The Art of Cycling
By James Hibbard
Published by Quercus 2021
Reviewed by Steve Dyster
I’ve always assumed – almost certainly unfairly – that success in professional cycle racing requires great physical strength as well as phenomenal mental toughness as opposed to philosophical reflection. That is not to say that away from the bike a professional cyclist cannot be a deep thinker, just that I have rarely associated the two in the midst of competition. This book confirms the brutality of professional racing, but contradicts any notion that racing cyclists cannot be academics, too.
James Hibbard is a former professional cyclist who has studied philosophy at the University of California and DePaul University. He is also a successful speaker and writer, with his first feature film screenplay currently under development. Perfectly qualified to tell the story of a career in pro bike racing and bring a wide knowledge of philosophy to reflect on that and life and cycling after racing.
The author is a native Californian, which cynics might suggest goes with the territory of mixing sport and philosophy. I’m not amongst those, but you are not necessarily going to find this an easy read. There’s no need to have a knowledge of philosophy and philosophers, but you may find yourself reaching for your encyclopaedia or heading to your favourite search engine. If philosophy ain’t your bag, then look forward to the no-holds barred brutality of the training regime.
Fundamentally, the text mixes the experiences of a young man on the road to professional cycling success with a narrative of a trip with old friends down the Pacific Coast Highway. Needless to say, success, failure, sudden changes of circumstance and fortune, moving on from racing into civilian life with new challenges and opportunities. With an academic interest in philosophy, James Hibbard reflects and explains on cycling and life. I’m inclined to think he gets a good deal of comfort from it, too – the consolation of philosophy.
The current zeitgeist of mindfulness and the suggestion that we should live more in the moment and focus less on what comes next does not really fit in with elite sport – or even club Strava fanatics. Working toward the next PB or the next level race is very much to the forefront. Equally, in life, a focus on where we are going and what we want to achieve, can dominate our thinking. The notion that we should forget all that and just immerse ourselves in the immediate is a familiar one to touring cyclists – self-sufficient, enjoying the scenery, tasting the weather, the only real care what the ratio of icing to cake will be at the next café to come along (alright, that is me, but I do not believe I am alone). James Hibbard writes of that hiss of the tyres as one pushes the pedals, and what a calming, reassuring sound it is, but it is also one full of anticipation. In any case, philosophy takes us deeper than just a juxta-position between the ‘now’ and the ‘future’. James will lead, just follow, and decide if you atto go even deeper.
James Hibbard is clearly a stronger and faster cyclist than I, and living in his moment is a different experience to mine. However, as I read, I got an insight into his thinking and how things were often counter-intuitive. Change and continuity as life moved on; one gets a feel as to how philosophy and sport can offer us lessons for other aspects of life.
This is a surprisingly practical book as well as an entertaining and thoughtful read with insights into the cycling life and thankfully clear explanations of how philosophers have influenced our take on life, as evidenced by the careers of a former professional cyclist and his love of cycling.