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Road cyclists are to bike riding as analytic philosophers are to philosophy: Discuss

Posted with the greatest affection for both analytic philosophers and road cyclists, two groups of which I’m proud to be a part…

Road cyclists look like the archetypal cyclist. With greyhound like physiques, massive thighs and calves and underdeveloped upper bodies, they are the elite of the cycling world. They are also the gatekeepers against which others others are judged and judge themselves.

The image of the left is from the terrific animated movie The Triplets of Belleville.

If you haven’t seen it, you must. The trailer is here. (Brief description: “When her grandson, Champion, is kidnapped during the Tour de France, Madame Souza and her beloved dog Bruno travel across the Atlantic to Belleville and team up with an aged song-and-dance team to rescue him from the French mafia. Directed by Sylvain Chomet. Categories: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Foreign Film. Year: 2003.”)

When someone says, I’m not a real cyclist. I just commute by bike, what they mean is, I’m not a road cyclist. I don’t have one of those bikes with the skinny tires and the curled over handle bars. I don’t wear special cycling shorts or shoes and I don’t carry everything I need for a 160 km ride in the back pouch of my bike jersey.

Road cyclists love rules. For the complete list, see here, from the Keepers of the Cog:

For a great taxonomy of the kinds of cyclists, see The bike snob’s guide to cycling tribes:

Here’s his description of the road cyclist, or the roadie:

The Roadie is, in a certain sense, the prototypical cyclist. Road racing is certainly not the oldest form of competitive cycling, but it does have a long history and it is by far the most popular competitive discipline. After all, even people who can’t tell a road bike from a mountain bike have heard of the Tour de France. The drop bars, the jersey with rear pockets, the tight shorts and the diminutive brimmed cycling cap together embody the cyclist in the popular imagination.

Because road cycling is steeped in tradition (and occasionally garnished with attitude), every single aspect of road cycling – from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline – is governed by rules. And like all rules, some of them have evolved out of necessity, and some of them are simply tradition for tradition’s sake.

The negative view of the Roadie is that he or she is fastidious, snotty and aloof. On the other hand, the romantic view is that Roadies are the toughest of all cyclists and that their careful preparation and studied appearance is a natural expression of this mental and physical toughness. But there’s a deeper truth. Beneath all the training and suffering and Lycra and embrocations, the fact is that all Roadies are freeloading cheats. I’m not talking about doping. No, Roadies are freeloading cheats because the true essence of road cycling is the conservation of energy. Naturally, the only way a bicycle is going to move is if a person puts energy into it and they do what they can to make their bodies strong, but there the effort ends. Beyond this, everything else is based on not making an effort. It’s based on making things as light and aerodynamic as possible; it’s based on slipstreaming behind other riders for as long as possible and it’s about expending as little effort as effectively as possible.

It occurred to me while chatting with other philosophers of sport that each activity, philosophy and cycling, can be thought of as big tents. There are analytic philosophers, continental philosophers, pragmatists, feminists, historians of philosophy, etc. Likewise, there are road cyclists, track cyclists, urban fixie riders, mountain bikers, commuters, etc.

But in each field there is one group that likes to make rules about who counts and who doesn’t, who belongs in the tent and who must remain outside–not a real philosopher, not a real cyclist. My conversational thesis was that it’s the road cyclists and the analytic philosophers who are the fussiest this way.

Which may explain why analytic philosophers are drawn to road cycling. (Or not.) I’m just having fun here but later I’d like to blog about the sports that attract philosophers and why. Mountain climbing anyone? Maybe some yoga after?

In each area–philosophy and cycling–my own inclinations are the same. I’m an analytic philosopher drawn to the big tent idea. I dabble a bit. I’m a road cyclist who also rides track owns a mountain bike, and has cyclocross ambitions.

If our blog had an exam, wouldn’t that be popular?, the analogy between road cyclists and analytic philosophers might be a good topic for an essay question. Discuss.




20 thoughts on “Road cyclists are to bike riding as analytic philosophers are to philosophy: Discuss

  1. I’m unsure as to your point, Sam. Are you saying that analytic philosophers and road cyclists in general gravitate toward living in ivory towers? Or more generally, that there is often a connection between how we like to exercise, the type of work to which we are drawn, how we tend to operate in the workplace, and perhaps in our home and social lives as well? The first I cannot comment on at all, as I am neither a philosopher nor a road cyclist. Is your call to discussion for anyalytic philosophers and/or road cyclists only?

  2. No doubt every field and sport has this type of hierarchy, with the self-appointed group at the top presuming to determine what counts –or at least what’s more valuable and important than what — and what doesn’t. In medicine, it’s the surgeons. In track it’s the sprinters (maybe — I don’t know enough about track). In skiing it’s the downhill. In philosophy it’s the analytic philosophers (though maybe the other philosophers do it too). And among the analytic philosophers, there are those who think some kinds are purer or more philosophical than others — the philosophers of language, the logicians, sometimes the historians who think interpreting the canon is what philosophy is all about, etc. I think the philosophers who are like this might be unique in one respect: they actually take it upon themselves to lord over what philosophy IS. if you do X, then you’re not doing philosophy. But if you do Y, like we do, then yes, you’re a philosopher.

    Since I think it or something like it happens in all kinds of arenas, I’m not sure I’d cite it as a reason for why lots of analytic philosophers like road cycling. For one thing, our department is probably anomalous in that respect — more road cyclists than most philosophy departments. It probably has more to do with word of mouth and people inviting people to join them on rides, then the newbies getting into it. Plus, we have lots of analytic philosophers in our department who are not drawn to road cycling in the least (e.g. me).

    I know you plan to blog about sports that attract philosophers. I’m intrigued and skeptical at the same time. Do you really think that philosophers have something in them that draw them to particular sports? I have to confess I don’t see it. I know lots of philosophers and they are drawn to all sorts of different things: tennis, running, hiking, climbing, cycling (of various kinds including mountain biking, velodrome racing, road cycling), yoga, crossfit, rowing, swimming, skiing (downhill and cross country), snowboarding, fishing. And I know all kinds of other folks who are not philosophers and enjoy a similarly broad range of activities.

    So I’ll be interested to see your line of reasoning for that. Even if I’m finding it implausible at the moment, it does sound like a fun topic.

    1. My favorite combo because it’s so common is mountain climbing and philosophy of science. They all seem to do it.

  3. Really? I didn’t realize any of our philosophy of science colleagues climbed. KO definitely doesn’t mountain climb!

  4. My experience, macho nerds (like myself) like often cycling (don’t need a buff upper body to get into it), and macho nerds also like analytic philosophy. There is a kind of macho maculinity performance that works for nerds. There is also a class issue- both activities are expensive to get good at. Cycling is a gentleman’s sport with lots of strategy. They are both solo pursuits (in romantisized theory).

    1. This. This. This. Although obviously many of the bloggers and readers here– me being one of them– are women who are into philosophy and cycling, the fact of the matter is that both activities are infused with a certain form of masculinity that is very recognizable and tends to draw a fairly specific demographic.

      1. Yes. Sad fact. I gave a talk at the Eastern APA on the masculinity of cycling culture and the role of the bike in the history of feminism. Both cultures need some change!

  5. Here’s a list of things I think analytic philosophers often like:
    Biking, fancy beer, dogs, wine, cities, being outdoorsy, chess, TED Talks, Alan Turing (like, the idea of the guy as well as his work), Mac Computers or Linux, fancy sports (tennis, rock climbing, cycling, mountain climbing, skiing). Philosophers can bond over these things. I think a lot of the data is resolved by social class. Find me a philosopher who admits proudly they love NASCAR, ATVs, snowmobiling, hunting, watching tv, shooting, etc. I’m sure some do like these things, but they probably don’t wear it like a badge or do it with their colleagues.

    1. Thought-provoking list! FWIW, here’s my fit with the philosophical taste test.

      Biking, huge check. Fancy beer, half a check (I like beer that tastes like something, but beer talk bores me and I do not bond over such discourse). Dogs… themselves? Check. Dog ownership in the city — no, with only a few exceptions. Wine, check. Cities, no. Being outdoorsy, not really. (Doing stuff outdoors, yes, but not being outdoorsy.) Chess, no. TED Talks, no. Alan Turing (like, the idea of the guy as well as his work), check. Mac Computers or Linux, check. Fancy sports… wait, are we counting cycling twice? That’s the only one I’d check, and how fancy is it? I ride my bike largely to get places, and end up encrusted in filth fairly often.

      Now for the anti-list. NASCAR, no. ATVs, half a check. Snowmobiling, hell yes. Hunting, half a check (used to, don’t any more). Watching tv is the greatest thing in the history of things. Shooting, half a check (used to do it, but my guns are in Alberta and probably count as belonging to other family members by this point).

      So, some overlap — a bit better than 50%, I suppose. But significant divergence too. Still, I think you’re onto a pretty good general profile of professional philosophers, and I agree that it tracks social class to a large extent.

  6. I spent some time thinking about this striking analogy when you first mooted it, Sam B, but in the end I couldn’t make it work. The characteristic features of the roadie/non-roadie distinction just seem to cross-classify the analytic/non-analytic distinction in too many ways.

    To use just one example, let’s grant that there is an attitude among roadies that, if you’re not riding according to The Rules, well, you’re just not really riding. Still, it is at least as common among the self-identifying non-analytic philosophers I’ve met as among the analytics to claim that the other crew aren’t doing real philosophy. That is, it’s not uncommon for pluralism (among philosophical folks who self-identify as non-analytic) to fail to extend to the view that analytic philosophy is unproblematically within the ambit of philosophy properly understood and properly practiced. “U R doin it wrong!” is plenty popular all over the philosophical terrain, I think. If that’s the analogue of the roadie characteristic, it finds no obvious single image on just one side of the analytic/non-analytic divide.

    Same for purity. I would be very surprised if “I work on computationally analyzing statistical measures of semantic content as encoded sortally by syntax, and also on taking Butler’s revelation of romanticism in Foucault as a (momentary) starting point for positing a new narrative about gender that transcends a focus on writing” is going to be greeted with backslaps and welcoming toasts in either a stridently analytic or a stridently non-analytic department. In both cases one is apt to find that doing what WE do is not enough; one must also not do what THEY do.

  7. Good list Kim! I score embarrassingly high. Hey Tim, nice to run into you! I think the analogue of the road cyclist in philosophy is a moving target that often gets decidedly nailed down by context. In my department it is the metaphysicians, and there’s actually a good reason for the metaphysics dominance. Our metaphysicians are really fricken smart. They don’t seem to think of themselves as the only ones doing it right, but the rest of us gift them that status out of awe. At the same time we quietly complain about metaphysics (not our metaphysicians, who are wonderful) in a manner similar to the awe-struck non-roadie cyclists when they poke fun at the gear and the cycling shorts.

    I’ll never forget the course I took on gender, sexual orientation, and race. It was cross-listed with a pomo department, with the student population about evenly divided between the pomos and analytics. A war ensued (with some swearing and nastiness), probably because the context wasn’t sufficient to determine the dominant group and neither group would give up the “We Are Doing it Right” claim. For some reason it didn’t result in any kind of compromise.

  8. So true! For many years I commuted exclusively by bicycle on my fabulous hybrid. I loved it to death and would easily ride 20-30 miles a day on a variety of terrain. I’ve never wanted to switch to road cycling, at least not exclusively, specifically because I enjoy the variety I can get with a hybrid. But every time one of those road cyclists, with their very skinny wheels and shiny Lycra, would whiz by me on the bikeway, I felt sheepish. Namely, I felt like I wasn’t a “real” cyclist! How absurd it seems in retrospect!

  9. Sorry, but I will provide a counter-example: I’m an analytic philosopher by formation, now teaching and researching into communication studies , but with a strong footing in pragmatics (Grice, Searle etc…). I’m into mountain biking and I find road cycling boring to death. I admit that road biking is great training even for MTB, but that’s all. For me, MTB is about real-time decisions about best trace on the trail and about navigation – two thing one doesn’t really need to bother when road cycling – tarmac makes life too easy in these regards. It’s the cross country (xc) that’s my sport.
    A commentary on the latest Tour de France would provide some food for thought about these connections that you make: most young good gravel and ciclocross bikers will end up in a road bike career. And not only because there’s more money in road cycling. People like Sagan and Alaphilippe have this kind of background. And those with an MTB background deal betters with descends and crashes – they have the skills .
    So, as the world of cycling is more fluid in its subcategories, and the same is the case for philosophy – I find it very difficult to make a case for this correlation: analytic philosophy and road cycling.
    P.S. As I grow older and my fitness fades away, I’m more and more attracted to another hybrid: gravel bike.

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