The Dignity of Quitting
Does not being moved by a tremendous cycling effort make you some sort of sociopath?
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Cycling is a sport of narratives, and as we move into the Grand Tours, the riders will enter gripping new tales of triumph, despair, and salbutamol into the annals of sporting history. But with the Classics behind us, some of this season’s most compelling stories have already been written. Consider for example the one of Evaldas Siskevicius, the brave rider who refused to abandon Paris-Roubaix.
Siskevicius’s story went viral, but in case you missed it, basically what happened was that with 30 kilometers to go in the race, he got overtaken by the broom wagon. Instead, despite being outside the time limit, he insisted on continuing anyway. With 17 kilometers to go, he got a flat, but incredibly managed to get a wheel and keep going. Finally, he arrived at the Roubaix Velodrome, where race winner Peter Sagan had long since rinsed the conditioner out of his hair and security was closing the gate. However, in deference to Siskevicius’s perseverance, the race organization allowed him in to symbolically finish the race. A hero was born.
Siskevicius explained his motivation thusly:
“I do not like to give up, either on the bike or in other things in life, nor did I want to give up out of respect for the organization,” he said. “Paris-Roubaix is a monument that you must honor. I came to the vélodrome, the organization had already started to close the gate, but they were so sympathetic to let me in. That way I could still ride my lap and a half on the track.”
It’s easy to see why cycling fans responded so strongly to this story. For one thing, everybody loves a kid with moxie. For another, Paris-Roubaix is probably the hardest one-day race there is, and on top of that, cycling is probably the hardest sport there is, which means that even by finishing outside the time limit, Siskevicius accomplished something most of us never could. Then there’s the fact that cycling fans are starved for good news: incessant doping scandals aside, Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts died tragically of cardiac arrest during this very race. So, given all of this, you’d have to be some sort of sports sociopath not to find Siskevicius’s story moving. Right?
Alas, I think maybe I’m a sociopath.
Of course I undertand why Siskevicius’s ride was remarkable, and if it were to come up at a cocktail party, I’d no doubt join everyone else in gushing about it. Indeed, I’d probably even propose a toast to the guy, badly mangling his name in the process. But this is precisely what makes me a sociopath, because even as I raised my glass, I’d be secretly thinking about how I’m not particularly moved by Siskevicius’s refusal to give up, and if anything I’m even a little irritated by it, especially because they kept the velodrome open for him. It’s like he arrived at Target just as they were locking the doors for the night and they let him in because all he needed was some dental floss and they felt bad for him. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. He’s supposed to wait until tomorrow like the rest of us.
Sure, Dylan Thomas may have exhorted us to rage against the dying of the light, but he drank himself to death at 39, so there you go.
This is far from the first time I’ve resented a rider for trying. Back in 2013, at Tirreno-Adriatico, Taylor Phinney rode by himself for 120 kilometers while being lashed with cold rain in a valiant attempt to finish inside the time limit so he could continue the race the next day. He didn’t make it and was cut. Cycling fans and media were unanimous in their praise for his indomitable spirit, while I bit my tongue and secretly harbored the opinion that he was kind of a schmuck for not bailing early and taking a hot bubble bath.
So what’s wrong with me?
Well I can’t be a complete psychopath. After all, I pass all the other litmus tests for ethical and responsible cycling fandom. I feel joy for the victors and empathy for the defeated, where appropriate. I detest crashes and the sight of injured riders. I celebrate the tenacity of the lanterne rouge, and admire any rider who manages to stay in the race by the skin of his or her chamois.
It’s just that once you’re dropped I want nothing to do with you.
In my defense, I suspect I’m unmoved by these sorts of stories for precisely the same reason everybody else is so moved by them. Unlike fans of other sports, cycling fans (at least U.S. cycling fans) are often also participants. We ride, we race, and we follow the pros on Strava, all of which puts us more in touch with their humanity. While baseball fans may openly jeer and revile the opposing team, we recognize and appreciate the suffering each and every competitor is enduring in a bike race regardless of nationality or team affiliation, because we’ve experienced it (or at least some version of it) ourselves. This is why—lighthearted cyclocross heckling and the odd caulking gun aside—we’re a pretty respectful bunch.
Therefore, like my fellow cycling fans, I too can easily imagine myself in Evaldas Siskevicius’s position, which is to say within sight of your goal as the bristles of the broom wagon tickle the back of your neck. However, unlike my fellow cycling fans who might take this as motivation to dig deeper, I see it for what it is: the universe telling you it’s time to quit. As long as you’re still in the race every effort is warranted, but once you’re outside the time limit bravery is futility and surrender is aquiescence. Sure, Dylan Thomas may have exhorted us to rage against the dying of the light, but he drank himself to death at 39, so there you go. And while sometimes they’ll open the doors for you at Target, most of the time they’ll shrug and walk away, even if you’re only late because you missed the subway by half a second and had to wait for the next one.
I’m all for fighting, but at a certain point there’s more dignity in letting go.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich