Is the solution to the masculinity crisis between our legs?
During stage 14 of the 1921 Tour de France, Leon Scieur was leading the race when a wheel on his bike broke beyond repair. He managed to secure a replacement, but due to a rule that required him to finish with all the parts of his original bike, he had to ride the remaining 190 miles with the broken wheel strapped to his back. Despite this leading to permanent scarring, he went on to finish the stage and win the overall race.
This is an example of classical manliness, in classically manly times. But despite technical innovation within the sport, and far-reaching cultural shifts outside it, the tradition continues today. From riders finishing stages with broken bones to popping their own shoulders back into place, there are endless tales of physical and mental triumph over terrain. Yet those aren't the only stories.
The ‘crisis in masculinity’ is a well-trodden topic today, but it’s certainly not a new one. As early as 1886 Henry James wrote in The Bostonians, “The masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, canting age.” The poles of the current discussion champion either the re-imagining of masculinity to fit a time with a different set of values and requirements or the complete disregard of it in order to make way for something more appropriate and free of historical baggage. Both these standpoints come with their own problems, but around them change is happening.
The world men inhabit is one of gender fluidity and greater equality but despite this positivity, great numbers of men are not adapting well: in the UK, suicide remains the biggest killer of young men, and it has been rising sharply in middle aged men too; in the US, studies show that members of male-only fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape than other men on college campuses; and in the 2008–10 economic crisis, 80 per cent of the jobs lost were men’s.
In today’s society, traditionally masculine behaviour is increasingly seen as outdated, and shifts in types of work, gender expectations and values have seen it curbed or marginalised. But rather than ignore these aspects of men and men’s history, or even worse – leave it to fester on 4chan or in frat houses, it might be better to explore current, or emergent spaces that allow a productive evolution of masculinity.
One area that has long been tied to masculinity is sport, which attracts both fans and participants. In the UK, however, this activity has centered around a small group of mainstream sports, such as football. Perhaps there is a need for another sport, such as cycling, to provide a new space for articulating modes of masculinity, redefining those less suited to modern life and harnessing more preferable ones.
One of the biggest developments in amateur cycling, and more broadly in sport, is the growth of performance tracking apps. If globalisation expanded the battlefield to reveal the world’s population as your competition, services like Strava allow you to build in localised competitive spaces. These can be social (riding with friends that you track) or geographical (racing against strangers on preset segments, such as hills).
This ability to mark success is important, as Philosopher Helena Cronin of LSE puts it: “Males, because they are fundamentally competing at everything all of the time with other males, put huge effort into being first and fastest, biggest and best – so when they fail they crash. That difference between males and females is so striking, I think of it as amongst males there are more Nobels but more dumbbells.”
The nature of these apps allows you to be more flexible with the parameters of success and reframe it just for you. You can choose your battles, and accordingly win many of them.
Cooped up in ever smaller living spaces, in cities that are more crowded than ever before and living increasingly sedentary lives, men still need to exert and physically overcome obstacles, as part of a deeper mental and physiological need. As Tim Samuels, author of Who Stole My Spear suggests, these days men are “raised on a diet of Bond and Bourne[, men are] set loose to hunt in a world of PowerPoint and 360-degree evaluations.”
Spaces of chemical release have become sanitised, ‘safe risks’, from roller coasters to dating (once a scarier place, has become safer with apps like Tinder and Bumble). City cycling creates a hunting ground, where gaps are goals and testosterone is important fuel. In city cycling alone, studies have been inconclusive as to why female cyclist deaths far outweigh male ones, though some suggest a more aggressive approach can prove to be beneficial in these instances. Mentally, cycling provides a space to break out of the cubicle for meditation and reflection, while dusting off the inactive chemicals around in your body, and is the reason exercise forms a key part of depression and CBT recommendations for those struggling with their mental health.
Man verus wild
Global terrorism, pedophiles and Trump — a scan of the news makes it seem like a very scary place right now. In trying to work out how we got here, it is easy to look for something to blame.
Having been at the helm for most of history it is man who has shaped everything from political structures to climate change (notably an assault on the female ‘mother’ earth). Cycle commuting is a step in the right direction as cities become safer and, hopefully, greener. Fewer cars means fewer big metal penis extensions, though perhaps, in the case of bicycles, they're being replaced with smaller, more eco-friendly versions. To commute by bike in major cities is to admit weakness as you step down the food chain. In this circumstance bikes can become levelers, as the engine is you.
Cycling can be pursued alone or in a group, an option particularly important for men, who are struggling to make new friends and are suffering an epidemic of loneliness. Studies have shown this to be a real problem for their health and even their ability to fight disease.
Last year YouGov found only 11 per cent of single British men in their early 20s to late-middle age said they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, with the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.
Beyond simply having a shared interest, the conversational dynamics when cycling are very fluid. A long ride can be full of chatting, or as laconic as the odd comment at a junction. You can ride with someone and learn nothing or everything about them, with the pressure conforming to traditional conventions, such as turn-taking or shared ‘work’.
It could be argued that cycling is already playing its part: it’s growing in popularity and it’s also a sport we win at, a lot. The London 2012 Olympics saw Team GB win twice as many cycling medals as the next team and English riders have won three of the last four Tour de France races.
During the recent swell in popularity, certain demographics have come to the fore, such as the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra), but looking to the continent and the broader history of cycling, it’s one that spans demographics and class. And it’s also worth noting that this is not exclusively a male story: women’s cycling has never been stronger.
Like masculinity today, cycling has struggled, with endemic doping and the deceptions that went with it, but hopefully it has emerged as a cleaner and stronger sport. Man’s struggle is ongoing, and while cycling is not the whole answer, perhaps it can help.
Finally, Yes of course I do ride a bike, and this is supposed to be very partisan.
- Article by Stuart Parson