Monday, September 07, 2009

14 Discuss : Contemporary Body Culture In Cycling

Anthropology of sport is an emerging research area for Dr. Brian Joseph Gilley of the University of Vermont. His research narrows in on the ways body culture in professional road cycling articulates with transnational sporting tradition and business. In particular, he is concentrating on the surveillance of bodily movement (inspired by the work of Henning Eichberg, a famous cultural sociologist) by the cycling sports industry. This research includes investigations into the ways cyclists manage their bodies and the ways specific forms of bodily movement are endorsed by the cycling sports industry (fortunately or unfortunately).

Attached below are 4 pages from a paper of Dr. Gilley's focusing in on the culture of the cycling sport. Titled Cyclist Subjectivity: Corporeal Management And The Inscription Of Suffering, it suggests that to deconstruct cycling discourse is to reveal the mechanisms of an unquestioned set of values governing individual bodies. Dr. Gilley seeks to answer where these values came from and highlights a picture for us where the political economy of cycling and techniques of corporeal management are all surrounded on one thing - the individual cyclist's body.

After you have finished reading, you can engage in a discussion here with me on issues of the body culture in our sport. This is an interesting topic and some questions ring in my mind for you people across the world. Questions such as the following :

Has our "established" values and systems of cycling body culture (that you see on TV, read about, or hear from other people) forced you to do some things with your body that you would otherwise not have done had you not been a cyclist?

Have you been pressured to dope? Have you starved yourself or lost an unhealthy amount of weight to stay with the weekend group ride or gain that addition in your power to weight ratio? Have you lost out in a relationship where your partner wouldn't accept you spending so much time and energy training, and on top of it all, looking gaunt and weary in parties and other social events because of this training? Do you think there's a stigma in your country or culture around "thin" because "thin" is considered inferior? Have you lost a job because your boss thought you look unhealthy and not suited for the task and you reached that state due to your cycling activities? Are you always in the widely popular mindset of "ride strong, ride fast, take risks" that you get yourself involved in unnecessary crashes and injuries which, of course, risk your health?

C'mon, let's talk!
Anything is possible on this blog!

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Overemphasizing Power To Weight Ratio

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  1. A revealing, enlightening article which shines a cold-light on the relentless industrialization of sport in general, cycling in particular.

    I confess that unwittingly I've bought into the rhetoric of "suffering" and body "disipline-and-punish". But thanks to Gilley, this buy-in emerges from the murkiness of subconscious into full awareness.

    It's a great example of the social/cultural value of anthropology as an important academic discipline.

    Thanks for a eye-opening article!


  2. This is a great topic for a discussion!

    I think the United Nations humans rights group should have a close watch at endurance sports, particularly the field of pro cycling. I'm not joking. I think our modern culture has gone beyond a point where suffering, punishment, levels of difficulty are all accepted and the individuals who come out of these tests alive are considered heroes, and the sponsors and companies that stand behind them stand to make huge amounts of money. We've desensitized human suffering. Who in the world knows what these athletes are going through for the promise of a good life, six figure incomes (if they make it) and what else.

    This year when I watched the Tour de France, my wife asked me whether this was a healthy sport. I think my words were : 'I don't think so'.

  3. There's no doubt that the body culture of cycling, running and other sports encourages suffering through long hours of time and exercise and those who do so are venerated while others who don't aren't. I read coach Joe Friel's blog and here's something from a post that he wrote which sounded true from a body culture standpoint :

    "My concern was that all of us (athletes and non-athletes) subtly encourage everyone to do the longest events as if some how they are the 'true' endurance events. For example, if a running race offers both a 5km and a 10km there is almost always pressure to enter the 10km. You may even hear runners' comments, often in a joking way but nevertheless revealing what they feel, that 'real' runners do the longer events.

    I was trying (apparently not very successfully) to make the point that this is also starting to happen in triathlon. It's not very healthy for triathlon. Finishing an Ironman has become the ultimate goal in the sport. It wasn't that way back in the 1980s when triathlon was new. Then the US Triathlon Series was a big deal in this country. Placing high in your age group, posting a fast time, and perhaps even qualifying for the National Championship was considered to be a goal every bit as worthy as finishing an Ironman. I hear of far fewer people setting such goals any more. That's too bad. Going fast is very challenging in itself and very rewarding when accomplished ('fast' in relation to the athlete only - not to some absolute time for everyone)."

  4. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Talk about hitting the right topic. The organizers of a decent cycle tour near my area think some "fat" is bad and cycling with compact gearing is "wimpy" or in other words, for losers. Its as if they determine fitness by what gearing you ride on. That's ridiculous. Body culture or whatever it is, people's idea nowadays of a peaceful, recreational ride is an absolute, non-social, all guns blazing 30 mile ride until everyone is the group is literally dying by the end. If you can't stick with the group, 'you must really suck as a bike rider.'

  5. There is a good amount of BS in our cycling culture. What others have described here is one reason I don't take part in too many races or join the only group ride (unfortunately) in our community on the weekends. For these guys, going fast is the only way to enjoy a bike ride. This introduces a lot of sketchy behavior, as they block roads by piling up in 4's and 5's and scream through intersections without double checking for cars. Its a tense moment for anyone in a group ride. Gilley's research could further explore how dangerous cycling has gotten simply because of the extent to which people push themselves in rigor and intensity to get some level of acceptance by the cultural standards. Its a great topic and an important topic.

  6. All great comments so far. Thank you. Yes Rib @ 5:55am, it is an enlightening paper and must be read by people who like to just stop and stare at the cycling scene from a distance. There is an invisible code in cycling, set by culture, that sets the proportions and methods by which bodily suffering is to be undergone. Reputation and honor is all based on how you inflict suffering upon others, upon yourself.

    I would love to hear about what others think too. Bring it on.

  7. Anonymous4:00 PM

    since when did you need research to show that cycle sport is focused on the individual cyclist. its always been like that. its where the money is.

  8. Oh, and I thought you wanted to discuss the topic of guys shaving their legs... :-)

    While I agree that this is an interesting article (I must confess I did not read it in depth but rather flew through it) I was wondering: Isn't this also true for a lot of other professional sports? Gymnastics came to mind, athletics, Ironman...

  9. Its a tough topic to discuss. I think I did my job in exposing Dr. Gilley's research work. There's really a lot to bicycle racing than you and I think there is!

  10. Cycling is the great activity,it's very interesting topic for discuss,thanks ..nice article

  11. Enormous muscled legs!?!?

    I haven't seen any enormous muscled legs in the pro peleton's. Muscled yes, but lean and thin. Perhaps the author is thinking track cycling, that's a whole world away from European road cycling. This article seems to cripple itself from the get go. There is no dispute that body image is important to road cyclists, there is no dispute whether road cyclists pursue to the extreme what they can to win. But I feel that this paper is more about an academic having to find something to do and people who are a tad overly image conscious themselves exploring it.

  12. ahhh lovely topic... I think this is where "burn out" comes from. Yes, I live in a bustling cycling community and frequently get questions like, "How much do you ride?", or, "what's the longest ride you've ever done?" or "why aren't you racing?" etc. etc. Interestingly, I never get questions like, "what's the most pretty, scenic or most fun ride/race you have ever done?"

    In fact, I was brought into this sport by my fiance' SPECIFICALLY, because he knew that I liked to over do it and injure myself while running, so he thought I would enjoy being able to torture myself and suffer on a bike! LOL... strange when it's actually typed into words.

    I competed in a road race a few weeks ago, was dropped horribly and haven't ridden my road bike since, because I've been in a funk -- I have, however, ridden my mountain bike...because it's FUN. I do think "fun" is often left out these days... and as my fiance' said earlier today, "no, he's not doing the local ride tonight, because sometimes he's just sick to death of being beaten up on by higher Cat racers and SOMETIMES, he just wants to ride his bike...for fun, alone, cuz he wants to". I second that.

    It's a given... it's become all about the suffering, how much I can suffer, how much I can make you suffer...but sometimes... like today, I want to ride a bike for the same reason my 10 year old wants to ride his, cuz it's fun!

  13. oddly, this has called to mind Philip K. Dick's Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that inspired the movie Blade Runner.

    In the book there was a religion based upon pain - if one could only stand the pain long enough - I think it was dispensed by either a home appliance or handheld device - if you made it, you would become enlightened. Or something. I'm not certain - read a long time ago.

    I remember thinking how odd that paricular bit seemed to me at the time. And then I ran a marathon, became injured trying to run more of them more frequently, have been thinking of trying again but have stopped, briefly, to think a bit about what I'm doing.

    The article is very revealing - the time difference between exercising for health versus training for an event is very large, and my "I have a lot of fun at the events" was doing a pitiful job of covering the gaps.

    Strange religion.

  14. The physical act of bicycling stimulates my mind and my body, in a form that no other recreational activity has yet to reach. The temperature of the human body is regulated by the hypothalamus, an area in the brain. Maintaining body temperature at balanced level is important for a cyclist to avoid the risks.
    Cycling Mind


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