Into the Suppersphere
In March, when I was in Kuala Lumpur (heheh!) I scoped out a local bookstore’s manga, Buddhism, and cycling sections. In the latter, I discovered the intriguingly-titled “Into the Suffersphere: Cycling and the Art of Pain”. Which I set aside because it was pricey in Malaysian ringits. However, I later requested it from Amazon.
The book covers three predominant topics. The first is professional bike racing and cycling culture. The second—which derives from cycling—is suffering: its manifestation and methods of coping, and the doping that pervades the sport. That gives way to the third topic: the philosophical relationship between man and his suffering, seen through the lens of (of all things) Theravada Buddhism.
You might think “Orny, this is the perfect book for you!” And to some degree you’re right, although I’ve long since become disgusted and given up following the perpetual circus of lying and cheating that calls itself “competitive cycling”. So the book gets a cool review from me in that respect.
Then there’s the theme, or lack thereof. Taken one way, the book is a series of anecdotes and observations related to those three main topics; however, it never supplies the reader with an overall thesis, argument, or conclusion. OTOH, from a less goal-oriented point of view, it’s a wildly eclectic and engaging jaunt through a storehouse of seemingly random and improbable connections and associations.
The only way I can communicate this breadth is by listing out some of the people the author cites and things he refers to. I’ll start with the most pertinent to the topic, and proceed to the more eclectic.
Addressing cycling, the author references the Strava social network whose name is the Swedish word for “striving”, and its infamous Suffer Score metric (which was recently replaced by the completely useless “Relative Effort”, as I mentioned toward the end of my previous blogpost). He mentions Team Sky’s focus on “marginal gains” and Chris Froome’s perpetual glassy-eyed stare at the power data on his bike computer. He mentions Graeme Obree’s singleminded attempts at the hour record, and Jens Voigt’s famous “Shut up legs!” quote. Cycling’s most infamous drug busts, including Operacion Puerto. Tim Krabbe’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Rider”, and a short piece by Alfred Jarry with the stunning title: “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race”. Consideration is given to concepts as contemporary as MAMILs and “The Rules” according to the ludicrously pretentious Velominati.
In terms of Buddhism, the author’s knowledge is broad and detailed, but that’s not surprising given that he is a longtime resident of Chiang Mai, Thailand. He describes the phenomenon of “monkey mind” and the modern preoccupation with mindfulness, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s completely secular MBSR. He mentions Theravada, dhamma, the Four Divine Messengers, the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Effort and Right Concentration, dukkha and sukha, the Wheel of the Dharma, samsara and nirvana, jhana, impermanence, non-attachment, and the Buddha’s final instruction upon his parinirvana to strive diligently.
Moving gradually further afield, he cites several philosophers, ranging from Nietzsche to John Stuart Mill, the Dalai Lama, Malcolm Gladwell, the Roman stoics, Alan Watts, Karl Marx, Albert Camus, Terry Pratchett, and the Black Knight’s “It’s only a scratch” sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Also of interest to me were his geographical references, which included his homeland of Thailand, Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi race, Cambodia, Phuket, Singapore, and the classic Thai phrases “farang” and “mai ben rai”.
In terms of random tidbits that struck a chord with me, he uses “klicks” as shorthand for “kilometers”. Mentions “postural hypotension”: fainting upon getting up too fast. Finds women in yoga pants a distraction from meditation. As a jew, he goes to great lengths to relate how uncommon cycling is amongst his tribe. And he rails a bit against society’s ridicule of anything undertaken by middle-aged men (I’ll have more to say about that soon in a post on my main blog).
As you can see, he covers an awful lot of ground, and much of it does resonate with me. I guess I’d be more enthusiastic about it if I didn’t take pervasive doping in sport as seriously as I do; instead, focusing on something I find so pathetic evokes a sense of depression in me.
Still, it’s an entertaining read and a good enough book overall. For most people, it’d be better to request from a library than purchase outright… but few libraries will stock something this specialized and esoteric.
While there’s a lot more that the author could have said about it, I’m glad to see anything that covers the interface between cycling, suffering, and philosophy (and specifically Buddhism).