Title: The Art of Cycling – Philosophy, Meaning and a Life on Two Wheels
Author: James Hibbard
Publisher: Quercus (UK) l Pegasus (US)
Year: 2022 (UK) l 2023 (US)
Order: Quercus (UK) l Simon & Schuster (US)
What it is: A cycling memoir that challenges traditional views of the sport while taking the reader on a journey through two and a half thousand years of Western philosophy
Strengths: It’s rare for a cycling book to challenge the reader to reassess central tenets of what some claim it means to be a cyclist
Weaknesses: In places it is tempting to lose sight of the big picture and focus on the detail
I saw his name with a hundred more
In a book in the library,
It said he had never fully achieved
~ Patrick Kavanagh
Cycling is a difficult sport. Forget all the exceptionalist blather about whether it’s more or less difficult than other sports, just focus on the simple reality: cycling is a difficult sport. One of the difficulties comes in how easy it is to get washed out early, regardless of your talent. Doping has washed so many potential stars out of the sport. Sexism has washed so many potential stars out of the sport. Racism has washed so many potential stars out of the sport.
What happens to those the sport spits out early? What, even, of those who make a go of it but find their careers over and they have become thirty-something retirees? Having dedicated themselves to the sport, cycling having become the core of their identity, central to how the world sees them and how they see themselves, what happens when they cease being cyclists?
For James Hibbard – who rode track for the US and raced in the pro ranks with a couple of conti squads – he turned to philosophy, having already found himself drawn to the subject earlier in his youth:
I’d first heard about Nietzsche several years before reading him seriously. In Nietzsche, I found a thinker who was unlike anything I’d ever encountered – and one who further cemented my sense that philosophy was at least as important to me as cycling. […] A thinker who lauded the high mountains, and extolled the virtues of bravery, fresh air, and physical effort, there is simply no thinker better suited to the sport of cycling than Friedrich Nietzsche.
Born at the start of the eighties, cycling had first made its impact on Hibbard a dozen years later, as the era of Greg LeMond began to fade into the stuff of history books:
The epitome of the forbidden sort of freedom I craved, I vividly remember being in middle school, walking to the periphery of the schoolyard and watching through the chain-linked fence, transfixed as a cycling team made its way down the wide boulevard in the slipstream of their team car. This would be my way out; my way to free myself from a future of sitting in traffic and of jobs that no adult seemed to like – my way out of the pain and stupidity that seemed to infect everything and everyone. I imagined hour after hour on open roads, and of being good enough to be exempt from the pointless and arbitrary rules imposed on children.
Hibbard turned out to be a talented rider, winning state championships and making it onto the US Olympic track programme. Narrowly missing out on selection for the sprint team in Melbourne, he tried transitioning to the road but by then was all but burned out, a decade having already spent pushing his body to compete. At the same time, the the spectre of doping was exposing the corruption at the heart of elite cycling:
None of us will ever know who the real champions might have been. The apparently successful ones – the ones you’ve heard of – were simply those most willing to sacrifice their very identity for the validation of a thoroughly corrupt system. I used to be angry, but now I’m mostly sad – cheater and cheated alike – for everyone who had the misfortune of being involved.
Disillusioned with the sport, Hibbard took a job in Google’s marketing department. He also set an eye on a future in academia, teaching philosophy.
Philosophy had once been a way of bonding with his father, who had studied the subject at Stanford:
With a knowing wink and nod – You understand none of this is really real? – philosophy was our secret language and in many ways my father was philosophy. Understanding it was understanding him, and when we talked about feelings, they were always distant and abstract, but when we talked about ideas, they were immediate and palpable.
Philosophy offered Hibbard a chance to make sense of his father – who by this stage had walked out on his family – as well as to make sense of the world. In The Art of Cycling, he uses it as a way for us to make sense of him, taking us on a path through two and a half thousand years of Western philosophy – from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond – as he undertakes a three-day ride down California’s Pacific coastline with two friends, themselves both former pros.
Philosophers, by and large, are not renowned for their physical engagement with the world. Apart from their writings, in fact, they tend to leave very little physical impact on the world. A few of them do seem to have been drawn to mountains and I could probably go off on one about those great cathedrals in the sky and why they should attract the likes of Nietzsche and Heidegger. But let me instead briefly go off on one about Bertrand Russell.
Russell was one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. He is also a staple of cycling miscellanies, always popping up in the anecdote about George Bernard Shaw ploughing into him one day when the pair were out cycling in the early years of the diamond-framed safety cycle. Russell, it’s said, stopped to read a road sign and Shaw rear-ended him, the Man and Superman playwright flying through the air a good five metres before crashing to earth while the absent minded philosopher – I know that’s a cliché but that’s the way we tell the story – is said to have somehow escaped the incident without a scratch, save for a tear in his trousers.
Less well known is the story Russell told in his autobiography of realising one day while out cycling that he was no longer in love with his wife. Philosophers in general not being men of action, it’ll come as not a surprise to learn that it took the man a full decade to leave his wife. In the end, the two had a blazing row when he admitted to an affair and, after his wife stormed off, Russell gave a lesson in Locke’s philosophy to her niece before mounting his bicycle and riding off, not to see his wife again for another four decades.
Many a modern philosopher would have a field day with an experience like that, use it to illustrate some point about emotions and motion or some such. Russell, save for one reference to cycling as something that can be learned, like speech, his cycling and philosophical selves were firmly separate.
The point being illustrated here is that even when philosophers engage with the world the same way we do, in their writings they tend to reject that world in favour of something more abstracted.
That in itself does not render philosophy irrelevant to most of us. You only have to look at the ways in which philosophy occupies important redoubts in contemporary culture to see its importance. The Matrix goes from Plato’s Cave to Baudrillard’s Desert of the Real and turned a lot of people on to the writings of Slavoj Žižek. For four seasons The Good Place served up a weekly diet of laughs, warmth and moral philosophy. Without philosophers, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might not have made it past page 41. And even five years after it first came out Robert Newman – the Newman of Newman and Baddiel and once one quarter of the Mary Whitehouse Experience – still makes me laugh with his four-part radio series, Total Eclipse of Descartes. Philosophy can be fun.
Philosophy also has some current importance, given the manner in which Silicon Valley’s tech bros have fallen for ideas like the singularity and effective altruism or the notion of Plato’s Data Centre. Hibbard argues in The Art of Cycling that our wired world has already seen us subsume our public, private and secret selves into our social media self, but what’s round the corner is even scarier still.
There’s a lot to unpick in The Art of Cycling as it weaves together its three narrative strands. One important thread is Nietzsche’s injunction to become who you are, to create yourself:
The months and years of training as an athlete are often not appreciated as the truly radical act of self-creation and will that they are. As Nietzsche said: ‘We however, want to become who we are – human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!’ In many ways this is the pinnacle of human will and action. Against the current of complacency and biological instinct, you impose your will and make the promise to yourself to become who you are intended to be. Every training ride was motivated by my desire to recreate myself, to adapt and change not just physically, but to mould myself into someone who could mentally endure more and more.
That is a notion that seems on the surface to be very much in keeping with the myth of the American Dream, the self-made man. It also fits the myth of cycling success, where the winner simply wanted it more, worked for it harder.
But one problem with it is illustrated by F Scott Fitzgerald:
Throughout his work [Fitzgerald] understands that it is only after having achieved material success that the American psyche is willing to confront the deeper issues of what a good life might consist of. In a nation which has always been obsessed with doing, progress, and achievement, existential questions are held in a strange sort of abeyance – After x, y, or z has been achieved, then I can think about what my life has meant. By depicting the affluent however, Fitzgerald removed all the practicalities and material striving which stop so many from ever confronting ultimate issues. Revealing himself to be an existentialist on par with de Beauvoir or Camus, Fitzgerald writes of the autobiographical protagonist Amory Blaine in his 1920 debut, This Side of Paradise, ‘it was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.’
The idea of becoming who you are – when reduced to a soundbite – can also appear to open the door to destiny. Taken with Hibbard’s personal story – his family’s history of mental health issues and suicide, depicted by Hibbard in brief glimpses of family stories – that, surely, is a door some must fear opening.
But the soundbite version of Nietzsche’s injunction misses its meaning:
As Nietzsche writes of the path toward selfhood:
‘one must not have the faintest notion of what one is … The whole surface of consciousness – for consciousness is a surface – must be kept clear of all great imperatives. Beware even of every great word, every great pose! So many dangers that the instinct comes too soon to ‘understand itself’.’
All too often, the notions of self which compel success ‘come far too soon’ – born from wounds and desires only barely understood and on some level, ambitious people always believe that there will be some point in the future when the internal tension is resolved and the ideal of who they want to be will square with reality. More often than not, this point never comes.
Ultimately, for Hibbard, both cycling and philosophy over-promised and under-delivered. His cycling ambitions were supposed to be a source of validation, philosophical inquiry was meant to provide meaning. In eventually coming to understand where each failed him, Hibbard came to understand anew the potentialities of cycling.
Less a love letter to the sport, The Art of Cycling is more one of those encounters with an ex where you realise you still enjoy one and other’s company and you’re happy to be friends. Platonic friends.
The Art of Cycling is an ambitious book. In places it is tempting to lose sight of the big picture and focus on the detail: this philosophical concept or that, the doping aspect, the family history, the ride down from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo through storied places like Big Sur. There are times when the big picture can seem tantalisingly out of grip, somewhere beyond the forest of detail.
That last strand, the Kerouac-like road trip, while it is important in the way it illustrates some key points (particularly cycling as a form of art and art as something that can go where philosophy can’t), it still seems a little bit forced: as Emily Chappell pointed out in Where There’s a Will, there can be a certain falsity in the way such narratives build to a pat ending.
Those criticisms aside, few chamois memoirs – chamoirs – offer the reader as much food for thought, as many rewarding possibilities, as The Art of Cycling does. Its ambition takes it so far beyond the acres of anecdotes and unenlightening insights usually served up in these books. For me, it’s up there with Pedro Horillo’s Amigo in the way it takes you to places you might otherwise not have explored. It really is, as Paul Kimmage blurbs it, an exceptional read.