The Denial of Death...and the Tour of California

Professional cycling mirrors much of the drama of human life. Cycling's ethos of pain and suffering, along with its promise of triumph and victory, seems to reflect a common human longing--as well as reinforce a potent myth.

The first two stages of the recent Amgen Tour of California, now America's biggest stage race, were ridden in horrid conditions--cold, wet, and rainy. Crashes abounded. Asked what it felt like racing in this mess, eventual winner Levi Leipheimer vividly remarked, "You wanna know what it feels like? Turn on your shower as cold as it gets and stand underneath it for four hours." Actually, more accurately, race up and down wet roads at breakneck speed, try to avoid crashes (and if you crash, shrug it off, jump right back on your bike and keep on pedaling). Brave a strong wind off the coast, try to stay warm with minimal clothing, and do it for four to five hours each day for 7-8 days. To hear most of the racers describe it, is to hear their overuse of the customary word "bit": as in, "It was a bit cold." Or: "It was a bit tougher than we'd anticipated." Or even: "I'm a bit sore." Pro cycling is steeped in a culture of toughness, of suffering, frankly, of an almost overeager masochism which motivates the rider to push himself to the limit of human physical endurance.

In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published a now-famous book entitled The Denial of Death. His thesis was that human beings are never comfortable with their mortality. The sure and certain prospect of death is terrifying, wrote Becker, therefore, humans have constructed hero myths and the cult of the superhero as ways of trying to transcend the grave. We revel in heroes and heroines, dramatic death-defying feats, and anything else which hints at the possibility of overcoming death. I think cycling plays right into that. To watch lycra-clad racers subject themselves to all kinds of suffering, from training to crashes, and to watch them get up--from bed or the ground or the hospital room, shake off the pain and do it again, is great fodder for our collective denial of death. Maybe aging isn't inevitable, we say. Look at Lance! He's making a comeback at age 37. Maybe we can overcome cancer, we say--again, look at Lance! Maybe with the right training, discipline, technology, whatever, we can in fact triumph over the grave.

I was blown away, watching the last stage over Mount Palomar in Escondido: I saw several fathers running at breakneck speed alongside the race leaders, holding up their infants as they ran, almost as if to ask their blessing from the passing pantheon of cycling gods. Was it a strange baptism they sought? A champion's christening for their young? Some guarantee against the grave? Weird, weird moment. Kind of Michael Jacksonian, too, if you know what I mean.

It's great to be drawn into the epic story of a cycling stage race. It's a stage all right, a stage on which is played out much of the human saga of tragedy and triumph. But let's be clear: cycling victories notwithstanding, death is still 100%. Only one person beat death. And only one person can help us beat death. And his name isn't Lance.

A Tired Template...and An Exciting New Comeback!

I've been too serious in these postings lately, so it's time for something superficial! So what does a pastor do to unwind, to relax with his family, to distract his attention from weighty matters? This pastor watches American Idol--and follows the comeback of recently un-retired Lance Armstrong. They're similar and oh-so different, it seems to me.

American Idol...where do I begin? This is a show well past its prime, in my opinion. Why I tune in week after week in this Season 8, I really don't know. Sure, they've added a new judge, Kara. What she really contributes, I'm not sure. The voting of the judges, I've concluded, has nothing to do with the talent of the contestants. That's become patently obvious. What they vote upon is the creation of cast of contestants that will assure them viewership, particularly in certain demographics. Among the more serious contenders, they inexplicably choose the most eccentric contestants, presumably because they will provoke viewers and add some dramatic tension or ridiculous entertainment to the mix. I've gotten to the point of turning the TV off--it's become, for me at least, that predictably bad. The only thing that keeps me tuning in, is that it's a show the whole family can watch together, sharing groans and all. SpongeBob Squarepants might come close--but my wife fails to appreciate its subtle, sophisticated humor.

What Idol is teaching me is that there really is a shelf life to creative ideas. Slavishly working the program year after year doesn't yield the same results. What was fresh and dynamic a few years back has now become tired and predictable--even if you do move the judging venue to the "judges' mansion" (isn't that the same place The Bachelor was filmed?!) and have a sing-off or two. Ugh. Gag. The taste of milk past its spoil date...

Contrast this to Lance's comeback in cycling. Now, I'm not an early adopter of The Return, a big fan of the comeback from the get-go. I confess it all feels very Dara Torres-ish to me, if you know what I mean. I suppose that publicity for Lance's anti-cancer Livestrong campaign is noteworthy and admirable, but I still think this is about the Alpha Dog getting some fresh meat. But to his credit, Lance is an exceptionally gifted athlete who instead of reworking a thoughtless, predictable template, is coming back after three years out of racing and facing an enormously strong competition and racing races he judiciously avoided before (Tour Down Under in Australia, the Giro D'Italia, and a bunch of others before Le Tour). Lance's reign on the bike is probably as long as American Idol's run, but Lance can't just rely on old ways of doing things . He's got to adapt and risk and reinvent himself. This feels "formula-free." Therein lies the freshness which a stale Idol season desperately needs.