Having ample time to read is perhaps the one benefit to the long, dark North Dakota winters. While I rarely read cycling-themed books, this winter’s collection brought unexpected reflections on randonneuring in the form of William B. Irvine’s, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
Over four sections, 22 chapters, and 283 pages, Irvine provides a convincing thesis for considering the adoption of Stoicism as a philosophy for life. I found the book both well-researched and well-written, with contemporary interpretations of this ancient philosophy using thoughtful synopses of Stoic teachings coupled with Irvine’s own personal experiences of adopting Stoicism. What I didn’t expect to find was how well many of the Stoic psychological techniques seemed to align with what I think are core attributes of many randonneurs.
Generally defined, Stoicism refers to a ‘philosophy of personal ethics informed by a system of logic and objective perceptions of the natural world’. According to its teachings, the path to Stoic tranquility is found in accepting what we’ve been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner (definition adapted from Wikipedia).
As implied in the description above, Stoicism has a significant psychological component. Successful adoption of the philosophy is strongly linked to techniques for either preventing negative emotions or mitigating such emotions when prevention falls short. Irvine’s book emphases these techniques, thereby providing readers a pragmatic foundation for putting the philosophy into practice.
While reading Irvine’s book, I identified seven Stoic psychological techniques that, to varying degrees, I’ve either applied myself or have observed others apply during brevets. While these techniques do not compose all that make up the ‘Stoic Psychological Toolbox’, they do represent a core collection of methods needed for successful adoption of the philosophy.
1. Applying the Trichotomy of Control: This is an exercise focusing the randonneur on those things that are under his/her control. Basically, there are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control whatsoever, and things over which we have some but not complete control. Here, the randonneur focuses on the first and third scenarios, while dismissing the second. To put this in practice, never have I heard a fellow rider complain about the weather.
2. Being Fatalistic about the Past and Present, but not the Future: Related to the issue of control, there is no value in concerning oneself with the past or immediate present. Only outcomes in the future are potentially within the randonneur’s domain of influence. Accordingly, that is where the mental focus should reside. In practice, randonneurs seem uniquely capable of not dwelling on difficulties/mishaps encountered earlier in a brevet (e.g., flat tires, crashes, misreading a cue sheet and getting lost, etc.). Conversely, my experience has been randonneurs are focused on the next control or – if nearing completion – the end of the brevet.
3. Internalizing Goals: Selecting goals whereby one has control over the outcome is a hallmark attribute of randonneurs. The non-competitive nature of randonneuring facilitates internal goal-setting, as brevets have generous time limits that allow for collaborative riding. From my very first brevet, I’ve always been impressed by those riders who set targets for arriving at controls within a certain time limit and then stick to it, avoiding the urge to push the pace with a faster group of riders.
4. Using Humor, Abundantly: The use of humor serves to soften the gravity of difficult situations, thereby mitigating – or even eliminating – anger and anxiety. Making light of difficult situations through humor has been an attribute of those I’ve ridden with during many brevets. Moreover, a sort of thoughtful, self-deprecating humor seems commonplace among randonneurs.
5. Committing to Voluntary Discomfort: The term ‘voluntary discomfort’ could just as well serve as a synonym for radonneuring, as unsupported, long-distance cycling will eventually become uncomfortable, particularly when mileage exceeds 400 km. Welcoming this sort of discomfort is an attribute of randonneurs. In fact, an inability to deal with discomfort relegates the cyclist to shorter rides (though there is nothing wrong with shorter rides… …riding any distance is better than not riding at all!). Accepting discomfort through randonneuring has its benefits, however. Doing so hardens the rider against misfortunes that might befall her/him, thereby providing confidence in handling discomforts/difficulties in the future. Accepting discomfort also helps the randonneur appreciate how they feel when they are not in the middle of a long brevet. Said differently, how can we truly appreciate comfort if we don’t periodically experience discomfort?
6. Dealing with the Fear of Failure, Head-on: In a way, this attribute is the psychological analog to voluntary discomfort. Every brevet has challenges that could potentially keep the randonneur from a successful ride. Recognizing that things could potentially go wrong, but persisting with pressing forward anyway takes courage. In an era where randonneurs are sharing the road with increasingly distracted and drug-addled drivers, this fear is real, with potentially disastrous consequences.
7. Not Avoiding Challenging Circumstances: Though less of a technique and more of an attribute, choosing to ride a bike over distances from 200 to 1200 km is the equivalent of openly welcoming a challenging experience. This is randonneuring. Enough said.
I’ll close for now, but this post has me wondering if many randonneurs are stealth Stoics, not knowingly engaging in Stoic practices, but possessing a set inherent attributes that lend themselves to leading a Stoic-type life. I can see this being a point of discussion with fellow riders during my next long brevet.
Why, then, do you wonder that good men are shaken in order that they may grow strong? No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.
Seneca (Rome 4BC-65AD)