Bicycling and Education: More on the Burden of the Impossible

I have been both a serious educator and cyclist for around 30 years, and I am often struck how competitive group cycling offers us important lessons about how we tend to fail the promise of universal public education.

Competitive cycling—many people probably do not realize—is a team sport, and even recreational cyclists (as my friends and I are) often ride within the same principles of team competitive cycling.

As well, professional cycling (which has several layers similar to Major League baseball in the U.S.) has a long history of corruption—doping (performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs).

Both the principles of group cycling and the culture of doping help explain some of the failures of how we do schooling in the U.S.

Collaboration Trumps Competition

I have been cycling in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of Upstate South Carolina for three decades—as a part of a very organized cycling community (we post group rides 6-days a week throughout the entire year) and several different bicycle clubs and teams (currently globalbike Spartanburg).

Over those years, we have maintained a nucleus of cyclists and a revolving door of new riders, often runners and other elite athletes looking for a different challenge.

One of the recurring problems of integrating new riders into cycling is the complex culture of the sport (road cycling is tradition-rich, and also a bit insular) as well as the principles guiding riding in an organized pack, specifically participating in a paceline:

Members of globalbike Spartanburg 2015 participate in a paceline while doing a spring training ride in the North Carolina mountains.

Members of globalbike Spartanburg 2015 form a paceline while doing a spring training ride in the North Carolina mountains.

A group of organized cyclists (a paceline or eschelon) can ride faster and longer than a cyclist on her/his own. The key to that group advantage is that the principles governing a paceline are built on cooperation and not competition.

Cyclists in a paceline work in ways that consider the impact of the wind, the abilities of the cyclists (strong riders taking longer pulls with weaker riders sitting on, or not participating in the pulls), and the advantages/disadvantages of drafting.

For example, a paceline is constructed of two lines of riders, one driving the pace forward and another receding (to allow riders to rest and to block sidewind from the advancing riders who are pulling). If there is sidewind, the receding line should be on the side that blocks that sidewind from the advancing line, but always, the advancing line must create a pace that is consistent (riders must not surge when pulling through, and as well, after taking a pull, the rider pulling through to the receding line must ease off the pace slightly):

A paceline with a group of committed riders is an amazing thing to watch. A paceline with riders trying to disrupt the group (attacking or flicking [purposefully creating gaps for weaker riders in order to drop her/him from the group]) or without any regard for the principles of cooperation is a nightmare.

And that is the central problem with education and education reform in the U.S. over the last thirty years—a culture of competition instead of cooperation.

Demanding that each group of students surpass the group of students coming before is the same sort of disruption, the same sort of failure to understand key principles that we witness as cyclists when “that guy” surges through each time he rotates to the front in a paceline.

Group cycling is beautiful, efficient, and effective when everyone works collaboratively, but falls apart even when one or two riders decide to compete, choose to ignore the common good of the group. The best cyclists are always aware of both their own cycling as well as the entire pack of cyclists—a supple balance of the individual and the community.

Each fall, a group of 15 or so of my cycling community does a 220-240-mile ride in one day (11-12 hours of cycling and a 14+-hour day) from the Upstate of SC to the coast. This ride seems impossible for regular people who have jobs and ride bicycles for a hobby, but it is a testament to collaboration since the riders have a wide range of ability and fitness, but our goal is always having everyone arrive safely and together.

We all ride with both our own success and the success of the entire group guiding how we ride.

The single greatest reform we need in public education in the U.S. is to adopt a culture of cooperation (reject merit pay; reject VAM; reject testing students to label, rank, and sort; reject labeling and ranking schools and states by test scores; reject international rankings by test scores; reject school choice—vouchers, charter schools, etc.) and not competition.

“The Burden of the Impossible” and the Inevitable Allure of Cheating

Beyond the abundant evidence that collaboration is more powerful in most ways than competition, collaboration trumps competition since competition has many negative consequences.

Few examples are more powerful for those negative consequences than professional cycling and recently the cheating scandals in education.

Human athletic achievements are plagued by the pursuit of the amazing—less often are we willing to marvel in the essential. The U.S. sporting public struggles to understand the “beautiful game,” football/soccer matches that end nil-nil, because of the lust for scoring without an appreciation for the artistry of playing the sport.

Professional cycling has suffered—and failed to address—the direct relationship between creating “the burden of the impossible” and the inevitable cheating that has followed, over and over for decades.

Spring classics—one-day races often over cobbled roads, undulating terrain, and hellish spring weather—can cover 150-180 miles, and the grand tours (Tour de France, Giro d’Italia) last three weeks, averaging 100 miles a day and including the highest mountains of Europe. In fact, professional cycling seeks conditions (cobbles, mountains) that insure natural selection will separate cyclists despite the efforts of teams to work collaboratively.

The most recent, and possibly the most publicized, example of doping in professional cycling is personified by Lance Armstrong; two aspects of the Armstrong doping scandal are underemphasized, I think.

First, Armstrong and dozens of the best cyclists of his era (1990s and through the first decade of the 2000s) all have confessed to organized doping, noting that the decision to use PEDs was strongly influenced by a culture of competition that essentially required doping.

Cyclists who chose to ride clean tended to ride in obscurity, or eventually simply quit the sport.

Next, the revelation of doping by Armstrong and most elite cyclists of his era has resulted in demonizing and punishing individual cyclists—with Armstrong the most vilified.

Hundreds of race organizers, corporations, cycling team owners and leaders, and media outlets raked in millions and millions of dollars during the peak of Armstrong’s career because of the amazing and record-breaking (and PED-fueled) exploits of Armstrong—but essentially none of them have been asked to return that money, none held culpable for the culture within which those cyclists felt compelled to dope.

Especially in the U.S., the accusatory gaze focuses on failed individuals but refuses to consider the cultural or social norms that shape individual behavior.

It takes little imagination, then, to see how the culture of doping in professional cycling informs the rise of test cheating in U.S. public education under the “burden of the impossible”—the accountability mandates of education reform.

Prosecute and imprison educators who cheated, but ask not what led these people to such extremes, consider not that humans faced with the “burden of the impossible” are being completely rational to behave in ways that would not be reasonable if the rules were fair.

Serious recreational cyclists have much different reasons for cycling than professional cyclists, and for the most part, we create and maintain a culture of collaboration and cooperation so that everyone can excel, everyone can enjoy the beauty that is cycling.

Spaces dedicated to formal education are best served by that spirit of collaboration and cooperation, but are corrupted by a culture of competition.

While professional cycling (and all huge-money professional sport) may be beyond repair, education could be otherwise.

In order to end the rise of cheating in education (among educators or students), in order to close the so-called achievement gap, in order to end the inequity of opportunity and outcomes that characterize our public schools—end competition in education in all forms and begin a new era of collaboration and cooperation.

2 comments

  1. Margaret Benson

    Wonderful comparison! Wish more people would be reading it.

    Question for you: considering that you are so close to Spartanburg, how is it that you never mention the work of Shirley Brice Heath? Her book, “Ways With Words” provides a vivid picture of how children from different social “classes” learn to use language and literacy. In the process she lays out for her imagined readers (teachers I think) the strengths those children bring to the classroom, even though they do not all walk in the door with all the skills and knowledge schools wish they had. I come back to it again and again. If you have not read it, I recommend it. If you have read it, and do not like it, I would love to know why.

  2. Scott Simmons

    THE greatest benefit of dual passions is comparison and contrast. You’ve managed a clear-cut, readable, and loving (if disappointed) explanation that draws the best and worst of two cultures into sharp relief even for those of us unfamiliar with either of them.

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