Saturday, April 25, 2015

Is Cycling a Sport?

A medal awarded for successfully completing a 200K brevet.

Are cyclists athletes? Bike Snob, perhaps my favorite cycling blogger, thinks not:
"...on giving Freds the athlete thing, absolutely not.  I refuse to call them athletes ... They're (though I really should say "we're," since I too am a Fred) are not really athletes.  What they're doing is working out, or exercising.  They're athletes like the people you see sweating away in the window at Equinox are athletes.  If a cyclist who's participating in an amateur bike race is an athlete then when I'm defrosting a Trader Joe's pizza I'm a chef."

To clarify, Bike Snob uses the word "Fred" a bit differently than others in the cycling community. Most people use the word "Fred" to refer to a particularly unskilled cyclist or a cyclist who owns much more expensive equipment than is justified by their skill level. Bike Snob uses the word Fred to refer to almost all amateur bicycle racers, perhaps because he believes one or both of the previous definitions apply to them, or perhaps just to be funny. Is Bike Snob correct, do amateur bicycle racers fail to qualify as athletes? To decide what I thought about the issue, I read the Wikipedia Page on Athlete. Wikipedia says that an athlete is a participant in a sport. By this definition, all bicycle racers are athletes. Bike Snob, on the other hand, uses the definition from Merriam Webster:

athlete noun ath·lete \ˈath-ˌlēt, ÷ˈa-thə-ˌlēt\ : a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength

Depending on what standards one chooses to use for "trained in" and "good at", one can define athlete in a wide range of different ways. Even discounting humorous usage, Bike Snob is as entitled to his definition of "athlete" as anyone else is to theirs. For reasons that may become apparent below, I choose to use a broader definition of the word athlete which essentially ignores judgements as to degree of training and skill level, and by my definition, amateur bicycle racers are athletes. How about other cyclists? For me, that depends on if cycling other than racing is a sport, which brings me to the title of this post.

As much as I enjoy Bike Snob, I really don't care if his definition of athlete and mine are the same or not. What I do care about is coming up with definitions of words (e.g. athlete) that I feel comfortable defending and which work well in the context of my blog. But why? There are two reasons:
  1. One of the reasons I enjoy writing for this blog is that it allows me to practice my writing skills. This includes the precise use of words. 
  2. I have been struggling with defining what kind of cycling I would like to do. Should I try to be a randonneur? A club cyclist? Are there other alternatives? Of course, I do not need to define things to do them, but I do believe that finding the words that accurately describe these different kinds of cycling helps me to think about them more productively.
Resolving the definition "athlete" to my satisfaction was relatively straightforward; an athlete is any participant in a sport. Defining the word "sport" proved to be much more interesting.

Summarizing the many definitions that have been given for "sport", there appear to be two to three components that are used to classify an activity as a sport. First, a sport is physical. Second, a sport involves competition. And perhaps third, a sport is done for the fun of the activity, not for some other reason. Clearly, amateur bicycle racing is a sport; it is physical, it involves competition, and it is done for the fun of it. Does the third criterion mean that professional bicycle racing is not a sport, since it is done primarily for the money rather than fun? My intuition says that professional bicycle racing is a sport; a professional sport. In general, I think a professional sport is defined as the professionalization of a physical competition which, in a non-professional setting, is done for fun.

How about downhill bicycle racing? This is not a competition about which rider is physically stronger and although based on speed, the speed is provided by gravity, not rider muscle. I have never participated in downhill bicycle racing or anything like it so I do not speak from knowledge, much less experience, but I will nonetheless opine that downhill bicycle racing is a sport. The physical aspect of sport does not consist of strength only, but includes physical skill, dexterity, etc., clearly the factors that determine which downhill racer will win.

At this point, I would briefly diverge and note there is considerable support for definitions of sport that do not meet the physical criterion. SportAccord, a major international association of sports associations includes five mental sports, including chess. Automobile racing is often considered a sport. I do not deny that the physical demands on racing car drivers is considerable, but I do not believe that the drivers' physical condition is what typically determines the outcome of a race; rather, that outcome is determined by the automobile. While I would never quarrel with fans or participants of these competitions over these definitions of "sport", for myself, I feel more comfortable retaining the "physical" part of the sport definition. Fortunately, this question does not affect what I write for this blog, since all forms of cycling are clearly physical.

In the examples of automobile racing or chess, the main thing they have in common with sports like running or football is competition. What then do we make of a bicycling activity like randonneuring, which claims to be so fiercely non-competitive that the finishers in an event are listed not in the order of finish, but alphabetically? Can you imagine the gold, silver, and bronze metals in olympic randonneuring going to those whose last names happen to occur near the start of the phone book? And yet, I am going to claim that in my mind at least, randonneuring is a sport. For those that don't know, randonneuring is a cycling activity in which riders attempt to finish long bike rides, most commonly 200, 300, 400, 600, or 1200 kilometers in length, within fixed, fairly generous time limits (13.5, 20, 27, 40, or 90 hours, respectively.) It is definitely physical and definitely done for the fun of it, and I claim that although riders are not competing against each other, they are competing against themselves to see if they can complete the distance. Randonneuring even awards medals, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.

How about bicycle commuting? Of course, there are cases where a racer or a randonneur commutes to work by bicycle to get some extra training miles in, in which case I claim that the main thing is the racing or the randonneuring, but how about someone whose main reason for bicycle commuting is to get to work? In my mind, that may be very admirable and wise, but it is not a sport. It is physical, but even stretching a point, there is no competition, and as I have set up the scenario, the motivation is not to have fun (as fun as the commute might happen to be) but to get to work.

Now for some harder cases: club riding, charity riding, and bicycle touring. The attribute of a sport that seems to be missing in these three cases is the element of competition, arguably the most defining characteristic of a sport. In preparation to diving into these questions, let me once again branch outside of cycling. This next quote comes from the Wikipedia page on Competition:
"Athletes, besides competing against other humans, also compete against nature in sports such as whitewater kayaking or mountaineering, where the goal is to reach a destination, with only natural barriers impeding the process."
Let me pair this with a quote from a tweet from the Adventure Cycling Association, a promotor of bicycle touring, about one of their tours:
"First (short) day on the #transamtrail with @thejchap up to afton before the assault on skyline drive tomorrow #mikeheadswest"
Anyone who has done serious bicycle touring knows it can be a challenge, but is it a competition? Although I definitely agree there is room for difference of opinion here, my intuition and experience says yes. In the second quote, I see competition against "skyline drive."

Charity riding is like touring in that one competes against the course, and in addition, most charity rides have variable distances, so one competes against oneself in terms of "I rode 40 miles last year, can I ride 60 this year?" Interestingly, club riding was the most difficult for me to classify. Because of the bikes used, clothing worn, and general attitude of the rides, it is looks a lot like bicycle racing, and so looks much like a sport. But is it? Some clubs are USA Cycling-affiliated racing clubs, so that club rides are training rides for the sport of bicycle racing, but many such clubs are not so affiliated and their members never participate in a race. One might argue that, like touring or charity riding, riders compete against the course or themselves, but since club rides tend to cover the same courses week after week, year after year, where's the competition? Is it the sprinting for city limit signs? Is it having trouble keeping up with a fellow rider one week, but leaving them in the dust the following week? Upon reflection, I think it is these things and more. In my mind, club riding is definitely a sport. What do you think?

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