What compels a well-educated and reasonably well-off person, presumably awash in the physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem levels of Maslow’s pyramid, to throw a leg over a bicycle and ride for days in the cruelest heat, cold, and rain? Why do something so clearly unnecessary?
I think it was as early as elementary school that I came to a rudimentary understanding of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The science of this iconic pyramid used to seem unshakable to me, an inherited truth that made so much sense that it could never be questioned. A lot of life lived and a couple of academic degrees later, though, I’m certain about many fewer things than I used to be. And my sport, endurance cycling, has caused me to strongly doubt that the model we use to describe the hierarchy of needs is accurate.
There’s a point in a bicycle racer’s life when they think, “I’m not fast anymore, but, man, I sure know how to suffer.” At that point the cyclist either takes up golf or becomes an endurance cyclist and races in events of distances from 200 to 4,000 miles. I’ve had a lot of hours to think about this fringe sport, a lot of time looking into my own soul, suffering while hunched over handlebars, and a lot of time looking at José Bermúdez’s hind parts when I drove his follow vehicle 3,005 miles, in a caffeinated haze, in a little over eleven days during Race Across America in 2015.
So, why do endurance athletes seek suffering? We could surmise that these things are done in the name of self-actualization, the elusive little sliver at the tip top of the hierarchical model. But the model posits that human beings can only attempt to achieve self-actualization when they sit firmly atop the other fulfilled needs. For the endurance cyclist, the elements are factors, but the model is flawed, because self-actualization requires that the other parts of the pyramid be stripped away, temporarily, but almost daily. Physiological needs go unmet as the cyclist depletes calories and water faster than they can be replenished while riding through the worst weather. Safety is compromised as the cyclist shares the road with distracted drivers. The cyclist separates himself from loved ones for hours or even days of training and lonely competition. And esteem? Forget it. You’ll never see these athletes on ESPN. Churning through the dark night of the soul at fifteen miles an hour doesn’t make for compelling sports viewing, and not even the most ardent fans of big cycling events like the Tour de France know their names. This situation suggests to me that for endurance cyclists, self-realization, instead of sitting satisfied in the rarefied air atop the pyramid, is actually connected to and feeds from an intentional deficit of the elements provided by the other levels. Perhaps it’s not a hierarchy or pyramid at all. Perhaps, like some of the courses I’ve raced, it’s a loop.
I want to emphasize that this pursuit is neither self-harming (well, not beyond what some ice baths and a few recovery days can’t heal), nor does it stem from self-loathing. And endurance cyclists certainly aren’t chasing a death wish. Believe me, the deaths of cyclists I’ve known have caused me to closely examine this point. When the weather is cold and I’m training in long sleeves, I take the additional step of pulling out the rubber ID bracelet from under my sleeve so that it will be seen by first responders in case I’m incapacitated in an accident. That additional step, that conscious act, is the intersection of a decision to accept risk and a desire that my family be informed as soon as possible if the worst happens. But I desperately want to live!
The Native American who dug his own grave as part of a vision quest, the Christian believer who dies to self through baptism and is raised to walk in newness of life, the cyclist who takes to the road for a long distance ride–none of these people wish to die. We just want the old self to die. We want to self-actualize, to live more fully in the practice of something that nourishes the soul by intentionally taking it into something very primal and elemental. Every ride, then, even the hour-long training ride, is a journey that we begin as one person and from which we return just a little bit different, a little bit evolved. We scratch the surface and see into ourselves just a little bit, and that makes it worth it.