Cycling and Philosophy with James Hibbard

A former professional cyclist, James Hamilton Hibbard studied philosophy at The University of California, Santa Cruz and DePaul University. He has received grants and been selected for workshops by PEN America and Tin House. He is the author of the book The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels and a screenwriter whose first feature film is currently being developed. He lives with his wife and son in Northern California. In this interview, we discuss The Art of Cycling and James’s theories about the overlap of cycling and philosophy.

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The Art of Cycling by James Hibbard, a book about cycling and philosophy

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to write a book about cycling and philosophy?

James: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. My dad studied philosophy, and there was very much the sense of philosophy books being all around us as a child. Moreover, in the pre-Lance Armstrong era of cycling, especially in the Bay Area, there was a sort of Europhilic counterculture tie-in to road cycling. In the cultural milieu were Fellini movies and Bergman movies and Sartre and Camus and European road cycling. So all of those things really co-mingled in my head when I was younger, and that very much led to the genesis of The Art of Cycling.

Greg: How did you get into cycling in the first place?

James: There’s a velodrome—a bicycle racing track—relatively near where I grew up called Hellyer Park Velodrome.
And I’d been a relatively good cross-country and track runner in middle school, but when I saw track cycling in particular, I really was attracted to it. I was very interested in how it was this microcosm for competition that felt really gladiatorial. There’s an event called match sprinting where there’s just one rider competing against another, and it just struck me as being super compelling because it was repeatable, something you could get better at, and something that you could understand because there were a fixed number of variables.

Greg: And you had a pretty extensive career in cycling, right?

James: I did. I moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while still in high school and went down a very traditional talent identification path. I was the junior state champion and then went to an event that was sponsored at the time by Lance Armstrong: the youth cycling series in Colorado Springs. I then became part of the national team and then a professional on two teams, one called Shaklee and one called Health Net, which were both UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for sports cycling] pro road and track teams. I competed from 1995 through 2005. And then I went on to study philosophy as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, and then did some PhD work at DePaul University in Chicago.

Greg: Was there a moment during your athletic career when you knew you had to write a book like The Art of Cycling about cycling and philosophy?

James: I’ve had the idea for some time. I really wanted to use my experience as a cyclist for to show the limits of philosophical, rational thought. I think that I had invested myself in philosophy for very personal—perhaps too personal—reasons. And the conclusion that I reached was that there are certain things that are beyond rational, argumentative prose. As a result, the entire thrust of philosophy to put the world under a conceptual net starts to fail.

But in cycling or in gardening or playing chess, in any sort of tangible task, there seemed to be a release valve and a different way of confronting the world that was not the sort of hyper-rational, philosophical way. I think there’s some precedent for that in books like Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A more recent example is John Kaag’s book Hiking with Nietzsche.

So I think that after seeing some of those examples and thinking through my own experience with both cycling and philosophy—especially Western philosophy—I wanted to bring those two together to sort of show how a tangible activity that’s embodied and physical in the world could overcome some of the limitations of philosophical thought.

James Hibbard
James Hibbard

Greg: Can you say more about that—how a tangible physical activity overcomes those limitations?

James: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a big tendency in Western philosophical thinking, and even more broadly in our culture at the moment, to really value abstract ideas, to really value the concept of how to make something more than the particular thing. And I think this holds true for the culture of the Internet. This holds true for what sort of technical innovations are rewarded. But by following the track of existentialism, you can trace back to a much more embodied, visceral way of confronting the world and really being alive. And I think sports can do that. I think creating things and developing skills in the world can really do that. And I think those activities stand in stark contrast to writing code or meeting virtually or whatever the case might be. Plus, there are some broader cultural implications for really caring about how to engage in the world and how to engage with people rather than more abstract things.

Greg: Is there something you think is unique to cycling that particularly highlights the limitations of rational thought or thinking about abstract things?

James: I do. I think that cycling demands a degree of attention that’s unique. You’re on the bike, and just the subconscious processes of riding, braking and steering demand a fair bit of your attention. So I think there’s an element of attention, but I also think there’s an element of the neuromotor complexity of the sport that helps in this regard.

Then when you’re out riding on the road, I think just being close and proximate to the landscape makes a difference. Think of driving different eras of cars. You can have a manual transmission Italian convertible where you feel the road, and the counterpoint to that would be a computer-mediated, climate-controlled Tesla that’s designed to take you away from that experience and the feedback you get from the actual experience of being on the road and driving.

I think the same holds true for cycling. Cycling is just an extreme where you’re exposed to the elements, you’re exposed to the landscape. You can feel the road in a very direct and unmediated way. And I think that really does make cycling a near ideal vehicle for drawing you back to the sensory world of lived experience.

Greg: Are there other lessons from cycling you think can apply to non-physical realms of life?

James: Yes, I think there are a number of lessons. First of all, you can think through how you relate to your own body. Second, when it comes to cycling and writing, there are several lessons about work ethic and not believing in inspiration, but rather just believing in putting in the hard work and training.

But I think there’s also the temptation to overstate what athletics can do in terms of mapping on to one’s career. So while I very much believe there are some interesting lessons, I do think they can be almost dangerously overstated. And I think competitive sports can be over-regarded at the current cultural moment. There are also some mental health dangers in elite level sport, and I’m certainly keenly aware of the difficulties that top-level athletes can have in transitioning after their time as a sportsperson has come to an end.

Greg: Can you say a little more about some of the dangers of taking an athletic mindset into the rest of the world?

James: First of all, athletics are very structured and very rigid. Self-focused rigidity is bred and rewarded, and I don’t think that’s always ideal outside of athletics. Second, there’s a myopic sense in athletics that this is all that matters. So I think athletes can certainly have a lack of perspective. But I think the most concerning thing is that there’s just—out of necessity—a lot of selfishness and self-reflection among athletes. These qualities are rewarded in a way that I think can be quite toxic on a personal level and a relational level for athletes.

Developing as an athlete means you’re not looking for extrinsic rewards, but that you can start to say that the sport is an end to itself, that the process has meaning.

Greg: You’ve touched on this already, but are there other specific philosophical ideas that changed the way you think about cycling?

James: Yeah, I think that the thrust of existentialism really did change how I thought about cycling, what it could do and what its purpose is and was. Existentialism is this sort of inversion of the traditional, Platonic concept that ideas matter—for example, that the idea of tables in general matters more than any particular table. That’s the basis of Western rational thought in many ways. Existentialism seeks to turn this on its head and say that, no, this sort of lived particular table and experience actually is what really matters.

It’s easy to sort of come to sports with a philosophical mindset and be rather dismissive and say, “Hey, we’re just riding in circles—what’s the point of this?” And I think that looking for meaning and purpose and saying, “I’m doing this for x, y, z reason”, is starting to miss the point. Developing as an athlete means you’re not looking for extrinsic rewards, that you’re not fueled by this extrinsic system, but that you can start to say that the sport is an end to itself, that the process has meaning. So I think that’s one of the fundamental ways that existentialism maps onto one’s experience as a sportsperson.

Greg: How did thinking about these overlaps between cycling and philosophy impact the course of your athletic career?

James: I don’t know for the better, to be perfectly candid. There are studies from the East Germans that identify the psychological traits of top-level athletes. And I certainly spent too much time thinking and reflecting and wondering if this was a good thing to be doing for my own performance. I think that a little bit of burying my head in the sand and going training and playing PlayStation probably would have benefited me from a performance perspective. So some of these ideas and ways of thinking can be quite distracting when you’re an active athlete.

In the wake of having been an athlete, though, I very much thought about the distinction between riding a bike versus being a professional cyclist. And The Art of Cycling is focused on separating those two things out and finding intrinsic joy and meaning in the act of riding a bike separate and distinct from trying to win bike races as a professional athlete.

Greg: What do you most hope readers take away from this book?

James: I hope they take away the importance of coming back and finding some way to be engaged again in the tangible world. And this sounds nearly theological, but I’m very much interested in which activities and which ways of being can redeem the world from the sort of abstraction I’ve talked about and bring a newfound attention to existence.

So I think that my ambition for what readers will take away is actually quite high. I’m saying, here are the pitfalls of intellectual abstraction, and here are some pitfalls of professional sports, but just the act of riding a bicycle is one way among many to come back and re-engage the body, the senses, and hence the tangible real world in all of its robustness and pain and complexity.

Greg: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you were planning, researching and writing this book?

James: One thing that perhaps surprised me was the difficulty of structurally making sure that I was saying enough about philosophy for the lay reader and yet making sure that it was robust enough for me to explain and for a reader to follow where philosophy started to fail. So I think my aim to use philosophical thought to show where philosophical thought breaks was a perhaps overly ambitious move, but that fundamentally was where I was coming from.

Visit James Hibbard’s website to learn more about him and his work. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.