Philosophy, Movement and Mental-Health Struggles: A Review of The Art of Cycling by James Hibbard

Former world-class professional cyclist and philosophy PhD candidate James Hibbard combines a deeply personal narrative of elite-level cycling and mental health struggles with a thorough history of Western philosophy and the limitations of rational thought in his book The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels. The result is a clear and promising exploration of philosophy and physical movement.

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

Cycling and Philosophy

Much of the book consists of a fascinating blend of summarizing and simplifying some of the most significant ideas in the history of philosophical ideas and Hibbard’s personal experience as a professional cyclist. Hibbard covers a variety of historically important philosophers, including Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre with a straightforward clarity I could have used as a crutch for my college philosophy courses.

And as an ex-athlete (though nowhere near Hibbard’s level), I really enjoyed the Hibbard’s descriptions of cycling training philosophies and methodologies and the tactics involved in bike racing. As a bonus, Hibbard’s prose is extraordinary—seamlessly blending clear descriptions with beautiful imagery and poetic language.

The book also follows a three-day bike trip down the Pacific Coast Highway that Hibbard shared with two friends and former cycling teammates. While I didn’t mind these breaks from the weighty philosophical discussions, I also didn’t feel they added much to the book. Including these sorts of framing journeys is a popular structural choice in non-fiction, but for me, Hibbard’s treatment of cycling and philosophy more than stands on its own merits.

Mental Health Struggles

Through much of the book, Hibbard draws on his cycling experience and philosophical insights to craft an argument about the limits of rationality. By the midway point, it feels like Hibbard is building toward some important conclusions about the significance of physical movement and lived experience to a satisfying, meaningful, good life. This feeling of an impending revelation continues until about the last quarter of book, at which point the text shifts into a memoir of Hibbard’s battle with depression. Though Hibbard hints at his mental health struggles early on (and perhaps I should have paid more attention to those hints), this subtext breaks through around Chapter 9 to become the focus of the book.

Obviously, the question of inherent meaning and the struggle to come to grips with a universe and an existence that can seem to lack such meaning have long inspired philosophical discussion. And Hibbard’s personal struggle with this question and the mental toll it took on him are important contributions to the growing literature on mental health. Still, I can’t help feel a little disappointed at the way this book concludes—disappointed not because Hibbard suffered from depression, but because that illness interrupted or delayed or sidetracked a promising intellectual journey. Fortunately, as far as I can tell from the conclusion of this book, Hibbard seems to have mostly recovered. And he is still writing, still thinking about the ideas presented in The Art of Cycling. But though the book ends, it is very much a story—of a life, of ideas—that feels unfinished.

Rating: 4/5 stars

For more reviews of books on physical fitness, sports, philosophy and society, check out The KineSophy Library.