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 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2019

Are We All Crazy?

My brother is a rugger. That is, he plays rugby and has done so for most of his life. Our parents moved from Oregon to England in 1966. I was already away at college so never really lived there, aside from the delightful summer of ’66, which I spent pedaling around on my first multi-speed road bike. But my brother, ten years younger, passed several very formative years of his young life attending one of those classic boys’ prep schools in the English countryside, which is where he picked up the passion for rugby.

He’s still at it, although at the age of almost-62, he now plays something called touch rugby, which frankly seems a bit oxymoronic: like tackling the other guy and beating the living snot out of him can be taken out of the game?

He has been as involved in the world of rugby as I have been in the world of cycling. For as long as I have occupied some leadership role in the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, he has been just as involved in the very good rugby club in Missoula, Montana. Just as we have our Wine Country Century in May each year, they have a rugby tournament in the summer that pulls in teams from all over the Rockies and the Northwest, including Western Canada. 

Because my brother and I are friends and take an interest in each other’s lives, he always perks up when the Tour de France brings cycling onto regular TV and into the pages of the standard sports sections each summer. He follows along and always asks a few questions about tactics and who’s who this year. I do the same with rugby. I’ve never studied the sport closely enough to have a thorough grasp of the rules, let alone the more subtle world of strategy, nor any sense of the bigger picture: the stronger teams and their stars, etc. But I get the general idea: one team trying to move the ball down the field to make a touch or a try; the other team trying to stop them and gain possession of the ball. It’s probably overly simplistic to make this observation but it’s clearly where American football has its roots. Still a lot of similarities in spite of a world of difference…although, as a rugby bumper sticker puts it, it’s quite basic: “The difference between rugby and football: No pads, bigger balls.”

Anyway—there is a cycling theme in here somewhere—as I was idly surfing through the Saturday sports options on TV recently while taking my lunch break, I settled for a few minutes on a rugby test match between Wales and England. This was apparently a very important match, made all the more so when Wales upset England in a dramatic comeback, in Cardiff, no less. None of that meant much to me. I was essentially just browsing the optics…watching the action unfold without much appreciation for any back story or tactics or anything a true fan would grasp. To an under-informed layman, the action seems mostly to consist of strings of laterals occasionally interrupted by tackles and scrums and a lot of blunt trauma mayhem. 

Anyway, anyway…what I came away with after watching for a while is the same thing I come away with whenever I watch rugby: these guys are crazy! At this point in my creaky old life, I don’t much enjoy getting bumped into or jostled roughly. Getting tackled and thrown to the ground and mauled by some 250-pound hardbody does not seem like anywhere I want to go. As a kid with too much temper and not enough sense, I got into my share of schoolyard and back alley brawls, right up into my 20s. They were never much fun—painful, win or lose—but the reasons for getting into them seemed important at the time. I haven’t been in that kind of a rumble for a long, long time. But these guys, these rugby players, have taken the back alley brawl and turned it into a sport. Or they turned a sport into a brawl. You know the old joke about hockey: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!” Same with rugby. (My brother plays hockey in the Montana winter. You can sense a trend here…and yet he’s the nicest, most mild-mannered guy when not pursuing his sporting activities.)

It’s the “these guys are crazy!” observation that brings this back to biking. I have often, over a long cycling life, had people say to me: “You guys are crazy!” That’s after we’ve told them about cycling 200 miles in a day or bombing down an alpine pass at 50-plus on skinny little tires. Even a 40-mile afternoon cruise at a sedate pace—the cycling equivalent of touch rugby—seems off-the-chart extreme for those who aren’t steeped in the lore of cycling; who haven’t been there and done that.

When viewed from a disinterested distance, we often think the other guy’s sport is crazy, whether it’s rugby or rock-climbing or BASE jumping or whatever other lunatic-fringe activity we can dredge up…and that reminds me that most people view cycling through that same filter. They say, “That’s crazy!” We say, “That’s so crazy it just might work!”

I will always make the case that cycling is not a crazy thing to be doing, just as I am sure my brother would assert that rugby is not all that crazy either. But I expect we would both concede, if pressed on the point, that there is an element that might be termed “crazy” or at least extreme or risky when either activity gets out around its limits…when the envelope is pushed. I suppose all the livelier sporting activities are predicated on the assumption of some risk. 

We’re all gamblers of one sort or another. I hate real gambling: risking my hard-earned dollars on a bet or a wheel or a deal. Can’t stand it; gives me the heeby jeebies. But I willingly fly down a narrow mountain road, trusting to this little two-wheeled contraption to hold together and calculating the odds on having a front-wheel blow-out while I’m railing it around a fast corner. I assume the risk of sharing the roads with thousands of very large cars and trucks, knowing about half of them have distracted or demented or impaired drivers at the controls. And I do it all without wearing anything in the way of protective armor except for that little helmet up top. Most of the time it doesn’t seem crazy to me but I can see why a lot of other people might think it is.

I don’t ride as far or as hard as I used to, nor do I attack the downhills the way I did back in the day. But even a medium-speed descent can still turn nasty if Murphy’s Law jumps out and grabs at us. So, risk? Yeah. Gambling a bit? Sure. Crazy? Maybe, just a little.

Last month I wrote about a tour I’m planning for up in Northern Oregon. On one stage we pass a spot along the Santiam River where massive cliffs choke the river into a deep, narrow gorge. Several years ago, my brother and I were at that spot and he challenged me to jump off the highest rock outcrop into a dark green pool below…maybe 30’ down. Well hell, if your little brother throws down a challenge like that, you pretty much have to do it. So we did do it, side by side. If the jump didn’t pucker me up, the cold water certainly did. Crazy? Absolutely!

I can promise you I won’t be jumping off that same cliff when we bike through there on that tour. No way, no how. But I will at least be visiting the same gorgeous gorge and getting there on my own little two-wheeled contraption, powered by these still somewhat functional old legs. And that might be a crazy enough proposition, all by itself.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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