Community in Sport: When Two Worlds Meet.
Belonging, that subtle undercurrent beneath the surface of our lives, is the collective "we" — a dance of fitting into a group or place that warmly embraces us. Vital for happiness and well-being, this essence of belonging weaves its way through communities, workplaces, and subcultures. Sport, with its unique power to inspire, plays a pivotal role in strengthening these bonds, fostering inclusion, and building a community where everyone belongs.
Some of the most profound connections I've forged originated on the pedals of a bicycle. The shared experience of a long ride provides a unique opportunity to truly understand someone. Perhaps it's the solace found in riding alongside one another, deliberately avoiding direct eye contact, that allows us to open up. Maybe it could be the gradual erosion of barriers within the mind, succumbing to the cumulative fatigue of the journey, fostering a genuine human connection. Alternatively, it might be the euphoria that follows shared hardship—an unspoken understanding of the emotions coursing through the other person. In my perspective, there exists a certain beauty in the silence that envelops us during extended hours of riding. In those moments, where the only audible elements are the rhythmic sounds of breathing, gears shifting, and rubber meeting the road; an unspoken closeness can form, transcending the need for words, and I feel like I belong.
Organizing group rides that embrace all levels of cyclists has been a rewarding endeavor. Small things, like witnessing a subsequent Strava upload from two people who met for the very first time on the ride, embody the sentiment that the shared love of the sport can be a catalyst for meaningful connections. For me, it's about facilitating entry into the community for everyone and later hoping they find that sense of belonging like I have myself.
One poignant moment stands out—I ran into a man over a year after one such ride, and he thanked me. It wasn't just about waiting and chatting for him during the ride; it was a recognition of the cycling community looking out for each other, promoting inclusiveness in our sport. It serves as a reminder that small actions, like slowing down to make someone feel welcome on their first ride, can mean the world.
Yet, the world of elite racing, where I find myself as a competitor, is inherently non-inclusive. In my experience, it’s not that racers don’t want to embrace newcomers to the sport, rather, the very nature of elite racing, with its focus on performance and competition, can inadvertently create barriers. Racers and recreational riders, although doing the same sport, live in two different worlds. One world is about extracting every percentage point you can to go faster; the other is about getting from point A to B and enjoying the ride. In that vein, cutting-edge bike tech is unfortunately a near prerequisite to be on a level playing field with top competition in a race. For example, a racing bicycle made in 2013 is estimated to be 2-3 kph slower over a racing course for the same effort as a modern-day bike. I think this can cause newcomers anxiety to try the sport as they may believe they need the latest bike model, shoes, or helmet to be competitive or furthermore, feel like they even belong.
However, amidst this reality, there's a shifting landscape. Modalities like gravel racing, where some of the world's best cyclists compete on the same course as every other participant, are emerging. What’s fantastic about gravel is you don’t need much more than a bicycle with treaded tires and a helmet to participate. This is down to the nature of how gravel events work - some are there to race, and others are there for an experience and a challenge with no concern over average speed, aerodynamics etc - bringing those two mentioned worlds together. I think in that shared experience of hundreds of cyclists navigating the same course, the elitism slowly dissipates. The “spirit of gravel” as it’s now coined, to me, echoes the spirit of riding with a friend.
As I gear up for more gravel racing in 2024, I am captivated by the prospect of sharing the road with cyclists from all walks of life. Just as on those long rides, where the sound of breathing becomes the language of connection, gravel racing promises an experience where the shared pursuit of a passion erases some boundaries and fosters inclusion. It's a journey where the pursuit of personal excellence meets the celebration of inclusivity - and I’m here for it.
by Nick Kleban, cyclist for Hustle Pro Cycling.