A Fitter Norm

Maybe our norms are a little out of shape. (George Wendt as Norm on “Cheers,” 1982-1993)

As kids, we’re taught to trust that little voice in our heads that runs the brakes. That voice that says, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

That voice keeps us from getting hurt and doing wrong. But as endurance athletes, we learn there are plenty of times we need to tell that voice to just cork it. Imagine racing with “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea…” on an endless loop in your head.

Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Eric? (Sadness, “Inside Out,” Pixar, 2015)

So we learn to turn the volume down on that voice. We get pretty good at ignoring it. Too good, in my case.

When I first learned about that race formerly called the Dirty Kanza—I think it would’ve been 2013ish—that little voice piped up: “Uh, does that sound racist to you? Because I’m pretty sure it does to me…”

But by the time I registered for my first DK in 2016, I had allowed the norms around me to explain away that little voice. “Kanza” was a reference to the region itself, went this line of explanation. And “Dirty” was—in the rugged and ragged context of grassroots gravel cycling—celebratory.

I don’t say this to contend it was ever an adequate explanation for the name. But it was the “normal” explanation I heard among the cyclists I listened to, and I let it serve as my explanation, too.

This despite the fact that I was probably better positioned than most white cyclists to know better and do better.

Milford, Nebraska: home sweet home (Photo, wikimedia.org)

I grew up in Milford, Nebraska, along the Ponca Trail of Tears. Exactly 99 years before my birth, in early June, 1877, Chief Standing Bear’s Ponca reached Milford on their forced-at-gunpoint march from the Niobrara River valley to Oklahoma. Weakened by starvation and illness, they camped outside of town for a couple terrible days.

Standing Bear’s daughter, Prairie Flower, died of an illness here. A day later, a tornado struck their camp and flung a large pot off the family’s fire. This pot’s boiling contents doused Standing Bear’s infant granddaughter, and she died of her burns.

Standing Bear’s case forced U.S. courts to view Native Americans as people before the law. His statue stands in Lincoln at the same height as the city’s bronze of Abraham Lincoln. (“Standing Bear,” Ben Victor, 2017)

I grew up with only a vague sense of that story. If my teachers did give me a full telling, I let most of it walk quietly past me in the grass. I held only to the most acquitting details—a tornado’s brash and amoral violence, or the shock of Milford’s white folk, the local kindnesses of a tiny carpentered casket, some flowers on their graves.

There were no Native Americans among my classmates in Milford. I’d have to wait until graduate school in Minneapolis before my knowledge of Native experiences could make that leap from “stories I heard” to “people I knew.” In Minneapolis, I got to meet writers like Louise Erdrich, and studied alongside Native classmates.

Her 2016 book, LaRose, is one of several Louise Erdrich novels that have knocked my socks off. (Photo, WNYC)

My thesis advisor was one David Treuer, the son of an Austrian Holocaust survivor and an Ojibwa mother—hybrid proof of the failures of a pair of genocides.

I remember Treuer lecturing on Marcel Proust in 2001 when a stripe of Canada geese flew low and loud over our little classroom. He paused—I thought for the noise—and watched out the open window until the honking passed. Then he sighed, said, “Yum,” and turned straight back to In Search of Lost Time.

Inside that one silly syllable, I knew my definitions of both a goose hunter and a Proust hunter needed to stay stretchy enough to fit over one another.

David Treuer’s latest, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, made President Obama’s 2019 list of favorite books. (Photo, Boston Globe)

Having studied French, Russian, English and American literature with him, I certainly knew better than to call a Kanza dirty. Still, I lost time—years of it—doing exactly that. I called them dirty in this blog again and again. I called them dirty with my DK jerseys and my DK T-shirts and my DK socks and my hat and finisher’s pint glasses and little credit card holder thingy.

How the hell did you let that happen, Eric?

Well, I think I let the question of “What is normal?” have more sway over me than the question of “What is right?” (Normal is the easier bar.)

A Lincoln sociology professor described social norms to me this way. Take attitudes on race, he said. A small part of the population will be made of stone-cold racists, and they’ll be that way no matter what happens around them. There’s another minority on the opposite end of the spectrum—the intrinsically motivated anti-racist. And they’ll actively resist racism no matter what.

As much as I want to believe I was with them, my behavior showed me I wasn’t. Instead, I more accurately belonged to what this professor called the vast and persuadable middle—the biggest group of people whose behavior will ultimately be nudged one way or the other by normative influences of culture, community and leadership.

This “social normative theory” explained, cuttingly, how I came to acquiesce to a racism my thesis advisor would rightly have scoured me for.

I felt a cinder block of shame when I figured this out. I reread an article where DK’s former director claimed he’d received maybe six emails complaining about the race’s name over 15 years. (My gut ached as I read this, because I knew I could’ve made him say seven emails. Or I could’ve found his number and had a conversation. But I didn’t.)

“A spirit of inclusion is one of the best things about the gravel family.”

-Matt Gersib

His was a normative argument. Thousands upon thousands of riders, and only six complaints. “Normal people aren’t bent out of shape over this,” goes the argument against change. “So what’s the matter with you?”

This is why I now believe effective social justice must do more than make a case for what’s right. We need to change what we agree is normal. Our norms are where the real progress is. And when DK announces its new name, gravel cycling’s norms will take a meaningful step in a better direction.

Matt Gersib of Lincoln rode the second DK in 2007. He was one of the 30-something athletes invited to ride the first 350-mile DKXL a couple years ago. Gersib’s norms, he said, are moving.

“I actually defended the earlier decision not to change the name,” Gersib said. “But now, in light of a new understanding, I wholeheartedly support the name change.”

Gersib’s a new man at the finish. (Photo, Rob Evans)

“A spirit of inclusion is one of the best things about the gravel family,” Gersib said. “And if we’re offending people with our event names, we need to change them. I want everyone to feel welcome.”

As eager as I am to discover DK’s shiny new name, I’m just as excited for it to break in and feel normal. Because that’s what we need.

The changes we’re seeing in our sport and in ourselves are all about reshaping our norms into something better. More than an egg-headed sociological theory, norm-changing is our lived experience as riders. On the bike is where we push and push ourselves to expand the kind of effort that feels normal to us.

That training process is slow. It’s uncomfortable. Even ugly. But that ugliness shouldn’t surprise us. This is what getting fitter looks like.

It doesn’t have to be pretty. (Photo, mantel.com)

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