Monday, May 20, 2013

Fred-dom isn't Dom: A Case for Ostracism

We were circling Hains when I noticed him up ahead.  "Superfred," I said to those around, nodding toward the cyclist in the same way ancient residents of the Holy Land once noticed lepers.

To Americans outside the fold of serious bike riding, little distinguished Superfred and any of the rest of us.  We have in common tight clothes, we ride on bikes, and we wear helmets.  Pressed, the uninitiated may note the cone-shaped aero helmet Superfred wore, or his sleeveless jersey.  Maybe very deep carbon wheels.  Trained observers of human behavior may note a ready combativeness, an aggressiveness directed toward strangers.

A fred, I've come to believe after years of pontification, is simply a poseur--a bike rider who wishes to be mistaken for a bike racer.

Freds have always been a part of our sport, and of our society.  They coast more blithely through society and hobbies like triathlon and your 10K fun runs because nobody notices them and nobody cares.

A sport like bike racing, for some reason (a reason I'll get to later), makes a point of drawing a precise line between poseurs and real bike racers.  Even the Wall Street Journal (in a recent article inevitably tied to that greatest of all poseurs, Lance Armstrong) noticed the noticing.  There's a peculiar way cyclists enforce a strict code of conduct:  "if runners are rebels," the Journal states, "cyclists are conformists."

Cycling in America has until recently, the demographics wizards down at the WSJ argue, been driven by a strict sartorial code set up by Lance and his ethos:  precise fashion requirements, "scoldings" for violations.  Lance's fall has sparked a backlash against this fascist code, with one blogger, new to the sport, being so upset with the "scoldings" that she grew afraid.

But the tide is turning!  These poor, intimidated freds have had enough!  They've bundled the fight against doping against the fight for fred-dom!  You shall not crucify me on this Performance brand cross of hugely unnecessary tool bags, gel packs, and golden helmet mirrors!

Rejoice, oh fred!  The WSJ has declared a coup d'etat on cycling mores.

You are free to don baggy, sure-to-rub-the-crotch raw attire; draw those helmet straps blithely over sunglasses and let them hang loose so as to let the helmet flop ever' which way; select thy shirts and shorts with not a care for safety or performance, but out of pure expressionistic ardor and laziness;  and--this is my favorite WSJ recommendation for us to express our fred-dom--go out and buy some Rapha.

That's right, freds.  A Rapha spokesperson himself claims that Rapha is a key to fred-dom.  "You don't have to wear a pointy helmet and space suit to ride a bike," a brand spokesperson purrs.  That's right, only a few grand on wool undies and you're free of Lance's tyranny.

There are two--what I would argue are conflicting--claims here:

Claim 1:  The new, cool thing is to not be too concerned about what you wear on a bike.  Total freedom, dude;
Claim 2:  The new, cool thing is to wear $65 undies and a $450 rain cape (i.e., Rapha).

You see the problem.   It's the very WSJ tie-in to a brand and an attempt to sell us on non-cycling cycling gear that gets me.

I can get behind claim 1.  Cycling shouldn't be just about racing style and fashion, and it largely has been.  Every American should ride a bike.  Just as we don't let NASCAR inform our car choices, the average American shouldn't let Lance Armstrong inform our bike choices.

And in DC, more people are riding, and, thankfully, ignoring Lance Armstrong and the idea of racing a bike.  Most people on bikes are just getting around.  They're neither bike racers nor freds pretending to be bike racers.

But freds still exist, and we're still hard on them.

This gets back to the earlier point about why?  Why are we such dicks to folks in mismatched Lampre kits?  Why is Captain Katusha a worrisome figure?
Strava God, Captain Katusha
Why do we care about what strangers wear or ride?

We care because cycling is a tribal sport for a reason--we rely on those in the pack to have skills.  Our skin and our lives depend on them having the sense to steer right, to pay attention, to maintain their equipment.

When we spot a loose helmet strap or a mismatched kit or a pair of undies peaking out the back of Performance shorts, or a bandana under a hat under a helmet, or a fat guy in an aero helmet and a sleeveless shirt on Zipp 808s on a Thursday at Hains--our scorn is not just the equivalent of Project Runway, sneering at the stitching.

It's about sensing danger and ineptitude.  It's about sensing poseurs.

Bands often place riders in contracts--ridiculous demands buried deep within contracts with theaters to ensure theaters provided everything needed.  It's a test.  If Van Halen showed up backstage and noticed brown M&Ms in the M&M bowl, it was a sign that the theater didn't read the contract, and that there might be other, more substantial problems.

In the same way, bike racers use petty stipulations about helmet straps and kit coordination to predict:  how safe is it to ride with this guy?

And I don't think this is totally baseless.

Like it or not, degree of conformity, in this case, may be a predictor of experience.  The longer a guy rides in the peleton, the more he is likely to conform: to shave his legs, to wear a team kit, to do all the little things that let others know, "hey, I'm not a danger to you."

The military drill of cleanliness and attention to detail and meaningless ritual is based on the same correlation between accouterments and reliability.  

The degree to which a person shows up at a group ride or a bike race and ignores convention suggests a disregard for the group, and this, in turn, suggests danger.  Some element of the safety of the pack is based on it turning and rotating and riding together, even if in the end it is a race.

That doesn't make us conformists, as the Journal suggests; it just makes the rules of the race that much more baroque.  Those who confuse that complexity for complication don't get it.

And if that's you, fine.  Go ride your bike.  Just stay away from me.

1 comment:

CGM said...

This reminds me the guy next to me at the Greenbelt C race last week: he was wearing tidy whities under his shorts. He scared the crap out of me and I proceeded to move as far away from him as possible. As you indicated: I instantly perceived him as being a dangerous person next to whom ride my bike.

I believe that wearing undies is a worse (aka, scarier) offense than not shaving legs. But that's my personal opinion.