Thursday, 7 May 2009

On the point of the Tour de l'Île or It's about the bike (with apologies to Lance Armstrong)

About a week ago, someone wrote an editorial piece in the Montreal Gazette complaining that the Tour de l'Île was getting a free ride from the City of Montreal as it did not allow people to use the event to raise funds for charity by having other people sponsor them for the ride. This despite the roughly $600,000 the City of Montreal spent on the event. That is roughly a subsidy of $20 per participant! My reaction to this was A. Bollocks, and B. to write a letter to the Gazette saying said person had rather missed the point of the event.

If I were to ask people to sponsor me for charity as I was taking a flight to New Zealand (economy class), they would look at me as if I were mad. Yet several people on my trip to Newfoundland last summer asked if I was doing this for charity. People going around making trips to fund-raise are clearly warping people's perspective about what it means to bicycle. Also, it is a little hard to understand why we should give money to someone because he or she is making an effort to do something typically relatively unconnected with the cause in question.

Biking is fun, easy, practical, environmentally friendly and safe. It is something you can do without feeling guilty. That is the fundamental idea the people at Vélo-Québec are trying to promote. I think of it as demystifying this means of transportation.

In contrast, by bringing in fund-raising, said person was saying, in effect, "No, it is not enough that you are on you bike. You must also be actively doing good (i.e. fund-raising) at the same time." In other words, you are not allowed to just enjoy yourself.

The problem with this is that it contributes to the mystification of cycling. It makes cycling less, instead of more, the act of the common man. It removes cycling from the commonplace and puts in a more lofty realm.

By keeping the Tour de l'Île down to Earth, Vélo-Québec is contributing to the increasing use of bikes as a means of transportation. Yes, you can quibble and disagree with many aspects of how Vélo-Québec runs the Tour (and I do so), but I stand firmly behind Vélo-Québec in its stand vis-à-vis fund-raising.

Said person contacted me after my letter was published in the Gazette. After a brief exchange of e-mails, I came to the conclusion that it simply wasn't worth my while arguing with him, and ended any contact. Why? Not only was his tone and words relatively insulting to me, but also he revealed himself to be something of zealot for his cause (raising money via sports). It seems that for him, the end justified exposing that Montreal taxpayers were paying for the inconvenience of not being able to drive everywhere the like on the first Sunday in June. (Horrors!) He also urged people to pressure the civic governments to end the subsidy. (Incidentally, I calculated the subsidy works out to less than 40¢ per citizen of Montreal.) Nothing I could say was likely to change his mind as he evidently refused to accept that by adding his cause to the Tour, he was undermining the Tour's fundamental message. Therefore, I severed the means of communication.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against charity sports events. If you want to organise an event to raise money for x or y worthy cause, go ahead. If it is a good event, I might participate. But to try to change an event with a purpose that goes against that of the change, is very wrong.

Said person's minimal website amounted to little more than an appeal to the vanity of athletes or wannabe athletes. There was too much talk of competition and the like. That is not the point of the Tour.

The Tour is about the biking. It about showing ordinary people that they can do quite ordinary things with their bike. Where it is special is that by doing ordinary things such as biking 50 km ordinary people can feel like they are extraordinary. With luck, they may realize that biking a fair distance isn't that complicated or hard, (indeed, it can be very practical) and it can bring with it a tremendous sense of achievement.

I fight the perception at work that I am some sort of "Lance Armstrong-lite", as it makes my bicycle commute seem like a sport for the super fit. Ironically, the fact that I am built tall and relatively slender works against me in my role as bike advocate as I am seen as being fitter than I really am. What I wish I could say to my colleagues is that you don't have to be a Lance Armstrong to ride a bike, but that if you get on your bike and get the right conditions, you can feel like a Lance Armstrong.

"All I ask is for a following wind, miles of good, flat pavement and a well set-up bike."
Which admittedly is a lot to ask for, but when you get it, you should try to relish the emotions you get.

I hope this all makes some kind of sense.

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