Cycling and Alcohol Abuse

In Grade Ten I reached an unusual conclusion about my friend Carl, the school drunk: it seemed to me that all the cycling I was doing had something in common with all the drinking that he was doing. I immediately shared my idea with my friends.

“I think Carl drinks so much alcohol for the same reason I go for long bike rides.”

I got some irritated and incredulous looks. One friend was particularly judgmental, and snapped, “I don’t think he drinks to get healthy!” And that was the end of the discussion.

I was irritated: shouldn’t it be obvious, if I’m comparing cycling to alcohol abuse, that I don’t ride my bike to be healthy? It was so frustrating. Why were there always morons around me, knocking me down?

But I digress. There was no point in explaining my idea. Clearly my peers were not receptive to discussions about the emotional and cognitive motivations underlying habitually excessive activities.

I, on the other hand, was very receptive: I wanted to explain why I found cycling so appealing, and I was even prepared to compare it to alcohol. In other words, I was willing to scrutinize my activity under a very harsh light. What was my motive for questioning my motives? It was such a long time ago. Who knows? But I often think back to this discussion, and nod approvingly. How could I have been such an astute observer of my own psychology at such a young age? How could I have been so open to the possibility that there may have been something wrong with an activity I found so enjoyable? What an amazing young man I was!

But, to be fair, what was I driving at? Why did I think teenage alcohol abuse had something in common with riding one’s bike 300km per week? This strange idea has remained with me these past thirty years, and I think it is worth elaborating now.

HEROIC EXPLOITS

Each in our own way, we were trying to impress our peers, to win their awe, respect, and admiration. Being a fifteen year-old binge drinker, Carl was a hero, both during parties and whenever tales of debauchery were retold in front of lockers and in the lunchroom. Being the only boy in school who rode his bike habitually and excessively, I was a hero, too, of sorts. Each of us used his “power” to demonstrate his superiority over others: Carl could drink more than anyone, and I could ride further and longer.

I understood very well that there was a darker motivation underlying our need to impress others. We used our excessive behaviour to overcome feelings of inferiority. I did not know what was bothering Carl; but I did know that he would not have drank so much if he had already felt satisfied, respected, and loved. Clearly the alcohol was compensating for something. In my case, I felt that a murky cloud of disrespect permanently hung over my head. I was continuously made fun of because of my extreme height, skinny frame, and unusually curly hair. Bullies would attack me in the gym change room, and then tease me in the classroom. Obviously, their ideas about me were unacceptable. I had to do something to assert myself, something to keep my sense of agency in my own hands.

By taking on cycling at the age of fourteen, I proved to myself that I was unquestionably tough. I endured long hours fighting against the elements, transport trucks, and Harley Davidsons. And I did it all alone. Road kill was my only company. So by the time I reached fifteen, I could bear the jocks’ jibes with equanimity. I knew it was they who were the wimps: surely they would piss their pants if a transport truck passed them at 80-100km/hr within inches of their shoulder; surely they would lose their minds if that guy in the Monte Carlo SS played chicken with them on that desolate roadway on a Sunday at noon; and surely they would cry for their mommies every time they started shivering from the cold on an early March morning. So cycling helped me remind my classmates that they could not dismiss me. I was not a nobody. I was not a wimp. Not only was I more valuable than they had assumed, but I was actually a great deal more valuable than they were. My cardiovascular health, my endurance, my courage, my mental stamina, my ability to plan and organize long rides in the winter, summer, spring, and fall, on these and many other matters, I was their superior.

AN UNWANTED HERO

Of course, I was completely ignored by most, and utterly despised by others. Whereas Carl always invited people to join him in his drinking, I never invited anyone to join me on my rides. Carl had friends, lots of them; I had relatively few, and none of them would get up at 5am to join me for a ride before school. Whereas Carl’s openness about his drinking made others feel relief (At least I don’t drink as much as Carl!), my cycling made others feel uncomfortable (What is he doing? Why is he so passionate about it? And why is he such a blowhard?).

Even though both Carl and I were hoping to distinguish ourselves from others, in the end, our goal, ironically, was to be accepted, to belong. We wanted to be different not in order to be outcasts, but in order to be loved, and loved on our own terms. On the one hand, we wanted to prove our bravery by showing which rules didn’t really matter. On the other hand, we tested the rules in order to learn about ourselves. Who were we? What could we withstand? What still mattered to us even after we had let others see our struggle with weakness? The hope of this entire process is to learn who you really are, or who you really want to be, and then, with that knowledge, find your acceptance, and be accepted on your own, very informed terms.

Things worked out well for Carl. Carl got approval because the rules he was breaking were familiar. Teens and alcohol belong together. True, no one could condone his drinking, not openly; but they could join him from time to time and enjoy his stories. To this day Carl has friends that remember him fondly, all thanks to his drinking prowess.

I was ostracized because the rules I was breaking were not even on people’s radar. The jocks could not be impressed because they simply could not understand what I was doing. It didn’t make any sense to them why they should care that I was a stronger cyclist than them. Had I beaten them at hockey or football, then they would have respected me. That I had beaten them in cycling, which meant nothing to them, they could just stop looking at me. Since I was aiming to arouse their feelings of jealousy and inferiority in an arena where they could not participate, they simply stopped acknowledging my existence. Carl revolted with alcohol and the crowd encircled him and gave him a place at the top of every party. I revolted with cycling and the crowd turned around and walked away. It was as if I had broken the law, did everything in my power to get caught, and, despite myself, gotten away with it.

[One might well wonder why the 45 year old man is contemplating the ideas of the 15 year old. These ideas are incomplete and will need to be continued. Hopefully it won’t take another 30 years!]

Portrait of the Randonneur as a Young Man
1990. The young randonneur contemplates the validity of his activity.

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Diary of a Randonneur by Timo Grav is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.