Think about your heckles

This post - and others by Lily - can be found posted initially on her blog here.

Heckling the pros. Isn't it super fun? You're having an awesome time at the cross course with your buddies. You finished your race, you're drinking a beer, it's beautiful fall weather. Or maybe you're a kid and you've just spent five days cooped up at school and you are ready to let loose. You and your best friends finished your races and your parents are volunteering on course, making the whole event happen, so you have hours to run around and do whatever you want.

The pro race happens, and you get to yell for your favorite pros. There's plenty of encouragement, but also you notice that something weird is going on: some of the shouts are devolving. There are a few borderline statements like "McFadden is going to McFade!" said to someone who is coming back to her career after two hip surgeries. But there's also just downright nasty stuff like "you suck!" and "you're never going to catch those people in front of you! just give up!"

What? Who thinks that's ok?

Heckling is an integral part of the American cyclocross scene. I remember my first cyclocross races: the heckling and the hand-ups were a reminder that this is fun, and I loved it. Pressure's off - enjoy the time with your friends. But heckling is also one of the reasons why European racers don't like coming over here - other than the super hard travel they have to do (like what Americans experience when going to Europe) when they're used to doing all of the races in their backyard. But that's a blog post for another day.

pan ams Photo by Ethan Glading

Heckling demonstrates a massive lack of respect for the amount of work that professional riders put into their races. Heckling isn't really a thing in Europe. There's this thing they do there instead called cheering. You don't get many cheers if you're not doing well. But no one on the sidelines, not doing the race, would venture to yell at you that you're bad at what you're doing, even in jest.

My first cross race was a cat 4 amateur race. Of course it was fun. Of course I loved the heckling and the hand-ups. I wasn't fit. I was just trying to meet new people and have a good time. And there should always be that space in cycling. But that's not the kind of cycling I do anymore.

There's a big difference between a pro race and an amateur race. As someone who has done both, within a relatively short period of time, I can say with certainty that that's true. But people in the U.S. absolutely do not want to hear that their race is different than the pro race. They immediately assume that when I say 'different' I mean less important. So, first off, get it straight that that's not what I'm saying. But what I am saying is that pro and amateur races are not the same things when money and livelihoods are at stake in one field and nothing is at stake in the other. Cycling may ultimately seem like an arbitrary activity to many people, and that we shouldn't take it as seriously as we do. But it's what professionals do for a living and that makes it very, very important to us.

major taylor Photo by Ethan Glading

Gravel races and fondos where everyone can ride together are massively popular here in the U.S. People want to believe that their ride is the same as the pro's ride. That's totally awesome when you're doing a fun event. Everyone should be able to participate in a fun event and be able to do it together. But when everyone does come to participate - including the pros - there's backlash. Talk about Kanza for the past two years. First, Kaitie Keough rides the whole way with her husband. People criticize her for winning that way - winning a race with literally no prize money or points, and should I mention, no rules whatsoever? If other people could have drafted off Keough's husband, I'm sure they would have. But they couldn't. So they just criticized her instead for making the race "uninclusive." Ironic.

And then this past year when EF sent two world tour riders to race Kanza. I thought the world was going to end based on the commentary I saw online. Spoiler alert: they didn't win. A different pro did. But for some reason that was OK because he wasn't a world tour pro, even though he has world tour numbers. Power to the people! Kanza is an inclusive, participatory, personal journey. But some people shouldn't be allowed to join. A very specific some people. Anyone whose cycling ability makes us feel self-concious.

Cyclocross falls somewhere on the participatory spectrum. Somewhere between the environment of a pro road race and a gravel event. Even if people are not racing with the pros in cross, they're racing the same course. They can go up to the pro tents and chat with their favorite pro racers (technically you can do that at most domestic pro road races here too but people just don't do that, which is weird and a shame on us for not encouraging that). The cross community is very integrated, and that is what cycling should be about. But it becomes less awesome when people take that environment as liberty to yell at the pros and tell them they suck and not get in trouble for it.

world cup Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

I'm really trying to just get at the root of the heckle. I'm not saying life as a pro is this super sad, discriminatory thing because that is ridiculous. But I think heckling of the pros in cross can be problematic because it shows a lack of respect for people who are doing this very seriously. You wouldn't send an accounting student to an accounting conference and have them stand up in the crowd and tell an established, professional, accountant that their work was terrible and that they sucked.

Serious racers are allowed to have fun. We're not too high and mighty for criticism. Professional athletes are some of the most criticized, scrutinized people on the planet. But there is a line between fun heckling and malicious heckling. In the grand scheme of things, pro cyclists face way less criticism than someone who plays a massively publicized sport in an arena where they can hear thousands of people booing at them when they mess up. But we also don't make millions of dollars.

Heckling is not a thing on the road. I think somewhere along the line, someone realized that the environments between road and cross were different, but chalked that up to cross being much more 'chill' and 'less intense' than the road scene. Which is ridiculous because I've experienced a lot more aggression and intensity in cross than I have on the road. Pre-riding with the amateur men is perhaps one of my least favorite things to do. Not having a pro-only pre-ride is terrible. I'm not saying I deserve more respect than anyone else out there trying to pre-ride just because I'm a pro. But I'm also not saying that I deserve less respect because I'm a pro, which is sometimes what I feel happens in cross where everyone preaches mad chillness. If delineations between pro and amateur races were really so unimportant, then why do we have separate races at all? You know the answer to that - you can't want hyper-inclusivity and then complain about getting beat.

With cycling, unlike with other sports, it's easy to access the pros. And I think that makes everyone feel like they could do it - become a pro some day. Which is wonderful. It encourages people to work hard and strive to be better. But it also means that pro cyclists get unnecessarily devalued, and it frustrates people when they aren't able to achieve it.

My theory on the heckle is that it's people expressing their insecurity. The more discontent they are with their racing selves compared to the pros, the meaner they are going to be to them. They want the opportunity to make the pros feel like the average person in a race. They are not yet, or never going to be, at the pro level, and maybe they're angry about that. They're angry that they work a 9 to 5 and don't have the time to train at the level they want. They want to be better but they just aren't. They think the pros have it super easy and life is just jetting around the globe, doing the races we want, making tons of money, and never having to work at a desk.

mud Photo by Ethan Glading

I'll tell you first of all that the professional cycling life is nothing like that. Most of us have jobs, by the way. Many of us live on very little money. Few of us have families. You might hate your desk job, and I would too. But the life of a pro is not perfect. We take lots of trade-offs. I wish people would stop thinking that and comparing their day job to our day job as a comparison for quality of life. I'm not here to complain about my pro life, but that doesn't mean I have to lie and tell you that everything is super great and easy. I have instagram for that.

I'm certain I'll receive some criticism on this blog for people who misconstrue my words as being one of a couple of things:

  1. Ungrateful for my life as a professional athlete
  2. Elitist against anyone who is not a pro athlete
  3. Setting a bad example for young people

Don't worry guys, I'm a step ahead of you. You don't have to comment about any of that stuff because:

1) I work my ass off to be a pro. This isn't something that's handed to me. I am really proud of my job as a pro cyclist and wouldn't drop it for anything. But to have that opportunity I train many hours a week. To make sure I have the stability to need to rest and recover, I also have a day job and do freelance work. I never miss a workout. I watch my diet, I don't drink, I don't go on fun vacations to hang out with my friends or family unless I can ride while I'm there. I take four weeks off the bike per year, which is probably about the amount of vacation time of standard workplaces, and during that time I'm still working. I moved away from a place I loved to live in a place where the training is good. My relationship ended because I didn't have emotional energy for anything other than my cycling.

Do I prefer this to a 9 to 5 desk job? Hell yeah I do. I get to ride my bike every single day. There is nothing I love more than riding my bike, training my body, and executing a plan. But professional cycling isn't something that is easy to acquire and maintain. It's work. I'm a little sick of people thinking that getting to be a pro athlete is just some sort of luck or hand-out to the genetically gifted.

2) If you're not a pro, I truly do not care. No pro is judging you for not being as good as they are. We're judging you based on how much fun you bring to your life and to those around you. The only thing we are negatively judging you for is being a sour sport. No one wants a bad attitude around. Races are the time when we get to express all that we have been working for. It's our chance to do what we do best. If you're going to be rude, don't come around.

My goal is to grow the sport, not to break people down. I manage a cross team with four racers. We work with a juniors team. I'm here to help people get from amateur to pro. I don't receive any money for that. I do it because all levels of this sport are important to me. And if people really want to become pros, there should be opportunities for them to try. There are so few opportunities to do that here in the U.S. for cycling. I want to increase them.

Maybe you think I'm elitist just because I'm complaining about somebody being mean to me and assuming people will care, or be offended. That with all these luxuries of my pro life that I shouldn't care about a few harsh words that are really just jokes. And you're right. I ultimately don't care about those words because they mean very little. Say what you want to me. But if you get in the way of my race, and the money I spent to get there, I will find you, and make sure it doesn't happen again.

cincy Photo by Bruce Buckley

3) I think I'm setting a better example than the people who are out here complaining anonymously on the internet about professional athletes or telling them that they suck in front of a bunch of children.

This is - of course - not to say that all heckling is bad. I can take it. I don't really care if you tell me that I'm riding slowly when I probably am. You can make a funny pun with my name if you want. You can blast an airhorn and run around on the course in a speedo doing whatever. Bike racing should be fun, and if you're not a professional athlete, why should you have to act professionally at your weekend sporting event? You really don't have to.

But maybe take one second before you heckle to think about what you're saying. I don't know why heckling would be any different than anything that comes out of your mouth in real life. Don't blow a vuvuzela right in someone's ear as they race by when they drove 12 hours to be there and have been training specifically for this event for six months. This isn't the Tour de France (those guys don't like that either, and yet another blog could be on the subject of keeping people engaged in cycling while keeping the riders safe). There are some lines. I think they're pretty obvious. Would you want to be caught in a video doing or saying something? If not, then don't do it. Professional cyclists live in a world of scrutiny online. Maybe you should think about living that way for one second before you say something nasty.

And hey, it's up to us to tell you when we feel that's out of line. A heckle you use locally might be just fine there, but not OK for Toon Aerts. So how are you supposed to know? That's what I'm doing here. Letting you know that maybe not everything you can say to your friend racing should apply to someone who's existence is tied in with their performance on the cross course.

Thanks for coming to my ted talk.