Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bicycling Magazine's Appeal to the Peak Experience

Once in a long while a moment surprises us with all the ingredients of perfection: weather, motion, health, happiness, and meaning. This is rare, and sometimes laden with insight; the usual chaos of day-to-day living gives way to clarity, a sense of "this is IT."

Poets and artists call these fleeting seconds epiphanies. Others might call them bliss or magic or ecstasy (though that term now has other connotations). Bicycling Magazine, which is read by over 2 million readers, and claims to be the premier cycling publication, calls them "The One Thing," as in "The One Thing That Changed It All," and it portrays these images as a regular feature of the larger "Know How" section of the magazine.

In this series, readers of the magazine share a personal experience with cycling that gave them a reason to go on, a way to approach life, or a strategy to ride better, with more passion. The specifics vary, but the shared message is one of change, realization, or awakening. Bicycling sits down with readers for a personal chat of the most significant moments, one would think, of life, not just a bike ride. This is serious stuff and Bicycling collects testimonials from the faithful, has readers speaking intimately to other readers, in language that motivates, inspires, and, yes, transforms 98 pound weaklings into newer, better, more fully realized prophets of the wheel. You might think of the Buddha under the bodhi tree or other great spiritual teachers, but on a bike: picture Jesus in lycra racing up to the Sermon on the Mount.

The first impression viewers get of these testimonials to the redemptive power cycling is one of perfection, of achieving the ideal in terms of setting (always in nature), comfort (lovely weather), health (fit, young, beautiful), prosperous (great clothes and bikes), and moving (uniformly portrayed in as action pose).

In one a road twists like a serpent off toward the horizon. In another, the trail, covered with fallen leaves, looks like Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken" and its "yellow wood." Viewers see no traffic, no strip malls, no industrial smokestacks. No one seems worried about work, about juggling family responsibilities, paying health insurance premiums, income inequities, or having to put food on the table.

In terms of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, these models are at the apex. Judging from the images, they have the basics of food, shelter, clothing, community, and security. All they need to achieve is self-actualization. This impression fits with Bicycling's description of its readers. According to its mission statement, "Bicycling is the world's leading cycling magazine and connects with millions of active, affluent professionals for whom cycling is the centerpiece of a vibrant, experiential lifestyle." Some of the key terms here are "affluent," and "professionals." The magazine invokes in readers success and career, two traits that make it possible to concentrate on personal fulfillment through recreation. It's not surprising then that what is consistent across this genre is elite social status, and the freedom that status allows, to train, compete, and sculpt a lean, fit, and stylized look. 

While there are consistencies across the samples, Bicycling has strived to portray some diversity. The subjects in the photos vary in terms of race and gender. We see young women and men, but men outnumber women 3 to one, both in these four samples and the survey of two years of issues. One is black. They are well groomed, affluent, in their 20s or 30s, looking into the lens of the camera, or off toward some distant vista, with faces lit with confidence and ease with the world. These people have it together. The light is slanted, gauzy even, and their lean, muscular gams pop with definition. Three out of the four are standing, and the backdrop ranges from mountain ridges to heavily wooded forests. They look resolute, focused on what is coming, charging ahead, and happy. They look like people one would want to meet at a party, hang out with, travel to Colorado for a camping trip with. Viewers might want to know them, want to be them. They are the best of what an industrialized economy can provide, namely leisure, toys, and beautiful, unspoiled places to play. 

And they ride great bikes. The exact brands and models are not revealed, but a close look with an experienced eye ascertains right away that these are no ordinary machines. They are high-end rockets designed for competition. These are all tools for pro-level riders. They are all newish, made of carbon fiber, decked out with the best components, perfectly fitted. Some are road bikes, others, mountain bikes, still others are cyclo-cross bikes. Notably, bikes used for utility or transit are conspicuously absent. These machines serve purposes of recreation and competition. Likely, their owners drive or fly to the beautiful sites where they ride. Within that constraint, the message is clear: epiphanies are not limited to any specific discipline. The whole elite tribe, under the big tent, can find their deepest desires on bikes meant to fulfill recreation on and off road.

A closer look reveals a short, dreamy, narrative account to accompany the visual richness. The text depicts a specific moment, tells a brief story of that place and event, and then finds the meaning in it. One rider crashes and finds the courage to get back on the bike. Another finds inspiration in a professional rider's aggressive attacks during the Tour de France, attacks that would never result in winning the overall race but that yielded individual stage victories.

The language is casual, conversational, full to the brim with familiar motivational slogans. One states "I learned to go for the win, not to be content with just sitting on a wheel." ( "Sitting on a wheel" is an expression specific to cycling-speak, and stops just short of the much more pejorative expression "wheel sucking," which has obvious parasitical connotations.) This rider is now in the wind, risking everything, living life large, and if he gets "dropped" because he takes a risk, he claims "so be it."

Others broke a leg or did an iconic climb in France. Because of this experience cycling, they recovered, "discovered a passion," or realized "it's all mental." The thread of inspirational testimonials runs through the series as a bright and predictable tonic for readers looking for more reasons to ride their bikes. Like pleasant Hallmark cards, the realizations come to readers in an easy to digest generality that borders on the banal. These are more slogans or appetizers than real, hard-won life-changers. But that's what works, what doesn't require much work from readers. Complexity, ambivalence, nuance, or doubt, are conspicuously absent here. The larger meanings derived from these high points are lightweight bon-bons that we can all agree on and feel good about.

The magazine wants readers to trust their fellow riders' new-found direction and to identify with their stories. The narratives come across as helpful, friendly, intimate even. These testimonials open the door to a spiritual communion with bikes. One could say that the magazine is offering a kind of religion, a church of the bicycle.

I can't deny that I enjoy the articles and find myself opening to the personal, and vulnerable stories of fellow cyclists. There is no argument that exercise is an inescapable element of a healthy life, that cycling offers benefits like stress reduction, community connections, and emission-free transportation. I like the idea that cycling, or any physical activity done mindfully, can heal, and I want to believe in the church, the shared significance. I even confide such experiences with my cycling brethren and sisteren. We sometimes warm our hands at the fire of a shared lifestyle and bond as a tribe of velo geeks. But I can't quite call the sport, or industry, if you want to be blunt, a source of spiritual direction. They are just bikes, luxury toys, and bikes are a product that corporations want us to buy. There is a reason why many cyclists deride the magazine as "Buy-Cycling." They know that advertisers and the editors of magazines will do just about anything to promote and sell us their products.

So these testimonials are crafted and shaped to offer up simple fun, good stories, a heightened sense of meaning, and their purposes mix honest experience of readers with a subtle urge to upgrade, to buy, to travel, to be young and free enough to live the cycling ideal. They appeal to a dream-scape in which cycling can solve problems, provide direction, put viewers on a path to answers.

They are fun to enjoy, but only up to a point. The dream is a good one, its allure all but irresistible, an invitation to another life, its message "if only I had that, there, with that significance, then I would be happy."

If only changing it all were that simple...

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