This long post is my belated Juneteenth entry, but its content spans three decades, and however much it wanders into seemingly dissimilar ideas all of them serve as anagrams of the post’s title.
And while Juneteenth is a holiday of celebration, this blog post is in response to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmuad Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and the consequent movement for justice, with acknowledgment that there are too many others to name, and too many whose names are tragically not even known.
As a preliminary apology, I don’t think I have any right to talk about racial discrimination or even simply being Black in America. I wouldn’t presume to know how it might feel to have one’s life shaped by either. At the same time it seems equally insensitive to post another blog entry that’s still just about cycling and bike fit, as if there’s nothing more important to discuss at this time. So, at the risk of this post being self-indulgent either way, I’ll respectfully opt for adding my voice to the protests.
While my work over the last two decades has focused on cycling generally speaking and cyclists’ biomechanics more specifically, in the prior decade I had also been an active artist as counterpoint to being a bike guy. One of the working principles I tried to strive for as an artist was summed up by French writer and philosopher Paul Valéry: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing that one sees.” As it implies, the aspiration is to be able to see the world without projecting preconceived beliefs on it. The flip side of that working principle was my interest (seemingly antithetical) in Semiotics - the study of Signs - which as it implies includes not just the language of visual symbols, but really anything that communicates meaning that is not the sign itself. In the early 1990’s those working principles guided me through a number of projects that focused on Racial Profiling and both the media’s role and the prevailing attitudes which created the background for the Rodney King beating and the subsequent L.A. riots over the officers’ acquittal the following year. I cannot claim to have ever engaged in any meaningful activism, but the more that my eyes were opened to the pervasive racism behind so many events and actions and injustices, it seemed hard to use Valéry’s standard of seeing in a way that wasn’t disrespectful. It would be hard to justify disassociating racism, past and present, from why one person’s life is different than another’s. It is understood Valéry wasn’t asking to forget a name to erase or sanitize it, but it’s hard to determine when someone - or oneself - is seeing without bias versus being disingenuous. Even with race having been determined to be nonexistent in biological terms, the social construct is so impactful that the aspiration to be willfully colorblind is to miss the point and in fact not see the reality of many people’s lives. It’s why All Lives Matter misses the point as a counter-argument to Black Lives Matter even if it’s true as a lower-case statement.
Last week, I returned a favor to a neighbor, and client, of mine by picking up his bike at his house for me to take to work for some service. He’s been too busy to do so himself, and he lives just around the corner so it seemed like an easy enough task, which it was. He is taller than I am by a few inches and has a very tall saddle height, so not only was it too dark that evening for me to ride the bike home, it was clearly not my size. As I was walking back with it I realized how implicitly uncomplicated it was for me to do so. If I were Black, though, and not a middle-age white male, historical and recent events tell us that that same action could have easily been labeled as “acting suspiciously,” since it was obvious that the bike was not mine. I realized further down the street that ironically I have another tall client who has almost identical proportions to this bike’s owner and has an almost identical bike fit, but who is black. Walking along with a bike sized perfectly for him should look anything but suspicious, especially with him looking the part of the athlete that he is, but far less has been shown as grounds for being targeted. Meanwhile, I had the freedom to walk down the street with someone else’s expensive bike and not think twice about it. I’ve been in equivalent situations my whole life, simply because of being white.
Last month, in my first blog post I brought up the concept of “Pattern Recognition” as fundamental to bike fitting. Last month, it felt at that time like so much of the world as we knew it had altogether changed because of the reality of the pandemic really sinking in. That new reality didn’t particularly strike any chords about cycling or efficient biomechanics other than forcing me to add some new fitting options for clients, with services now needing to be done differently for safety’s sake. Hence the emphasis on Pattern Recognition as what establishes the underpinning of fitting protocol, and it allowing for less quantitative and more unstructured ways of addressing cyclists’ biomechanics and problems, even outside of the fitting studio.
Of course, Pattern Recognition contributes to how baseball batting coaches or tennis coaches or pottery teachers have all been able to successfully teach and raise the abilities of those seeking improvement long before video analysis or numerically-based, logarithm-based analytics. More generally, Pattern Recognitionhas always been intrinsic to any kind of learning by humans, and all species needing to adapt to their surroundings. Pattern Recognition is within that scope of Semiotics, then, in which seeing the predictable recurring patterns allows one to interpret how to use them. We learn from the pattern how to improve our technique as an athlete; my dog Archie has learned that any time he specifically hears the butter knife being pulled from the utensil drawer he’s got a shot at licking some remaining butter off of it.
Now I’m thinking that Racial Profiling, Racial Discrimination and the other expressions of institutional racism is Pattern Recognition gone bad.
As outside observers we should be able to look at countless lynchings generations ago or deadly-force Policing now and the underlying racism should be clear messaging, shouldn’t it? But instead, the culture has distorted the message so badly as to turn it on itself, and we end up with self-perpetuating Racial Discrimination. With Pattern Recognition distorted like that, the message of the police targeting citizens for being Black, and ending up killing them, becomes a self-justification: “If being Black was grounds for being enslaved, and later being lynched, those reasons back then must mean that you deserve this treatment now”...Even though there’s no reason any black victim deserved any of that then either.
Hopefully, relatively speaking, that type of example is extreme, but even predatory lending and zoning practices in home ownership in marginalized communities tell the same story. The patterns should be obvious to anyone looking for evidence of discrimination, and once identified, they should be easy to root out...shouldn’t they?
As much as I feel like the comparison is inadequate, the problem of many cyclists and the perceptions of their own relationships to their own bikes and own bodies can be similarly distorted. It’s only an apt comparison because the use of our own bodies in an activity should be easy to read, shouldn’t it?
It is not uncommon for cyclists to struggle with such poor positions that if they were in another activity with equally poor form they’d be unable to perform even the basics, and yet they are not aware of it. Some cyclists’ pedaling is so hindered by their bikes’ saddle and pedal/foot position that the penalty in performance is roughly equivalent to holding a golf club upside down: a golfer doing so may somehow hit the ball, through sheer dumb luck, but not in any predictable way.
Is it because the bike is so natural to ride that it gets us most of the way towards success? As in, “it’s just like riding a bike.”
The golfer or tennis player or gymnast or skater knows that constantly striving for improvement is a requisite. I’ve yet to meet a golfer who’s satisfied with their form. But cycling is perceived as being more about the outcome and less about the form, meaning pushing harder or training more can distract from the fundamentals of actually how one is doing it.
So, finally, in this essay about Pattern Recognition, the narrative comes around to so many of us having enough of a view of the situation that we should be able to identify the pattern, and respond to get it right. If we don’t, it will take either analysis invited from outside to correct it, or enough of a problem will arise from within that we will have no choice.