For several years now, I have been a member of the globalbike Spartanburg chapter team. As pedaling billboards, we represent globalbike, a nonprofit founded and based in Spartanburg, South Carolina that provides bikes to community careworkers, and women and girls organizations in Tanzania, Africa.
July 4, 2015, our chapter team is sponsoring a metric century in part to raise money for the upcoming trip to Africa by globalbike representatives.
Please consider donating and supporting the cause: Two wheels making a world of difference.
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.
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
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.
The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! Fight Club (1999)
For my local cycling community, I have written often about what I would call first level issues related to road cycling: holding your line, holding the wheel in front of you, proper fit and positioning on the bicycle, riding in a paceline, and recognizing when you should contribute in a paceline or stay out of the mix.
Here, however, I want to address second level issues related to road cycling, the social or aesthetic elements of the recreational sport. And those second level issues can more efficiently be covered by the simple question, Are you a Fred?
First, let me caution that parts of speech matter here, notably the article “a.” This is not about being named Fred, but being a Fred. In fact, my lessons in not being a Fred were handled classically and ironically by Fred Gobillot in the 1980s. Fred was the most not-a-Fred among our cycling group, and he would regularly drop me, only to ease back in order to pull me up to the group so he could drop me again (often berating me and questioning my humanhood; think the drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, but not as compassionate).
Next, it helps to recall those glorious days of middle or high school—or those rush weeks in college—when you either witnessed or were a part of the ugliest possible clique you can remember. Road cycling’s social dynamics are about 300% worse than that.
Road cycling is about bodily fluids—sweat, urine, and occasionally blood—intense physical pain, and relentless public shaming. In fact, the greatest moments of recreational road cycling are those in which you can maintain intense pain longer than others, ideally by causing that intense pain; and then the best of the best is when you pop or drop a close friend during all this pain so that you can mention that event as often as possible over the next 3 decades.
Now, again keeping in mind that first level issues of road cycling are in fact primary, let’s examine those second level issues. In other words, Are you a Fred?
Do you use the plastic cap and fixing bolt that come with inner tubes? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 1: The technical term for both that cap and fixing bolt is “garbage,” thus toss both in the trash or recycling bin. Pro Tip 2: If your stem rattles, take a 1-inch piece of black electrical tape, poke a small hole in the middle, and then carefully slip it over the stem, sticking it neatly to your rim.
Do you have the plastic spoke protector behind your cassette, the reflectors in your spokes—both of which come with bicycles purchased in shops? You’re a Fred. See Pro Tip 1 above as same applies—’tis all garbage.
Is your rear wheel skewer pointing backward? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 3: Close your rear skewer into the rear seat/chain stay angle; close your front skewer pointing backward and parallel to the ground.
Is your stem pointing upward? Are your hoods and handlebars turned slightly upward also? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 4: For stems, hoods, and handlebars, flat is where it’s at.
Do you call your tires “wheels,” as in “I need new wheels” when you mean tires? Do you call your saddle a “seat”? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 5: Know all the proper names of the parts of a bicycle.
Do you not shave your legs? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 6: Shave your legs or be better than average at first level issues of road cycling.
When you have a flat, do you: (i) exclaim that you have never changed a flat before, (ii) tell everyone you do not know how your CO2 cartridge head works, (iii) not have an extra tube, Co2, boot, etc., with you? You’re a Fred. Pro Tip 7: Know how to change a flat and use your equipment; in other words, practice.
I know all of this may seem juvenile and trivial—because it all is juvenile and trivial, much like recreational road cycling. Keep in mind that most recreational road cycling involves grown men  with shaved legs wearing lycra while riding a mechanism most strongly associated with children, a bicycle.
Two final points: (i) there is no shame in being a Fred, and luckily, it isn’t terminal (thus, I share remedies above), but (ii) road cycling is a lot like Fight Club because I have broken the sacred rule: Don’t tell a Fred he/she is a Fred.
But I am willing to sacrifice myself, now that I am aging and see the likelihood of being thinned from the herd, I mean pack soon simply because whether you are a Fred or not, if you are younger and stronger, you’ll be able to pop and drop me soon enough.
 Women constitute a minority in all this ugliness, and of course, the leg shaving thing is inconsequential for them as it comes with all the other social norms that make being a woman a struggle that dwarfs all the silliness I am discussing above (seriously).
Melissa Storm asks:
Being one of the shaven-by-social-norm gender, I need a little clarification here. If I can change a tube on my properly de-cluttered bicycle, and know I’m certainly not needed in a pace line right now, but have my handle bars and stem as not-slammed as possible, am I a Fred? Or am I a hardass for getting on my bike during my third trimester? Are there ever exceptions? I’m just wondering since I don’t seem to remember any of TheRules addressing the issue. You seem like the one to ask. I don’t mind at all if you deem my sadly mismatched kit to be over the Fred line.
Excellent question, Melissa, which brings us to one zero tolerance area and the appropriate exception.
First, regardless of Fred or non-Fred status, there is zero tolerance for being unsafe.
That said, there is a hardass/badass exception (note from above: dropping everyone while having not shaved your legs). Thus, riding your bicycle while in your third trimester clearly affords you the hardass exception, and notably in a way no male rider can equal. Bravo.
My formal expertise and experience are in the field of education, but I have developed as well what I consider equal expertise and experience in two other areas, although the paths have been primarily by self-education: writing and cycling.
I have been serious, purposeful, and committed to teaching, writing, and cycling all for about thirty years each; however, as a writer and cyclist, I have basically no formal preparation. Cycling provides a great deal of pleasure (and pain) for me personally and socially; as well, I recognize more and more every day that cycling offers really important lessons—many of which inform teaching and learning in formal settings.
Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators
One of the most compelling aspects of recreational cycling is the it is incredibly complex and challenging, especially as a group sport. As a complex human activity in a group dynamic, then, I think becoming and being a cyclist offers powerful lessons for becoming and being a teacher.
First, cycling has a significant learning curve for beginners to integrate with group rides. To be a group cyclist, you need fitness, a wide assortment of cycling-specific skills, and a knowledge base about group cycling (coming to understand the culture of group cycling).
Fitness requires time and commitment—not unlike learning anything. But embedded in that is the motivation to commit that time. Since cycling can be extremely painful, it offers a perfect example of how learning comes best through the choice of the individual. I cycle about 10,000 miles a years—many of those rides are exhausting, nearly unbearable. There is little likelihood I would either participate or improve in cycling if this were not my choice.
Related to this need for time and commitment to fitness is the necessity for cycling-specific skills. Cycling, teaching, and writing, for me, are parallel human behaviors that are best cultivated by actually doing the behavior, but also by doing the behavior with purposeful attention to the discrete skills that make up the activity.
A fit cyclist (often runners transitioning to cycling) without bike handling skills or group riding knowledge is extremely dangerous to her/himself and other cyclists. In fact, group cycling is so complicated that it baffles me that anyone succeeds in integrating into group riding (in the same way that staying committed to writing or education is very challenging).
Cycling well requires cycling-specific cardiovascular fitness, bike handling skills (maintaining a straight and stable line), proper bicycle fit (bike positioning is crucial, but somewhat technical), and maneuvering awareness and knowledge. In brief, cycling in a fast-paced group (peloton) is extremely complicated—like writing, like teaching: hundreds of concurrent automatic behaviors blended with dozens of split-second decisions.
For cyclists, this means simultaneously exerting often maximum physical efforts that tax your breathing and stress lower body muscle groups, maintaining upper body relaxation so that bicycle control remains your primary concern, and maintaining awareness and control of yourself as well as the surrounding cyclists.
Since each of these elements of group cycling impacts and depends on all the others, how does a cyclist gain the level of expertise needed to participate well and safely?
I think this is the greatest lesson of cycling as it informs teaching. Cycling at a high level in group events is best learned by cycling often—and participating with and observing closely elite and experienced cyclists.
Beginning cyclists perform at first in unskilled ways that require them to consciously focus on gradual and purposeful improvement. It takes baby steps. But it also requires that the cyclist is committed to learning through observation and has the self-awareness to recognize the nuanced differences among her/his novice behaviors and the more polished behaviors of experienced cyclists.
In cycling, beginners are best served (as is the group) if they participate at first in minimal ways—not taking pulls for example, focusing on riding at a high pace while insuring she/he learns group dynamics (not making drastic changes in pace or direction, bike handling). An aggressive paceline (an organized double-line of cyclists in which riders rotate so that one cyclist at a time is pushing the pace ) is the ultimate test of cycling expertise; a cyclist needs high fitness, strong bike handling skills, and a honed sense of the entire group and how each cyclist impacts that group’s pace and safety.
Pulling through in a paceline tests a cyclist sense of pace and space—because rotating through from the front into the receding line is a delicate balance of speed and smooth bike handling. Adding to this complex blend of skills and fitness is that cyclists drink and eat while participating in their events! Yet another range of skills that must be learned while doing.
Here is an ideal representation in cycling of the beauty found in balancing the needs of the individual with the good of the community. To be an elite or skilled group cyclist, each cyclist needs the group; thus, each cyclist benefits from conforming to the group norms and contributes to the group good—not because of arbitrary or blind allegiance but because those norms address that balance between individual and group.
At their highest levels, teaching, writing, and cycling are individual endeavors grounded in communities; all represent John Dewey’s complex (and often misunderstood) calls for honoring the individual and the community simultaneously—not as competing interests but as synergetic interests.
Each cyclist in a group ride can perform better than cycling alone by contributing to and competing with the other cyclists, but if any individual cyclist disrupts the essential dynamics of that group (poor bike handling, careless attention to the safety of the group) that cyclist and the entire group suffer, performing less well.
Self-interests and group-interests, then, are inseparable in cycling. I would argue the same about teaching and writing.
Serious recreational cycling offers dynamic lessons for cyclists and educators about the power of engaging by choice and over time with complex human behaviors that require a balance between individual and group needs, about the value of committing to those behaviors as a novice eager to observe and learn from elite and experienced experts/mentors, and about the reality that few human pursuits are ever finished, but always in a state of becoming.
There is a zen elements here—the giving up of the self to find the self. And as with cycling, teaching, and writing, you will not understand it until you do it—by allowing the becoming.
Between parts I and II of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, an ad ran on OWN that included a clip of Armstrong acknowledging losing 75 million dollars in one day due to sponsors abandoning him followed by Armstrong noting his lowest moment. The sequence suggests that Armstrong was saying his loss of millions was his lowest moment, but when the full part II ran, Armstrong, in fact, identified removing himself from LIVESTRONG as the low moment.
But the point of an ad is to tease, not reflect truth.
For many cycling enthusiasts like me, the dark underbelly of professional cycling and Armstrong have been no revelation. For the many innocent people trampled by the Armstrong stampede—such as cycling journalist Neil Browne and the well publicized Frankie and Betsy Andreu—the Armstrong confession has opened the door for some vindication of their honesty, but unlikely is that the tremendous damage done to their livelihoods can ever be repaid.
Within hours of the Armstrong interview being aired, details of a book on Armstrong’s disgraceful fall were announced for a June 2013 publication, to be followed by a film.
And herein lies one thing that is receiving almost no public discussion: As long as the media, the USADA, and the public keep the gaze on Armstrong alone, the culture within which Armstrong flourished, the culture within which Armstrong was created will remain unexamined, unscathed, and free to consume.
Today among the rubble of Armstrong’s machine, Capitalism remains unchecked, and many now line up once again to profit off Armstrong as they did during his rise to false King of Cycling.
I have been a serious cyclist now for almost as long as I have been an educator, about thirty years. One of my favorite films, which I showed each year I taught high school English, is Breaking Away, a 1979 fim based on the real-life mania for cycling by the main character, Dave Stoller (Dave Blase) and the Little 500 bicycle race held at Indiana University.
Along with the focus on the love of cycling, the engaging and rich characters, and the heart-warming humor, the film is also a dramatization of America’s pursuit of a meritocracy, the plight of the working class, and the promise of education.