“I love the urban combat of riding a bike in the city. I treat it as war because I believe it is.” Mark Francis Twight
What does an ex-extreme alpinist do when they can’t write about climbing as war any more? Well, they write about cycling as war.
Mark Twight is an ex-extreme (I feel like I’m stuttering) alpinist turned Vanity Fair -recognized fitness guru. In his active climbing career he was known for his exceptional attitude that saw mountain climbing not so much in terms of beauty and transcendence, as the classical 19th and 20th century alpinists did, but more in terms of going to war, or doing battle. His prolific and dark writing even earned him the nickname “Dr Doom”. Currently, some of his writing can be found in his personal website. In his piece “Cyclists vs Drivers” , he writes about cycling, of all things, as “war”. Reading the piece it kinda looks like cycling has become a surrogate activity of sorts for him, something where he still gets to feel that danger and excitement that he was accustomed to in extreme alpinism and, knowing only one way to write about his passions, he continues in the same style. I found the article so interesting that I’ll dedicate this little blog post to a discussion of it.
The cover of Twight’s collected writings. Credit: amazon.com
I’ll get to the actual piece shortly but I’ll first lay out some background for my interest in this topic. I have recently read much serious scholarly texts dealing with a variety of fascinating stuff, and thought long and hard on various theoretical issues, sometimes to the point of having doubt whether I actually understand anything about, well, anything, after all that reading. So, why am I writing about this low-brow thing?
Well, the first reason is personal: Since, due to a foot injury, I’m currently (though hopefully not permanently) unable to get my daily dosage of endorphin fix from running, I have lately been reduced to lifting weights and cycling in order to maintain a semblance of fitness. For this reason, I’ve spent more time than normal on my bike (meaning not just cycling to work* but also cycling to substitute running), and this has then led to some hair-raising encounters with drivers. Also, I’ve tried to find some inspirational writing on cycling to help get motivated for this.
The second reason is professional: My current article manuscript deals with things such as extreme athletes engaging in a self-perceived rebellion against the values of the current capitalist society. In a previous post on extreme athletes, I already showed one example of what this looks like. And, on a related note, I just recently borrowed a very interesting film called Bra Boys (I highly recommend watching the trailer behind the IMDB link), from my professor. I just watched it, and find it fascinating how it’s kinda similar to, e.g. the original Point Break film, but these guys are actually real, not movie characters.
In the manuscript that I’m working on I consider various forms of masculine protest, and especially how that protest sometimes takes place in nature, and whether there might exist a link between the two. For that reason, I find cultural phenomena like this so interesting.
What then, is the article about, and what does MFT say in it? In essence, the article likens cycling to war, and argues that in order to increase cyclist safety, aggression, not submission, is needed by the cyclists, as “the nanny state” is not going to protect the cyclist. Below I’ll quote at length some of the passages in the article (they are in italics to make them easier to distinguish). I’ll not do anything like a real analysis here, as it’s kind of beyond this blog post but if anyone else wants to do that, please do (I’m not going to do anything more serious than this with the text). I have lifted some of the more interesting statements here for your pleasure and just jotted down some personal thoughts on them. If you want to read the whole thing, follow the link in the first paragraph. It’s a bit long but interesting (OMG my first half-opportunity to use a “that’s what she said” joke yet I find myself hesitating whether I should keep this blog more politically correct than that. Oh well, I guess that ship has sailed already…).
Disclaimer: Although I do admit that I find this kind of writing entertaining, I don’t actually agree with most of it. Now that I’m legally and otherwise covered, let’s proceed.
Cycling warriors of a previous generation. Credit: brookings.edu
Twight claims that aggression is a prerequisite of a safe rider: “When assertive is not enough be aggressive. The driver is operating a deadly weapon. You are not. The ONLY defense is offense. Be proactive. Be willing to educate a driver with physical force – because if he or she behaves contrary to the law and to your rights ignorance of said law or rights is no excuse. Educate him – or her.” So first, he begins by asserting the right to resort to physical violence to get your point across. Physical violence even towards women, it should be noted.
Next, he outlines in some more detail how a properly aggressive cyclist should act:”Ride in what ever way you believe makes riding safer for you. It’s your ass that might get smoked so make decisions and take action according to what you believe is best for you in that moment. The admonitions or righteousness of others be damned. When I believe it is safer for me to jump a red light than to sit idle, with a foot down, in traffic, defenseless (because I have more options when I am moving) then I WILL run that light. If you want to shout or sing or have words because you think my actions affect you in a way that is of greater importance than my safety then have at it. Maybe we can educate each other.” And again, here is the same reference to “education”.
Then, he draws the lines between ‘their’ tribe (the cyclists) and ‘their’ ‘enemies’:”No, the red light-jumping cyclist incurs driver wrath because he is not in their tribe. No cyclist is. All cyclists are targets because they are outsiders.” This is strikingly similar to the way the protagonists in the Point Break movies, and also in Bra Boys, position themselves as outsiders. Also, it’s how many extreme athletes publicly pose. He then further justifies the opposition between cyclists and drivers by claiming that drivers actually “hate” cyclists:”Drivers hate cyclists because they break the law and get away with it. The fearful law-abider hates the cavalier outlaw because the outlaw represents what he has repressed in himself.” This essentially server to justify the aggression that the cyclist feels, by constructing a self-imposed dichotomy between the two factions. He also draws on Freud’s notion of the suppressed to further justify the separation.
Next, he further asserts his own rules concerning issues such as listening to music while riding (Frowned upon by some, but then again, Twight was known to listen to dark and aggressive music during some of his most dangerous solo climbs, and once proclaimed that: “When the going gets tough, the tough turn up the volume.”):”If you like riding to a soundtrack then by all means wear headphones and turn it up as loud as you choose to. Unless, of course, the presence of music makes you ride stupidly. If music prevents you from practicing aware, attentive and assertive riding then you shouldn’t listen while you ride. If music does not negatively affect your competent cycling behavior then crank it. Car drivers are listening to music, talking on the phone and texting. They are operating deadly weapons. If one of them is going to smoke me I’m going down to a death metal soundtrack. And if I am beating the shit out of – excuse me, educating – an ignorant driver I want that same soundtrack. ” Again, we’re back at education. The image of a death metal-listening cyclist “educating” a driver is rather violent.
He then launches on to a critique (of sorts) of the modern capitalist society: “Most drivers – at least the ones who actually see you and many don’t – think you are a loser who doesn’t earn enough money to buy a car, that you don’t pay taxes or own property, that you are marginal and not fully participating in society. You are holding them back and they – the real contributors to the success of the economy – have the right to threaten you, nudge you, bump you, coerce you, and condemn you because you don’t conform, nor could you possibly produce anything meaningful for society. They know this because you have chosen to ride an outdated, under-horsepowered vehicle that is more closely tied to recreation than to productivity.” Of course, Twight is a successful entrepreneur himself, and I’m probably reading too much into this ‘critique’. I still find it interesting. It should be noted, though, that this critique draws on a very specifically American way of perceiving cyclist-driver relationships.
To conclude, he states what I myself sometimes think (kind of, but usually only when I’ve just encoountered a particularly hairy situation and/or am already otherwise pissed about something else): “Every one of them is trying to kill you. The sooner you accept it and change your behavior to address it the sooner you will see that the campaign cyclists need is not one of toothless diplomacy. Frederick the Great’s declaration that, “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments” is worth remembering.” Frederick the Great, of course, said many interesting things, some of which were very aggressive. But, he also had another side:
So that’s it for this exposition. No great conclusions coming up, this was just to showcase another aspect of a phenomenon I currently find interesting. In many ways, this is your standard masculine aggression, just written better than many other similar things. One reason why I picked up on it was that its writer was in fact a famous alpinist before, and although he often likened his alpinism to going to war, he also explicitly recognized the importance of respecting nature and not causing it any more harm than absolutely necessary. Also, the warlike aspects of his relationship to climbing can be seen as respecting the deadly force of nature enough to take it absolutely seriously.
In any case, in reading all of the above it behooves to keep in mind that Twight’s attitude stems from punk rock, and that, seeing that he still has the “Dr Doom” moniker to live up to, he probably writes some of his stuff tongue-in-cheek and hopes to provoke as many people as possible.
*I do confess that I get some kind of smug self-satisfaction when I swish by the stalling or slowly crawling cars in my snappy hybrid bike along the traffic-congested road that is my commute.
Featured image of MFT (not visible in mobile theme) credit: pages.rapha.cc
P.S. Twight’s perhaps most provocative, and most influential, piece of writing can be accessed here.
P.P.S. Now is the time to enjoy the quintessential Finnish drinking holiday called Vappu. Cheers!