The probable (but unconfirmed) departure of Wout Van Aert from the Ronde van Vlaanderen startlist was a shock to the cycling world today. Van Aert was just about everyone’s pick to win, to the extent that I was having trouble mustering the energy to write a post about who the favorites are. It was just that obvious. Now? I have no idea, except to say that we all will have lost a great edition of Flanders if he can’t make it.
But anyway, seismic events like this can be very triggering for cycling fans, so I thought it would be useful to look at what we are supposed to do with this news. To those out there struggling to get a hold on their feelings, this post has some recommendations of how you might choose to process the news. It turns out, there are a lot of options! And not just the religious structure that your parents foisted on you.
Let’s briefly look at a few of the philosophical systems out there and how they might help you confront your frustration with Van Aert missing Flanders.
Buddhism: Deal With It
I have dabbled a bit in Buddhism, so I only know enough to be dangerous, but I think this is an excellent match for confronting anything relating to cycling. First, the wheel occupies a central role in both arenas, symbolizing perfection of the Dharma (the rim) as well as the Eightfold Path to enlightenment (the spokes); while in cycling it’s... similarly indispensable. Oh, and those spokes are collectively just one of the Four Noble Truths, the first of those being that all life is suffering. And what cyclist wouldn’t agree with that?
The cure, said the Buddha, is to use meditation to examine the cause of your suffering as a way to letting it go. This is great advice for most of life. But if you think I am going to just let go of anything relating to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, then we have a problem. Also when Buddhists say that all life is suffering, they are implying that suffering is bad, which gets cyclists and cycling fans into somewhat of a grey area. So while I can strongly recommend Buddhism in general, I don’t think it works here.
Voltaire: Certainty is Absurd
Not satisfied with ancient wisdom? How about something from the Age of Enlightenment? And who better than to try out than Voltaire? Not only was he French, and therefore probably knew his way around a bike race, but he was the patron of 18th century European philosophy, a sort of Anquetil type combining versatility, greatness, and a dash of wit.
One of his signature contributions to modern thinking is the idea that anything can be challenged; that the certainty of any idea is itself absurd. We aren’t born knowing anything for certain, and the stuff we have come up with, with the exception of certain tenets of math and science, are little more than hypotheses. Sure, we like to fall back on certainty to relieve us from the innately stressful nature of doubt. But it’s a fool’s errand.
Can that help us get through Sunday’s race? I think it has some value. For example, in Van Aert’s absence, we fall back on the certainty of van der Poel winning, the certainty of which is easily disprovable by simply looking back to the most recent edition of De Ronde. That helps, right? I mean, the central problem with Van Aert being out (if that is how things go) is that the race will be dull. But we don’t know that. I am starting to feel better.
Karma: It’s Probably Something He Did
There are a few systems which like to use some form of causation to help understand the things that happen. In Judaism, which I married into and understand a little of, there is a general acceptance of the need to atone for transgressions against God. This is the whole point of Yom Kippur. Practicing Jews vary in degree as to how much causation they ascribe to God making things unpleasant and your having displeased God to begin with, but regardless, if you don’t like what just happened, the solution starts with being better.
Karma is another word for this sort of causation, and it’s a concept that cuts across several religions which sprung from the land now known as India, with varying explanations. But setting aside the “you deserved it, asshole!” version most westerners fall back on, what it is usually thought to mean is that if something happens to you, it is literally caused, however indirectly, by something you did.
So did Wout do this to himself? Assuming he has some sort of (non-COVID) virus, sure, he goes hither and yon and eventually inhales air that was expelled by a sick person. Also he’s the father of a very young child, so he is looking at a few years of catching every flu virus in Belgium.
But that’s not super helpful. Maybe it would be better to ask... Did we do this to ourselves? Did our love of or need for Wout to be awesome to dominating, did we somehow send this all in the wrong direction?
What About God?
Lots to unpack here. Plenty of monotheistic religions just ascribe everything to the Big Guy Upstairs, or all around us, or wherever you want to put him. [Or her, if you want to drag this conversation out of the 13th century.] Even the philosophers of the last two millennia have frequently riffed off of the whole God concept. And the relevant point here is, to what extent is this God’s will?
Certain tenets of Christianity and Islam, among others, would ascribe everything to God. Insh’Allah, they say in Arabic. Did God’s will bring that droplet of flu into Wout’s lungs? For a lot of people (me included), ascribing the will of God to sports outcomes is religion at its worst. The counterargument, though, is to look at the universe around us and think, whoever is responsible for it, I wouldn’t put anything past them!
So if you are a devoted adherent to one of those religions that explains everything as God’s will, then you probably need not look any further for explanation or comfort. That’s the whole point of this view, right? Letting go of the possibility of alternative explanations and the duty to go looking for them? It’s a powerful concept, according to literally billions of people.
But there are philosophers who have batted around some of these ideas further. St. Augustine, for example, was among the first to ask, if God is so powerful, why is there evil in the world? This question is precisely on point for probably half of Catholic Belgium right now. But is the answer? St. Augustine theorized that God only created all the good things. To the extent there are bad things, it’s due to a void in the good that God created. Mankind was given free will, and while God made all sorts of good available to Man, like Campagnolo Record components and the waffles at that place in Ellezelles, he also gave humans the free will to buy cheap components and stale snacks.
The weakness in applying this concept to sickness was pointed out by David Hume, an 18-century Scottish philosopher, who thought it was pretty lame to just call sickness “the absence of health,” which it is. [Hume espoused the concept of “custom” as a dominant explanation for most things that we accept as fact but don’t really have any evidence for, like “the sun will rise tomorrow.” Will it?]
If you want to stick with “God” here, you might follow the thinking of Benedictus Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch (!) thinker, who dispensed with the Augustinian distinction and said you can call everything “God,” as long as you acknowledge that “God” is simply a synonym for the universal substance of which everything is made. In Judaism, God tends to be without substance — a concept best described by Rabbi Moses Maimonedes. Which is an awesome name. Once you accept that God isn’t an old white dude with a long beard, Sistine Chapel be damned, then you can associate the word with all that surrounds us.
Applying this to Wout’s predicament, then, I guess you really just need to ask, do I want to pass on responsibility to God? If no, then move on. If yes, then you have to pick a version of God who would to this to him/us. The Big Guy in the Sky version is for sure the most convenient, whereas the God=matter version probably doesn’t help at all. So Wout caught a virus, which is a cellular organism, and is also God, so therefore... I give up.
He Who Has the Most is Content With the Least
Are we thinking of the problem all wrong? Is this even a cause for regret? Why are we suffering at all?
We are suffering because we want our best athletes to be decorated accordingly, and there is a pretty good chance that Van Aert agrees with this concept. However, Diogenes espoused the idea that happiness comes from the very opposite, that he who has the fewest Earthly attributes is likeliest to live a life in rhythm with the nature of things, free from the conventions of civilized society.
As a cyclist, the one thing you can say about Wout is that he has the most. As great as van der Poel is, when it comes to the Tour de France, the pinnacle of cycling, it is Van Aert who has the broadest skillset, who strikes out on his own when asked to do so by his team, but who also delivers the ultimate satisfaction by shepherding his leader to somewhere close to if not into the maillot jaune.
Is he therefore content with not winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen this year? Maybe, but I doubt it. Should you be content with him not winning, given how great a teammate he is in the long run? Maybe... you can try.
Denial is Just a River In Egypt
I’m not hugely into counterfactualism, but maybe you are. Or wish you were. Well, now is a great time to try it out. For instance, Jumbo-Visma simply said that he is “unlikely” to start at Flanders. So maybe they are just sandbagging! Or maybe he can just take some asprin and a cold compress and be right as rain! Maybe this is all just premature April Fool’s Day nonsense!
Good luck with that. Let me know Sunday how it worked out for you.
Dylanism: Keep On Keepin On
For a lot of us, this is the only thing we know how to do. While the Book of Bob might be an American standard, the idea comes from numerous sources. Buddhism is all about not perpetuating the suffering you may be experiencing over this. Covered that already. Another entrant here would be Sufism. As expressed by Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Rumi in the 13th century, life just works in a cyclical nature so that what is lost now will return in the future, the cycle of death and rebirth being ongoing. Life flows endlessly over time.
My question is, does this apply to Wout himself or just his 2022 cobbled classics ambitions? If the former, I guess we could simply think of how the cycle of great cobbled classics riders keeps repeating itself with each generation. Tom Boonen may still be with us, but his career has died, only to be reborn as one of either Matti or Wout. If the latter, I guess that’s a way of saying that the demise of his Ronde plans just means that Wout’s hopes will be reborn in 2023. Or maybe at Paris-Roubaix!
OK, I hope that was a useful exercise. I don’t really know ... anything, but I do know that the Ronde van Vlaanderen is rolling out of Antwerp Sunday with whoever is able to make it there, and one way or another, it will be a sight to behold. Let’s do what we can to make the best of it.