. Maybe--and this is hopefully the point of bike racing--it helps you see life better rather than to just escape it. To embrace not only the little resolutions that come, but are not final, but to continue all the way to the line.

Even if it's a line we don't want to cross.

"To life," toasts Stanley Tucci in The Imposters, "and its many deaths." From a bike racer who has died on a bike many times, this rings true.


Tim Rugg said...

Bravo Kevin - this is wonderful work. Thanks for the read.

Stephen Mull said...

You are a phenomenal writer and thinker. I always enjoy reading this blog. Thanks!

Too Slow said...

... even when you're wildly overthinking! Just kidding, great blog, blah blah blah.

So did you see your picture gracing the XO ad in the official Tour of Utah brochure? Good thing you happened to jump on that particular XO-Harley brake.

Too Slow said...

Goddamit -- *break*

Calvini said...

Thanks for the love, fellas. I steal things I think are profound from smarter people too lazy to write things down.

Yeah, TS, I saw my picture. Yes, those guns are not photoshopped.