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Toward a Cyclocross Ethic 

Why an outlaw bicycle race is a perfect metaphor for opposition to the Bush administration's greed-based Ownership Society

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
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Last week I was crusading on behalf of an ancient common-law precept granting widespread access to God's earthly treasures when a mistimed bunny-hop ruined my rear wheel.

I should have known. Frustration of one sort or another always seems to accompany cyclocross, a bike-riding amalgam of roller derby, steeplechase, mud wrestling, and ballet that I'll later describe in greater detail. I was racing last week in the 10th annual Urban Outlaw Cross Dress Cyclocross series. Its promoters, members of the local Dead Fucking Last bike club, take this 100-year-old fringe sport to the fringes of political thought, purposefully eschewing any attempt to request permission for holding their dirt-ripping races on public and private land.

"It's totally on principle. It's part of DFL and the anarchist spirit we started with," says Dylan Snodgrass, a San Francisco carpenter who organizes the series as the bike club's "president, owner, and king." "We don't want to hassle with that part of it. We don't want to deal with bureaucracy and money."

In the past, I haven't knowingly associated myself with fringe political movements. But this fall is special. Our current and likely next president has declared property-rights zealotry as the driving theme for the next four years of U.S. public policy under the rubric of "Ownership Society." This accelerated program of private greed would be stacked on top of the country's steady race to maximize the benefits of certain people's private property, while diminishing the number and value of things we hold in common.

The Urban Outlaw Cross Dress Cyclocross series may not return public access to these shared resources, known in English common law as "The Commons." But as with any well-crafted performance art piece, this race series provokes new thinking. In this case, it points up just how confining it's been to see the steadily growing assertion of exclusive ownership "rights" -- whether legally defensible or not -- at the expense of common property rights.

Lately it's become even more frustrating to produce the Outlaw series. Snodgrass and his DFL cohorts spend their summers scouting San Francisco for slivers of empty, unattended land that are becoming scarcer by the year. The bicyclists race for an hour, then swiftly slip away before anyone realizes what they're doing.

"Sometimes I feel like this insect clawing away on the edge, trying to find these patches of dirt, trying to enjoy our anarchy thing, so we can enjoy our 45 minutes of exhilaration," Snodgrass says.

Judging from our president's newest rhetorical thrust, exhilaration available to anyone who seeks it will grow harder to come by with time.


On its face, the notion of an Ownership Society, introduced during Bush's address at last month's Republican National Convention, seems to consist of benign, even lofty rhetoric that has long been used to cloak the old GOP objective of shifting some of the Social Security program into individual retirement savings accounts and, now, a less controversial, subsidized home-loan program.

But the conception is grander than that. The Ownership Society -- in Bush's words, "a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more control over your own life" -- applies the kind of all-encompassing language that added resonance to the New Deal or the Great Society to the extreme conservative fantasy of shrinking the public realm into nonexistence. It's a (to borrow from columnist Matthew Miller) "let them own cake" society.

"[Bush is] applying themes for a lot of conservative reforms in a way that hasn't been done before," the Los Angeles Times, in a news story analyzing Bush's speech, quoted right-wing economist Kevin Hasset as saying. "It's a big-think, big-idea approach."

Decimating what Americans hold in common, for the benefit of a few "owners," under the cover of misleading rhetoric, is nothing new for this government. The Clear Skies Initiative made it easier for industry to dump mercury and sulfur dioxide into the air; the Healthy Forests Initiative opened wilderness to clear-cutting. What better way than a specious, yet uplifting, creed of individual self-actualization to explain away the most noxious and greedy parts of the Republican agenda?

"From my perspective, the veil is off," says former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach, who now runs an S.F. nonprofit organization, called Common Assets, that is devoted to defending collectively owned natural resources. "This is final proof the Republicans are out to devolve the entire public safety net and the core of common assets our society has sustained since the First World War. It means McMansions instead of national parks. In this model, everyone has their own private space, and the public has nothing."

Another friend is even more despondent: "I can only imagine the number of discouraging things you could wrap into that rubric," he says.


There's almost nothing better to illustrate the peril of exuberantly exercised property rights than to devote oneself to cyclocross. That's because before you can begin a cyclocross race, it's necessary to find an empty field, glen, or forest nobody much cares about. And those spaces are fewer by the day.

Cyclocross is an off-road bicycle-racing sport involving slightly modified, skinny-tired, multispeed bikes that preceded the Marin County mountain-bike fad by three-quarters of a century. (The first cyclocross world championships were held in 1902.) Riders do laps on an off-road course of a mile or so, periodically dismounting with a balletic two-step as they hurdle foot-high artificial barriers or clamber up unridable embankments.

"If it's a wet enough course, it's a real triathlon," explains Bob Leibold, who has been promoting non-outlaw cyclocross races in Northern California since the 1970s. "But it's not like those wimpy triathlons where you get to leave the bike behind during the running and swimming sections."

Even accounting for Leibold's hyperbole -- there's no swimming, really -- it's safe to say a cyclocross race is one of the toughest hours in sport. The U.S. version of cyclocross got started in the 1970s, when a group of Bay Area crazies assembled at places such as Tilden Park in Berkeley and the UC Santa Cruz campus and mapped loops taking them over logs, up cliffs, and through rivers. They slogged over the courses carrying their bikes one-third of the way, then collapsed on the ground after they had clocked an hour. Whoever was ahead after 60 minutes would win.


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Matt Smith

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