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.

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