The negative "addicted" is almost never applied to activities that are culturally deemed healthy or good for you, and yet addictions they are. Example: the professional cyclist Marco Pantani.
HEAR: Not Christmas music. (Am I becoming a Grinch? The typical Christmas music playlist seems promote an idyllic America that comes no where close to representing today’s.) When I tramped around Italy for two months, this was on repeat as I sauntered down cobbled streets.
READ: This beautifully-written NYT story about talking to kids about the unspeakable made me tear up.
VIEW: I learned about Marco Pantani (covered in this newsletter) from the 2014 PBS documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. It’s free to watch on Prime Video. Here’s the trailer.
No. 55: Pantani
What fun is balance? I’m constantly off-kilter. Something always captures my attention and, soon after, my passion.
Still, I divide my time. It’s probably 85% passion du jour. Not balanced, but not off deep end.
A.k.a., it could be worse. And for a lot of people it is, to the point of full-fledged addiction. But that word — “addicted” — is almost never applied to culturally accepted activities, especially those deemed healthy. These are just enthusiasts — inspiring enthusiasts, at that.
All professional athletes are addicted to their sport, I think. If they weren’t, they couldn’t have become professional. To us they are entertaining superhumans. We don’t see the lead up, the training. We only see the peak performance and, sometimes, the fall from the top. Their wives, their children, their fathers and mothers, though, they see it all. They probably don’t call it by its name — addiction — but they feel it when their athlete is constantly out of town, or home physically but not mentally, or severely depressed because he’s injured or on a losing streak.
Take Marco Pantani, for example, an Italian cyclist who competed professionally during the 1990s and 2000s.
Pantani started out like me and like every road rider. With the help of his uncle, he purchased a beautiful, red bike which he used to explore the roads and mountains around his small village, 20 to 30 miles at a time.
This for every new bike rider is a magical period. Everything is new. The world suddenly seems bigger, with so much unexplored. There is no fuel involved to travel far and wide, and no complex mechanisms prone to fail. It’s your body powering a simple machine. The only limits are those set by you. And for most, that means no limits.
In time you feel your body getting stronger. The hill that asphyxiated you last week now feels like a minor bump in the road. At mile 30, you’ve only just warmed up. You can maintain 20 mph without exerting too much effort. The cadence of your legs and and the flow of your breathing settle into a steady tempo, and it seems harder to stop than to keep going.
But after this initial discovery period, there are different routes the bike rider can take. It all depends on how often he uses his bike, what that usage means, and how far he’s willing to go down the rabbit hole of obsession.
The first route is that of the casual user. This rider is not addicted, but he partakes now and then, the way a person who exclusively drinks beer might opt for a cocktail every now and again. The goal of his usage is enjoyment and exercise.
Next there’s the route of the frequent user. This rider is nearly addicted, but not quite. He partakes often, but without letting his usage impact other aspects of his life. The goal of his usage is enjoyment, fitness, and a bit of competition. This is probably the route I’ve taken, of late.
Then, there’s the addict. All he does is use. It is his life. When not using, he thinks of using, and how in the future he can use more. The goal of his usage is nothing more and nothing less than to be the best — a world champion. This is the way of professionals like Pantani.
After performing notably in youth events, Pantani became a pro and began racing on sponsored teams. It wasn’t long before he was earning podiums at the Tour de France and other high-profile races. In a matter of a few years, he achieved fame and fortune. He was at the top of his game. But it didn’t last.
The industry of sport loves men like these, the ones who sacrifice all — their external and internal selves included — to reach peak performance. They are money-making tools. Sponsors slap their logos across their chests, backs, legs, and arms, then send them off to the races. When the athlete wins, he feels rightfully proud, and the sponsors and leagues fill their pockets and pat the winner on the back for a different reason. Well done. When the athlete loses, or when he is afflicted by some personal problem — say, mental instability caused by thinking of nothing but performance, performance, performance for the majority of his life — he is kicked to the curb. Thank you for your service, goodbye.
When Pantani fell, he fell hard. He was busted doping, a major blow to his image as rider with raw talent. Then he was busted again. And again. Soon, his ego was so damaged and his shame so intense that he stopped riding altogether. He plunged into addiction — this time, the traditional kind. Not long after, he was found dead in a hotel room. He was 34 years old.
On the surface, an addiction to riding bikes seems harmless. What harm can be done by going out and riding bikes with friends every day, all day? And, what’s wrong with trying to be the best in a given sport?
Nothing, really, but there’s something to be said about carefully guarding the reason we enter sport in the first place. Addiction can kill and bury the kid who loved to explore the roads and hills around his village, turning him into an egotistical, financially-incentivized, win-or-die-trying animal that thrives on pride, the memory of past triumphs, and the promise of continued success. Usually an addiction to sport takes the focus away from riding itself and places it on equipment and data instead, because addiction is more concerned with the insatiable pursuit of using more, and being as efficient as possible when using, than it is being satisfied with the usage when it happens, however it happens. Soon, the sport is fully associated with aspects entirely different from those that made it so attractive in the first place.
After being caught for doping, Pantani couldn’t muster the motivation to do something that once brought him so much joy. He would try to go on rides for himself, but the memories of all the traumatic experiences he had had riding competitively would fill his mind, and he would turn around, arriving home in tears. Without biking he had nothing, and biking was no longer an option having been polluted by the pressure and inverted priorities of a professional racer's life.
But this isn’t a critique. This isn’t to say no athlete should compete or try to achieve greatness. This isn’t to say, either, that every great athlete is lost — many manage to preserve that kid who first fell in love with the sport. This isn’t me evangelizing on the virtues of moderation. So, what is this?
It’s an acknowledgement of the beautiful and intense passion of humans, who can love something as simple as riding a bike so much it kills us. Though Pantani’s end was tragic, perhaps it’s equally tragic to realize most of us will never love anything the way he loved racing his bike. ♦
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