Cycling or Psychling? The Insanity of A Life on Two Wheels

by crankpunk. this article is a re-post and originally appeared in Spin Magazine, March 2013. since the original publication of this article, Mr. White joined the Philadelphia 76ers but was waived by the team at the end of October… 



Defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as:

1: a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia)

2: such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from criminal or civil responsibility

3a : extreme folly or unreasonableness

3b : something utterly foolish or unreasonable

I’m going to talk a little about basketball for a moment, or, more precisely, one particular basketball player, a certain Royce White. I will, I promise, return to the sport of the shaven-legged, just hang in here for a paragraph or two.

It is, I promise, pertinent. I think. Though there is of course the possibility that the madness of a life on two wheels will consume me finally, before I get to the end, and then you’ll have just wasted a good ten minutes. But then if you’re reading this you’re probably a little nutso anyways, so all good…

Anyway, back to Mr. White. Mr. White is a phenomenally talented basketball player, and “plays” for the Rockets.

I put plays in inverted commas because, in truth, the 21 year old has yet to step onto the court in a Rockets jersey because he is locked in a contractual (and you could say philosophical) battle with the team’s hierarchy, because the two parties can’t quite come to mutually acceptable terms about White’s mental illness, one that all accept does in fact exist.

White has anxiety attacks that cripple him and a fear of flying that doesn’t stop him completely from flying, but that makes it an extremely difficult and exhausting experience for him.

What he wants, in a nutshell, is to be able to appoint his own psychiatrist who will then decide before each game whether he is mentally fit to play. The Rockets say no go, fella. Hence the stalemate.

Now that’s kind of interesting, but what is really fascinating is White’s belief about mental illness across society, which, according to the US National Institute for Mental Health, affects 26% of the population.

First off, White says in a recent interview with Chuck Klosterman that the number is higher in both society and sports, stating that the percentage of players in the NBA who smoke marijuana is never taken into account, claiming that those addicted are mentally ill.


He cites the stress caused by the modern world and its attendant problems, which is without doubt a major cause of heart attacks and deaths, as another form of mental illness. He also cites the problems caused by financial insecurity as another form.

His question, at one point in the interview, was “How many people don’t have a mental illness? But that’s what we don’t want to talk about.”

What’s this got to do with cycling? Well let’s take a look. First off, let’s say that if in American society the number of mentally ill people is at 26%, the number must be similar in most western societies, where most of the top pro riders come from.

Now let’s consider the number of prominent cyclists who have had drug problems – and I don’t mean PEDs – that would take a book and a half.

Tom Boonen of course, cocaine. Frank Vandenbroucke, cocaine and alcohol, and the rest. Marco Pantani, coke by the Colombian truck load. Go back through the decades and you’ll find tale after tale of riders who took so much amphetamine that by the end they were more like drug addicts with a cycling problem than the other way around.

The Snow King, Marco Pantani
The Snow King, Marco Pantani

No doubt, our sport has its fare share of midnight monsters. Ride hard, play hard is often the motto for a sizable minority of riders.

And surely, to be even slightly into this sport of ours you have to be somewhat driven by some form of madness. First off, we shave our legs. Now, the pros have a reason to do so – nightly massages and frequent crashes make it essential. But what about the weekend warrior? See what I mean? Slightly nuts, for sure.

Definitely fits Mirriam-Webster’s description of insanity here:

3a : extreme folly or unreasonableness

We also have to be mad to actually go out and take the punishment we mete out to ourselves. What’s that all about? Yes it’s great to summit a hill, to fly down a descent at 85km/hr, to drop a rival or crush a young pretender.

But why do we need to do it? Personally I’ve stopped questioning why. Hour after hour of training. Banging up hills repeatedly til I’m retching. Missing out on parties and all the fun to get up at 6am to go out in the rain for 5 hours.

All I know is that, for some reason, it feels good and that’s ok by me, but I do know that essentially it is a little mad.

And that fits 3b:

3b : something utterly foolish or unreasonable

OK, but that’s the lighthearted stuff. Let’s look at what happens at the extremes. Two words.

Lance. Armstrong.

that'll be 7 vials for tomorrow, thanks...
that’ll be 7 vials for tomorrow, thanks…

Utter psychopath. Sociopath, even. To say he’s devious is like calling Richard Nixon ‘sneaky’. The adjectives don’t even come close.

Armstrong, like Nixon, crossed the line so thoroughly that even the knowledge that there once was a line was eradicated. They bent the truth to suit their own realities to such a degree that their reality became the truth, and thus all who opposed them opposed truth.

There are other drugs cheats in other sports but there’s never quite been one like Lance Armstrong, and there’s a reason why he managed to become so successful, both as an athlete and as a liar, in this particular sport.

Because this sport rewards the mad, the insane. It’s the premise upon which all our traditions are built. From Henri Desgrange’s wickedly brutal early Tour de France to the madness of the Classics such as Paris-Roubaix, you don’t have to be mad to be a cyclist, to paraphrase that popular office jolly, but actually you do.

Armstrong, by the way, fits Merriam-Webster’s definition #2 perfectly:

2: such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from criminal or civil responsibility

(And for the record, so do all the drugs cheats).

Finally we have the truly insane amongst us, who are worth a mention. Pantani and Vandenbroucke, may whomever bless them, were up there. Poor troubled souls who were not meant for this world, for they were far too fragile.

Another was the legendary climber Charly Gaul, the Luxembourger who won the Tour in 1958 and the Giro d’Italia in 1956 and 1959. An incredible climber, he was also a fan of amphetamines, and known to froth at the mouth during some stages.

Charly Gaul
Charly Gaul

His teammate Marcel Ernzer recalled a conversation he had with Gaul in his heyday (Gaul was known to speak of himself in the third person):

“Charly’s going to die,” said Gaul.

“Why do you say that?” asked Ernzer.

“Because Charly takes too many pills.”

“But everybody takes them.”

“Yes, but Charly a lot more than the others.”

When he quit the sport a few years later, Gaul went to live in a forest in the Ardennes, wearing the same clothes daily and known to locals to be suffering from depression. He lived as a recluse until 1983 when he somehow married and made a gradual move back into society.

Another was Jacques Anquetil. One of the true greats, the Frenchman won almost everything worth winning, including five Tour de France.

However when he retired he was known to be somewhat of an insomniac, heading off into the woods in his estate with his dog to sit quietly under the trees for hours on end.

He also – and this is truly troubling – began a ménage a trois between his wife and his step-daughter, eventually impregnating the girl, who was then only 18, and going on to marry her!

Yes, quite insane. But then again this is cycling, so, by our standards – no, still insane!

One could stretch the argument and say that both Gaul and Anquetil, and in turn VDB and Pantani, match Merriam-Webster’s definition #1:

a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia) .

Mad people in a mad sport. But then, I can talk. I am, after all, a cyclist. But then, so are you.

Welcome to Bedlam!

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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