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Friedrich Nietzsche and the Sport of Cycling

Turns out that Nietzsche and cycling have a lot in common. Image contains: an image from the Zwift Insider website, writing on the pavement, a virtual backdrop.

This one gets personal

I think a lot about cycling, but I’ve been recently thinking a lot about the mental aspect of cycling. I keep getting reminded of this quote:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right” – Henry Ford

While I certainly don’t consider myself to be some kind of incredible or amazing cyclist, I am quite introspective. I’m always looking inward at myself, trying to be open to thoughts or criticism from others, while also always trying to improve myself in any way that I can.

Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I love the sport of cycling. Let me explain.

Cycling is 90% Mental

I had an early experience into my cycling career that I will never forget. I was actually living in Orange County at the time, but was doing a contract job up in Burbank for a few months. Somehow I had managed to walk into a gig where I was renting two separate places for a few months on the cheap. So I would actually truck myself and all my things up to LA for the week, sleep on an air mattress, then head home on Friday afternoon to go spend the weekend riding my bike with my friends.

One day, I eventually got the nerve to bring all my bike stuff up to LA with me. I mean, why not? I had already done part of the bike trail around near Griffith Park as part of the LA River Ride a few months earlier, and besides, I knew what I was doing!

I planned out the ride, I got up early (no easy feat for me, I’ll add), and even drove my things over closer towards the parking lot that I previously had started from in the past. I remember being groggy, tired, and seriously asked myself many times on the way over “why am I doing this?”, while also simultaneously responding with “well, you have all your stuff, and you said you would, so you should.” I mean, normal stuff, I suppose.

Celebrity gif unsure as to whether they are prepared

Except that once I got to riding, my mind got the best of me. I started really focusing on the things that I hadn’t done or hadn’t quite fully prepared myself for. Turns out that it was darker outside than what I had thought, and the light I had with me was nearly done. I was in Los Angeles, a place that I thought was about as anti-bike and pro-car as possible. Further, it was cold (relatively speaking), and I didn’t have a formal route loaded into my Garmin, nor was I familiar with the first part of the route first-hand.

A few minutes into riding, I started to really psyche myself out. I was on a road that looked huge and had no formal bike lane, making me wonder if the morning commute was going to suddenly show up behind me and run me off the road. I also found myself no longer recognizing things based on what I had scouted out on Google Maps. I thought I was in a bad section of town, and even ended up on a sidewalk on the opposite side of the street going the wrong direction. You know…anxiety.

Gandalf saying he has no memory of this place

I specifically remember a moment where, when I stopped finally to gather myself and my bearings, I almost forgot to unclip out. I imagined myself falling over in this crazy area. I don’t know if I was hyperventilating or not (it’s not something I really do), but I certainly wasn’t enjoying my morning.

The funny thing about all of this, though, is that I regathered myself, found the bike trail I wanted to head back north on (the one I had already been on previously), watched the sun come up a bit more, and enjoyed the rest of the ride, generally speaking. I recorded the ride, but I basically made no mention of the mental struggle and difficulty I had that morning. At the time, I didn’t feel like that was a ride I could be proud of myself for having done.

Needless to say, I went to work that morning with a lot of introspective questions on my mind, some of which had answers, some of which did not.

I eventually realized that riding, often kind of like life, is really more about how we mentally approach it than what we physically do with it.

Important Lessons from Reddit

I’ve also recently been glued to Reddit, and something there further convinced me that I needed to write about this subject. From the cycling subreddit, I found this post that really captured some similar thoughts that I have had for some time now.

This person wrote about a recent experience that paralleled my botched adventure a bit. They had a more positive note at the end of it than I did, however, making the connection from riding your bike to life in general. Their main points that I want to emphasize here are:

“When you’re going through hell, keep going”

This person had initially started the ride feeling terribly and wanted to go home right from the start. Instead, they pushed through. Mentally, I’ll add. If they had not, they would not have experienced an amazing tailwind towards the end of their ride, which left them with “one of the best bike rides they had had in months”.

“Pain, no matter how bad, will subside in time”

Of course this doesn’t mean to ride with bad form or to push through legitimately painful experiences that could leave you with injuries! But mentally, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment, thinking that the current “pain” you’re feeling will never go away. In reality, it absolutely will. And you’ll nearly always be better off for having gone through it.

“Life is a journey, not a destination”

We’ve all heard this before, but sometimes the best rides on the bike are not the fastest. They’re often then ones that you enjoyed due to the scenery, the companionship, or simply just being there enjoying the moment. Life is absolutely similar.

Cyclists climbing up the Wall during the Tour of the Unknown Coast bike ride in 2019

The above was taken during the 2019 Tour of the Unknown Coast, a fascinating ride that also surprises you with a 15% grade about 80 miles in to a 100 mile century. That day, I saw people using the “paperboy technique” to zigzag across the road just to get up it.

Sometimes, life is just like this. Brutal. Tough. You can even see it coming. You may also be complaining about the horrific offshore wind that’s slowing you down and draining your energy. But the ride was also one of the most beautiful rides I’ve done, which included riding down the Avenue of the Giants. Frankly, it’s quite a fond memory.

Cyclist riding through the Avenue of the Giants near Ferndale, California

Riding with Nietzsche

I’m really new to Nietzsche. Philosophy is not necessarily an area of study I dive into the scholarly aspects of, at least not that often. I’ve found his name coming up more recently with current political events, and I got to thinking - with someone who has so much to say about the state of our lives, is there any connection he has to the cycling community? Or perhaps is there any kind of inspiration we can draw upon from his work?

Turns out, yes, there is.

Guillaume Martin

Back in 2017, Peloton Magazine did an interview article on Guillaume Martin, a pro cyclist currently riding with Team Cofidis. What makes him unique is not only that he’s a great rider, but has a master’s degree in philosophy - not something that has been terribly common among the pro peloton over the years.

Despite the formatting not quite rendering well on a web browser, you can find the full text here.

Guillaume “…maintains that the philosophy of Nietzsche allowed us to speak about sports in a more accurate way than that of Pierre de Coubertin.” I had to look Coubertin up, but he is essentially attributed as the founder of modern Olympic sports. His focus was around “fair play, equality, and importance of participating.”

I’ve always enjoyed competition among my peers, and being faster or “better” in some objective way is definitely something I think all of us strive for, generally speaking. I think back on the schoolyard playground when I would run from the blacktop out to the back fence and back, no easy feat for us as third graders. I took immense pride at being very regularly third in the whole class, behind two other friends of mine who both were avid soccer players all throughout their early years. I also respected their athletic prowess and saw it as a driving force to push myself more the next time we did this run.

Children running along the grass towards some green trees

Guillaume wrote a thesis paper called “Applying Nietzsche in Modern Day Sports”, and while I haven’t found the text of it published online yet, there doesn’t seem to be too much else on the subject. At least not yet. The part that the Peloton article quoted that really stuck out to me was:

“For me, Nietzche is the real father of modern sport. Nietzsche, of course, has often been misinterpreted in history, but I focused several aspects like the desire to push one’s limits, which really comes from Nietzsche. Obviously there are adversaries in sports but, in general, they are simply a part of the means to an end, because our adversaries help us push ourselves further. Victory is the result of our ability to push ourselves. And winning is always a bigger objective than beating our adversaries. My interpretation of Nietzche’s philosophy in sports is not about the domination of others, but rather pushing one’s personal limits."

Some interesting food for thought there. If you ascribe to Guillaume’s perspective, Nietzsche perhaps would argue that sports may actually be less about competing against your peers or your rivals, and perhaps more about competing against yourself.

I think a lot of us avid cyclists know this, some more so than others, but I think ruminating on this may be beneficial. When we get tired, are we actually tired, or are we just mentally done and want to throw in the towel? When the weather is bad outside, do we decide against doing that event you’ve prepared and trained for or do we push through and do it anyway?

Sandwich consumed during the Cool Breeze Century in 2015

It may just be a picture of a sandwich, but it was my lunch during one of the most difficult rides I have ever done, somewhat early in my cycling journey. The day was 85+ degrees with extremely high humidity, we were lagging behind pace, had some mechanicals, and the rest stops were closing up just as we managed to get to them. This was all that they had for us that day, and I honestly can still remember how this thing tasted.

We had many opportunities that day to stop our bikes, call it a day, and take the van back to the starting line. But we stuck with it and finished that day, triumphant. It was my first double metric century.

Many cyclists race and I think are more intimately familiar with the relationship they have with themselves, but I think the whole topic provides for a lot of deep thinking that can extend to other parts of our lives. Do we keep pushing ourselves forward when things get tough? Do we pass on the new job opportunity because we already know our current job and feel safe within its boundaries? Do we artificially put blockades in our way when we consider approaching a new friend of potential romantic interest? What SAG opportunities are we prematurely taking if we don’t think we can do something?

You are your own worst enemy

That sounds a bit negative upon first read, but I tend to think on this a lot and see it from a more positive slant. Similar to the mental effort we expel during physically demanding events or situations, it’s at the darkest moments where we often become our own worst enemy. This can come in the form of “I wish I wasn’t out here” or “why did I leave my warm and comfortable bed this morning?” or even “there’s no way I can climb that hill.”

But flip this around on its head - if you know that these thoughts are coming from you, can’t you simply take control of those thoughts, turn them around, and let them work in you to give you hope instead of inspire dread?

How about “wow, that’s a crazy hill, let’s see how it goes” or “I’ve trained for this, I know I can do this as long as I’m patient with myself”. Maybe instead of thinking about all those riders who are passing you, think more on “this is the pace I’ve set, and chances are I’ll catch up to them later”.

Cyclist riding through old town Girona, Spain

The picture above was one of the few sunny pictures I have of me on my bicycle riding in Girona, Spain in 2018. We arrived during a cold snap of weather, along with an unusual amount of rain considering the area and time of year. To top it off, I had somehow forgotten my arm and leg warmers! But I was in Europe with my buddy and a good group of people as part of a Trek Travel adventure, so I forced myself to stay positive, despite the blockades that were physically in my way. I think it really was one of the first times of my cycling career where I didn’t grumble and get down and out about the weather. Perhaps it was a masochistic moment that I used to my advantage.

And you know what? It was one of the best trips of my life, despite the cold and the wet. I dream of going back quite often. And possibly even moving there one day to just enjoy the Spanish paisaje.

Cyclist climbing to the light at the top of Cap de Formentor in Mallorca, Spain

Speaking of masochistic tendencies that cyclists share, in the year prior, I went on my first Trek Travel adventure and I experienced exhaustion to an extent I had never previously thought possible.

We were in Mallorca, Spain, one of the Balearic Islands off the coast, and I rode almost 400 miles in a single week, more than I ever had done previously. It was to the point where I literally could not get my heart rate up, as the muscles in my heart were just too fatigued.

But it was an experience I’ll never forget.

The high I had at the time I took that photo was just so incredible. It took us a long way to get out to the Cap de Formentor lighthouse, but it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been!

My experience there was similar to the Redditor mentioned earlier. Had I not pushed myself to the limits that I had, I simply would not have been able to experience those feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction that I did that day.

Collecting Mental Data Points

In statistics, having a larger (or properly diversified) data set can mean the difference between something that is significant and something that is not. I know for me, the more cycling experiences I have, and the more varied they are, help me to build up a sort of mental “databank” that I often later draw upon. It can either be simply for reference or maybe even inspiration when things are rough.

I’ve had a few rides that clearly stick out in my mind due to bad weather, wind, or exhaustion, while others stick out in terms of sheer excitement, good tarmac, or incredible views. I take care to remember as much about them as I can, taking note of how I felt in the moment. It’s one of the side benefits for which I like writing this blog, as it documents a lot of my experiences and feelings. But when things get rough, in whatever capacity it is that day, I like to reflect back on these previous rides and experiences, rewinding the tape a bit, and then also looking forward with anticipation to the accomplishment that I will soon have.

Cycling Goes Beyond Simply Being a Sport

At the risk of starting to sound like a Tony Robbins lecture, the parallels here to life are very clear. And it’s one of the main parts about cycling that I find most beautiful and wonderful.

Group of cyclists riding in the Spanish countryside, outside of Girona, Spain

The journey of each of our lives will take us through all kinds of bumps and obstacles along its path. One day we may forget to charge our headlight before that morning ride in the city, or maybe we’ll get stuck in a downpour that we were hoping to outrun. But I believe it’s important to relish the journey and to enjoy all aspects of it, even when things get tough. Take a moment for yourself to reflect, focus outwards from beyond the current struggle, and lean on your past experiences and confidence to connect it all together.

I suppose it’s just like riding a bike after all!

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