Thoughts of a Rolleur: On talent, privilege, opportunity, and work

In which I compare professional road cycling with work at a public research university. Intended for those who are unfamiliar with one or both.

Each year in July, on or near my birthday, the Tour de France begins. In Michigan, our weather is ideal in July for riding, so I log a lot of miles. In the U.S., July is the only time of year folks who are not avid cycling fans are aware of the sport. Watching a video clip of the end of a stage, it can be really hard to understand what it takes to succeed at the highest level of cycling from a rider’s point of view. There is a sense of spectacle that accompanies this particular race that even casual fans can appreciate. But my conversations with people about cycling tell me that a lot of what it takes to even be a supporting player — cyclists call this a domestique — in the Tour is a mystery to most people. My thoughts here are those of a rolleur — a rider on a long breakaway. So, if you have fourteen minutes, grab my wheel and I’ll pull through.

I bring this topic up because I have a similar set of conversations with folks about my work as an academic. I am a professor at a large public research university. I am mid-career, eighteen years in. I have been tenured and promoted. I have taught undergraduate and graduate students, published articles and books, won grants, led a research center, led a graduate program. I have done things my field expects of everyone, and a few things that are out of the ordinary like spin off a commercial business based on some things I helped to invent along with colleagues.

All of this is done in an incredibly competitive environment. Expectations for performance are explicitly high. You have heard the phrase ‘publish or perish,’ most likely, but that imperative defines the floor, not the ceiling — what it takes to just keep from being let go. Nationally, there are just a few jobs like mine that come open each year. In good years, maybe a dozen. This means I come to work each day and am surrounded by the best people in the world at what I do. It tends to keep me humble and grateful, energized and focused.

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Bill Hart-Davidson with (now retired) pro cyclist @hornerakg

I love my job. I have talked with some TdF bike racers, and I know that many share these feelings. But so much of what it takes to be successful remains a mystery — in both areas — to folks outside the pro peloton or the academy.

I submit that there are four ingredients for success in professional cycling and in the sort of academic work I do. They are talent, privilege, opportunity, and work. None are optional. For all but the most elite performers, these four are unevenly distributed. Anyone who wants to be a pro cyclist or be an academic working at a research institution should understand these things, I believe. I think they are also worth writing about because they apply more broadly to many kinds of endeavors folks undertake under the heading of “life’s work.” Along the way, I will get to some of the controversial bits — doping, for one, and contingency in academic labor for another.

Talent

Talent is probably the least well understood of the four things required for success. Even those who have talent can be at a loss to explain how or why they have it. Talent is inherent ability, a quality unique to an individual. Like privilege, which I will get to next, you are born with it and it is not something you fight for or earn.

Talent is necessary for success at the highest level of performance in any competitive activity. But talent, by itself, is not enough. Talent doesn’t translate directly to performance in most cases. Cycling presents an interesting case of evaluating ‘raw’ talent because the bicycle so efficiently translates effort to results. In some disciplines of cycling such as the pursuit, where a rider races against the clock on a closed track, it is possible to see how inherent ability can produce results with only some physical training involved to account for distance and pacing of effort.

In a road race, more variables mean that ‘raw’ talent is less decisive. Experience, strategy, team dynamics, and luck (no mechanical failures, no crashes in front of you, good weather) complicate the process of turning talent into performance. Now string as many as twenty-one of those races together in a row and you have a stage race, a grand tour like the TdF.

In my line of work, it can be controversial to talk about talent. I say ‘can be’ because if lined up with my colleagues in a dance contest, nobody would hesitate to sort themselves this way. But we are also loathe to create hierarchies of possibility based on perceptions of scholarly talent. And rightly so. We are not doing time trials on a closed track in academia. We are in a long, long stage race. Lots of factors contribute to success and so we should be wary of hasty judgements about inherent ability. An insidious pattern of hasty judgements about talent leads to ableism — discrimination against those who appear or are assumed to be less capable.

Guarding against ableism is important. But it doesn’t mean talent isn’t real. As cyclist, I am not especially talented. I have written about this in some detail elsewhere, for those interested in the data to support my claims in this area. Here, let me simply say that I don’t have what cyclists call a “big engine.” I do not naturally or easily make a lot of power, nor do I have a lot of top-end speed. Others do. Others are, in fact, born with higher potential for both than I have.

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@billhd getting V02Max test during a NASA study

I am not altogether without talent in cycling though. I do seem to have an ability — unearned, but trainable — to *use* a high percentage of the power I can produce and to do that for a long(er) time compared to others. I can also recover from a hard effort quickly while under load, sometimes called ‘active recovery’ which is a very valuable thing indeed. It means that I can do multiple hard efforts in a row. And when used strategically, the two things together mean that I can put a competitor on their limit, hold them there for a long time, and chip away with repeated hard efforts to gain an overall advantage. Winning this way takes patience and cunning. And even then it rarely works against a big engine.

As I hope this example makes clear, I have had to learn how to best take advantage of my rather limited talent toolkit to create performance results as a cyclist. The conditions needed to develop my talent, to learn about its specifics in a way that allows me to act on it, those are due to privileges that I have had. But something else is true as well. Lacking opportunity — imagine a situation where I am pre-sorted out of a race based on a screening test that measures how many Watts a rider can make on a stationary bike — I never get the chance to use my toolkit at all.

Privilege & Opportunity

Privilege, like talent, is something some are born with and others are not. It is unearned. It is often transferred from one person to another, and, when it is transferred across generations, it happens much more transparently than inheriting the ability to sprint fast. Privilege is not simply luck, because it is not random. For some, it is quite predictable or all but certain. But for the individual who possesses it, privilege can feel like good fortune. It can also be invisible. The opposite is also true. Folks denied privileges that others have are often acutely aware of these and are at a loss to explain why, apart from ill fortune.

I want to distinguish privilege from opportunity. Privilege is having someone provide you with all the best equipment — the best bike, the lightest and most efficient components — for a bike race. Opportunity is the chance to be in the race, combined with the specific circumstances that define the race and its rules as a competition open to those with or without the best bikes. It is a thoroughly malleable social phenomenon, on the one hand.

If we consider what influences performance in the race, though, we extend the idea of opportunity further to include the conditions on the day, even the others in the race. When you race, a big determiner of the outcome on a given day is who else is in the race with you. Your best on a given day may not be better, even under the best conditions, than someone else’s best. What you hope for in a race is that your competitor’s privilege is not the primary determinant of success.

Opportunity can be engineered to balance the effects of asymmetrical privilege. It can also be engineered to magnify these effects. This is true in the academy as much as it is in a bike race. But in an academic institution, what defines optimal performance varies in a key way from any race. Where the goal is to advance knowledge, we do not operate in a zero-sum environment. Where individual success is defined by scholarly reputation, we do not operate in direct competition with one another. My success need not depend on my colleagues’ failure. On the contrary, my success is often defined by my colleagues’ success. Broadly, I am judged as an academic by the role I play in helping others to advance knowledge.

Land grant research universities like the one where I work might be understood, conceptually, as bold experiments in engineering equal opportunity. I am under no illusions about how they fall short of the loftiest goals defined by their charters. But as a steward of one of these institution in my role as an administrator, I see it as my responsibility to hold land grant schools in particular to their highest ideals as part of our daily work.

Competitors have a similar responsibility to balance privilege and opportunity in a bike race. The ethical problem of doping in cycling relates to tipping this balance, creating an unfair advantage. This problem in doping is compounded by the fact that not everyone responds the same way to performance enhancing drugs. This means that “making all drugs legal since everyone does it” is not a viable solution to the problem. The result would still be unequal opportunity and, in the most extreme situation, the focus of competition becomes recruiting athletes that best respond to drugs rather than recruiting athletes who are the best bike racers. The “charter” of cycling as a sport gets so twisted it becomes unrecognizable.

Work

Let me cut right to the chase on this last category: working hard is necessary but not sufficient for success. In cycling, dopers who win work hard. In fact, what doping does best is let an athlete work harder, longer. It is not a way to get off easy…it is rather a way to make more hard work possible. That, in turn, leads to a different (often better) outcome in competition. This is not what most people who only casually pay attention to cycling think about doping though. The more common belief is that doping is an easy way out. It is not. It is more like a dose of privilege.

Talent works in a similar way, actually. Truly talented folks can often produce good results compared to less talented folks without working very hard. But at the top levels of performance — in cycling and in academia — what you find is very talented people working very hard. When those combine with good fortune and opportunity, it is a recipe for sustained high performance.

It is not a stretch for me to claim that I have way more talent as a scholar than I do as an athlete. Like many others, I could not tell you why or how it came to be that I think fast, have a strong memory, and learn things quickly. As far as I can remember back, I have always had those things in my bag of tricks. Over time, I have built on those to add a layer of secondary abilities that are just as valuable: seeing relationships between ideas, reasoning in inductive (from particulars toward abstractions) and deductive (going the other way) and even abductive (seeing, in a pattern, where one or more expected elements may be missing or out of place) ways.

Having these abilities makes it possible for me to be the kind of researcher and teacher I am. But they do not guarantee me anything. Neither does the work I have done over the last twenty five years (including my time in graduate school) serve to lock in the kind of position I have. They played a role. And once I was in the race, they maybe made the difference in getting to the finish line (and in the case of, say the job market, getting there ahead of someone else). But I had to be in a position to race in the first place. Someone had to put on a race and look after the rules, mark the course, time it or at least keep track of who finished before who.

I do not really know if the ability to work hard — sustaining near-maximum effort for a long time, taking on very difficult tasks, keeping a disciplined routine over the course of years, suspending the need for short-term reward in favor of longer term gain — is a talent or not. But I am good at those things too.

I count my chance to put my talent and hard work to use in the job I have as a privilege. I studied during a time when universities where looking for folks who do what I do. That continues today for my field compared to some others, though the conditions are different now and changing more rapidly as well. I was fortunate to have the opportunity I did when I did. I have done everything I can to make the most of it too. I feel like it is my responsibility to do so.

Why? One reason is a sense of urgency borne of a lack of privilege. My background is such that it is very unlikely that I wound up where I am today, doing what I am doing. I do not want to belabor it here, but I was and remain today acutely aware of the need to make the most of the opportunities I *do* have. Being white and male afford me a lot of benefit, no doubt. I do not discount that benefit in any way. On the contrary, it adds to my sense of responsibility to do right by others and hold myself to a high standard of leaving the university, as an institution, a more inclusive place than I found it.

Another factor that contributes to my sense of responsibility is the understanding that many gifted scholars do not have the same chance I have had to be in a race they can win. The opportunity is not there. It is not only that others with more talent are lined up at the starting line, it’s that the chance to compete is not the same. There is no finish line. And no prize at the end. Nobody marking the course or keeping time. Just “go for a while and stop.”

For those not familiar, I am talking about the shift in universities to primarily employing faculty as contingent labor: for limited term contracts, often part-time, for a narrow range of academic work (often just teaching and often teaching entry level courses). The dynamics of the academic labor market, especially as they relate to universities’ change in budget sources is a subject I plan to explore in a later post. But here I want to acknowledge that universities have been investing in the careers of faculty less and less, and that this trend roughly corresponds with the citizens’ (via their elected representatives) choice to invest less and less public funds in higher education.

I had the privilege, among others, of starting my academic career during a time when the slide toward contingency was not yet at full steam, at least in my own field. Many others starting their careers today face a different set of working conditions.

Thoughts of a Rolleur?

In road cycling, there are different roles for riders on a team. These cater to different sorts of talent and create different conditions for success. Sprinters, for instance, ride as assertively as necessary but as conservatively as possible until the end of a race when they unleash a lot of raw power to try to be first over the finish line. Not all courses favor sprinters or sprint finishes, though. Steep uphill finishes favor a different kind of rider, a climber. A team assembled for a grand tour usually has a mix of riders with different talents, depending on the teams goals.

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Bill Hart-Davidson at mile 55 of a 100 mile ride

A rolleur is a rider who is not overly specialized as a sprinter or a climber. What they can do is go out for a long time, over hills or flats, on what cyclists call a long “exploit” or breakaway. A breakaway in a grand tour is a daily occurrence, but the riders in the break rarely stay away to win. When they do, it is often because of something the larger group behind did or did not do. Maybe there was a crash and the top-placed riders had to be looked after by their teams. Maybe two rivals from opposing teams were each busy trying to get the others’ team to do all or most of the work to chase down the riders out front.

A rolleuse on a solo break is arguably one of the most romantic images of professional cycling. Almost certainly doomed to fail, she is nonetheless praised for her courage. It is nearly impossible not to cheer for her to stay away and win against the peloton’s might bearing down in the last few kilometers.

I say all this because I suppose there is more than a little self-interest involved when I compare myself, as an academic not a cyclist mind you, to a rolleur. But when I look at my career thus far, this is the role that fits best. I go on long exploits. Some might say they are ill-advised. I have rarely been alone in the break.

More often I am with a small, similarly foolhardy group. We learn to work together, a small paceline in the wind. We animate the race. We make the race about the excitement of getting there and not just about the finish. Just getting in the break and making it stick takes talent, privilege, opportunity, and all of that just gets you the chance to do more work than the peloton behind you until they decide to chase you down. And they almost always do. But even that will not stop me from jumping in the break again tomorrow.

If you think you have some talent at bike racing and might like to try becoming a pro, I really recommend reading Phil Gaimon’s book Pro Cycling on 10$ a Day. It is a funny, clear-eyed account of Gaimon’s journey to the top level of cycling. When he talks about the book, Gaimon often notes that he wrote it to counter the glamorous image of pro cycling. I do not think he means to talk folks out of going for a dream. But he does want them to know just what ‘living the dream’ is really like.

What if you think you have some talent as a scholar? Should you aspire to an academic career? Yes. But here’s a final caveat. While, I do not know of many similar accounts for living the dream of being an academic. I do know that folks aspiring to the life of a scholar often have only part of the picture of what it means.

I hope this bit of reflection has helped to put things into some perspective. As Gaimon notes, there are many ways to be a cyclist — even a pro — that have almost nothing in common with what the top-level elite riders experience in their careers. The same is true for being an academic. In both cases, it serves those with big dreams well to see a diverse range of possibilities to have a fulfilling life and career.

Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.

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