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Michael Barry: When Riding Becomes Work

To most people cycling is freedom. When asked what their first memory of riding is, they’ll likely recall the joy they felt as they took their first pedal strokes or when they coasted down their first hill. In those moments, they became free from their parents’ grasp and free to move fast and see the neighborhood alone.

Above Photo: Walter Lai

In a similar way, the sporting experience should be one of personal growth and development. But for many amateur athletes, it isn’t. Their sense of freedom becomes blurred. Instead, the playing field, or racecourse, becomes a feeder system to the professional ranks. The joy of play withers under the external pressures of performance, business, entertainment, and ego. Physical and mental health becomes secondary to achievement.

In the documentary Senna, the World Champion Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna was asked to identify the driver who gave him the most satisfaction as a competitor. He said, “I would have to go back to 78 and 79 and 1980. I was go-kart driving as a teammate for Fullerton. He was very experienced, and I enjoyed very much driving with him, because he was fast, he was consistent, he was, for me, a very complete driver, and it was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics then, right? And there wasn’t any money involved, either. It was real racing, and I have that as a very good memory.”

Real racing. Pure racing.

When I immersed myself in the business of professional bike racing, I began to feel distanced from what I loved most about riding. Instead of the pure joy of real racing, I felt conflicting emotions.

Those same conflicting emotions arise now in amateur sport, as well, as it becomes progressively more professionalized. Year round, primary school kids log endless hours every week on hockey rinks, baseball diamonds, and soccer fields, often starting before dawn. Masters cyclists are doping just to perform in local races. To compete at a high level in most sports now requires coaching, equipment, attitude, and money that only an elite few can afford.

In a culture fixated on winning, we often lose the essence of the ride, the skate, or the run. As a result, some people will never have the opportunity to compete, because the cost of entry is too high. Others will lose interest as play starts to feel like work. Under the burden of external pressures, many kids will stop playing a sport that they once loved, and they’ll never play again. That’s a tragedy.

Professional athletes have obligations to the employer who pays them. Children have no obligation except to satisfy their own drive to excel at a sport that they love. The joy they feel in the process should remain unadulterated by overeager parents and a society longing for the next champion. Most children don’t get paid to perform and entertain, and neither do most weekend-warrior masters cyclists. They get compensated with the pure joy of participating. In cycling, as in most other sports, we seem to have lost that perspective on why we ride.

Juan Antonio Flecha, my teammate for three years with Sky, was likely the most introspective rider I met during my career. He could isolate himself from the noise on the bus, in the hotel, or on the road to focus on his singular objective. Cycling had given him something as a boy that he didn’t want to lose at any cost. While out training, Flecha doesn’t wear headphones and rarely takes his mobile phone. He regards them as distractions that take away from the experience, which to him is profound, even if it is his job. He wants to hear the sounds of his environment, escape with his thoughts, and return from a ride on a snow-covered mountain worn but calm. He uses the numbers on the powermeter to guide him, but even as he trains meticulously, he doesn’t become so preoccupied with the digital numbers that he loses his perspective on the essence of cycling.

Even at the professional level, competitive sport isn’t only about results, medals, records, or the spoils of victory. It’s also about relationships, how we work within a team, how we improve, what we learn, and how we grow. It’s about being our best and not letting someone else’s results determine how we feel about our own. I learned these lessons the hard way.

In my retirement, I now understand why I rode and why I still love to ride. The praise and accolades of a professional have nothing to do with it, even though I once thought they did. Out with a group of friends on a Saturday morning, we push each other just enough. We sprint and we ride in a tight paceline, cooperating to increase our speed. There are no finish lines or computers to record what we’ve accomplished, just a few stories and memories of a day on our bikes, when we went a bit farther than we’d planned and felt something unique. I still get that unique feeling, and it’s the most meaningful thing that cycling has given to me.