Once upon a time, I told a friend of mine that I was training for a 200k.
He asked what that meant, and I said, "It means you ride your bike for 126 miles."
He said, "Oh. Why do you need to train for that? I mean, anyone can ride a bike."
While I wholeheartedly agree with the letter of the sentiment (they make handcycles for those of us without legs, after all!), at the time, I took a degree of exception to its spirit. I tried not to be a jerk about it, but it definitely bothered me at a certain level. I just wasn't sure why.
Today, thanks to some thoughtful comments on a fantastic article on Velominati.com, I finally got my head around it.
What bothers me isn't that people think anyone can ride I bike. Indeed, I think everyone can and should!
Instead, what does bother me is the fact that people see basketball players, for example, as serious athletes, but have no concept whatsoever of how much commitment, sacrifice, and suffering goes into racing bikes -- or, indeed, even into long-distance non-competitive riding. Basketball players, too, work hard to be good at what they do. They have to be capable of explosive power and pinpoint accuracy -- and to develop that power and accuracy, they train their bodies and minds.
The general public understands that idea. They see dedicated players devoting their time to perfect their skills and hone their bodies, and they see those players doing things they themselves can't do -- at least, not consistently.
Meanwhile, U.S. culture contributes by codifying sports -- ball sports, in particular, are understood as sports, as is running. Sports that involve riding things -- horses or bikes -- seem to be considered almost apocyphal. The U.S. sports canon lacks sufficient experience with either to understand the skill and physical effort involved.
As a result, folks in America tend to forget that anyone can play basketball (some of us better than others) or swing a stick at a little ball (some of us better than others), as well. It's harder to forget, I think, when there's an 'assistive device' involved. Equestrian competition suffers from the same conundrum -- how do we convey to someone whose entire riding experience consists of slouching on a dude-ranch trail mount at a walk or a slow trot that the horse isn't doing all the work? How do we convey to someone whose cycling experience is limited to short rides on the flat that the bike is just a tool, that we still have to turn the cranks and pull the levers and push machine and rider uphill against gravity at speed? How can we convey to someone who has never shifted out of 34/26 that it's a totally different matter to push 53/12?
Likewise, part of me finds it a little ironic that fans of, for example, a sport that's played indoors, on polished, manicured, carefully-maintained courts in climate-controlled buildings can even begin to imagine that bike racing a 'wussy sport.' Not that I'm knocking b-ball (indeed, doing so in Louisville, KY could be hazardous to your health!) -- it definitely requires dedication, and it's not a 'wussy sport.' It would just be cool to see cycling get the respect it deserves.
In cycling, competitors must ride in whatever weather the heavens dish out (goes double in Flanders and Belgium), be it hundred-degree sun or thirty-degree sleet -- over whatever road conditions the local authorities dish out (goes double in Flanders and Belgium) -- up mountains, down valleys, and along decimating false flats. They do so day after day, for hours a day, even when their bodies want to quit on them. There's no 'one game a week,' no quarters or halves or half-time -- the race takes as long as it takes. Moreover, most of them make less money than teachers, entry-level secretaries, or even full-time bike couriers (indeed, couriers in big cities like Chicago, New York, and SF can still make pretty good money). Sure, some of them draw six-figure salaries, but a lot of them are scraping by on $18k - $25K a year (and, ironically, the ones who make the least money seem to have to invest the most in their own equipment!)
It seems difficult for a lot of folks to grasp the effort and endurance that takes.
What makes cycling really special in my mind, though, is the fact that amateurs -- racers and otherwise -- devote themselves to riding with the same fanatical intensity. They train hard, they ride in all kinds of crazy weather (indeed, many of us seem to relish the crazy weather). A lot of the racers do it knowing they might never win a race; like the non-racers, they're in it for the love of the sport, or because they love going fast on bikes, or both. For love (okay, and for the 3,000-calorie-a-day training diet!) they endure the cost of bikes and equipment, strains, sprains, falls, aches, pains ... some of us have even been known to ride with broken bones.
Yes, anyone can ride a bike. I even believe that almost anyone who wants to and is willing to make the sacrifices to put in the training hours is capable of real achievements on a bike -- riding a 1200k, for example, or taking a 3,000-mile tandem tour ... or carrying home eighty pounds of groceries in a backpack.
Oddly, many of the same people who don't regard cycling as a 'real' sport also don't think they can ride a bike ten miles. They don't believe they're capable of walking ten miles, and that's the only comparison they can imagine.
I suspect that, ultimately, the cure for this ailment will come along on its own as gas prices rise -- simply put, more of us will dust off our trusty old steeds, hop on, and ride. The more people ride, the more they appreciate what goes into riding -- and that's what it really takes, I think, for people to respect a given pastime.
Until then, you will find me riding around with my shaved legs and lycra and ridiculous fit-over sun-goggles and a couple of much-better-bikes-than-I-deserve, participating in a 'wussy sport' that asks everything I have and then some :)