Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pop; or, Thoughts on Expertise

I had a flat today. I was out riding with a friend, on a road she'd heard was great riding (and it was). We were going down a sort of steep (but short) hill, with a sign warning that there's a hidden intersection, so I was riding my brakes, going slow. This is the Buster Keaton moment (you know how he could be walking in his films and a house would fall around him without actually touching him? Like that), because usually I ride with the abandon of a 12-year old down hills, but not this time, not this once. Then I heard this loud POP right under me. I said, "that can't be good," and wondered why I wasn't head over heels on the ground. I braked harder, realized my front tire was flat, and stopped safely.

My friend and I changed out the inner tube, and filled it with air. And then my friend noticed that there was a bulge of tube out the side of the tire. So we let out a little air, and I noticed that in the filling process I'd managed to break off part of the presta valve inner stem thing.

So we called a friend, and she and her partner generously came to pick us up. (We were about five miles out of town; yes, we could have walked.) (If I'd thought of it before I broke the presta valve thing, I could have done the fold up a dollar bill and use it to support the inner tube in the area of the split thing, but I didn't think of it in time.)

I have to say, if I'm going to have a flat, it's great to have a good friend there, someone who doesn't seem to get impatient or cranky, who laughs with me at broken Presta valves, and who's likely to be calm and competent in an emergency. And I'm also incredibly grateful to have friends who will come pick me up when I have a problem. I've never had to call before, but I'm so glad for my friends!

What does this have to do with expertise?

On my last post, a couple folks took issue with my calling myself a bike noobie or not a real biker. And I've been thinking about that. Maybe instead of "noob," I should think of myself more as a casual biker? Maybe "noob" and "noobie" have darker connotations for others than for me? But, to me, a real biker is an expert, and I'm not an expert biker.

I know what I feel like as an expert. I'm pretty much a Shakespeare/early modern lit expert. I'm probably one of the top 2500 people in the US at teaching college level Shakespeare/early modern lit. I'm sure there are people who do it lots better than I do, who know more than I ever will, who think more creatively about the questions and issues in the field, but I'm going to claim expertise. I studied hard to gain expertise in earning my phud, but I've also learned tons since then. I've sought out opportunities to learn about staging by doing dramaturgy, for example. I've tried different assignments, class activities, syllabus arrangements, and so forth, trying to figure out what works for what sorts of situations to help students do different kinds of learning.

The flip side to feeling like an expert in one thing is that I recognize when I'm not an expert and realize just how expansive people's knowledge goes into things I may be somewhat conversant about. I'm somewhat conversant about biking, and, yet this was the first flat I've ever had. And now I know what it feels like to have a flat, and how scary it is and isn't, and how the bike feels a little different. If I had been going fast, I probably would have fallen, and then I'd have gained a bit of knowledge about cleaning up road rash, probably. But I didn't. (It's good to be lucky!)

An expert biker has probably flatted a score of times in different situations, and would maybe be able to handle the bike better, to change the tire more efficiently (without breaking the valve and possibly figuring out about the slit so that s/he could put a folded up dollar in before adding all the air to the inner tube).

Here's another example: I've read an article doubting that using pedal cleats really helps bikers (though I'm not sure it's the one Brian kindly suggested). I'm not sure my cleats actually help me pedal better. I know sometimes I can consciously pull up, but I don't most of the time. I do like that my feet don't slip, which they did a couple times while I was a kid.

However, I'm willing to bet that if you went to where the top bikers do their bike testing and training, someone has measured the wattage output with and without cleats, and could tell you the difference in a given biker's output with a fair bit of precision in a variety of wind tunnel conditions. That person is an expert. Me, I'm not. (And those people seem to think that clicking in has a positive effect or they wouldn't do it.)

There's a book I've heard of by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers, where he argues that it takes some ten thousand hours of doing something to become an expert at it. I'm not sure that's so, nor that just doing something for hours is enough to become an expert. I'm guessing you'd have to focus as you were doing the activity.

Still, ten thousand hours is more than a year (8760, if you don't sleep), and I sure as heck don't put in that sort of time on my bike (about 150 hours this year so far); moreover, most of the hours I put in on my bike aren't increasing my expertise greatly because I'm not working at pedaling better or faster, or focusing on handling skills; I'm just getting some sunshine and exercise.

And despite my flat today, I'm ever so happy that I could get out for a ride, along a beautiful road, with a good friend, in the sunshine. So even though I don't think of myself as an expert, I still love playing bikes.


  1. A noob is someone who's just gotten on a bike, or someone who tries to ride with flipflops on and is shocked, shocked, I say, that the sandal can shoot off and/or get caught in the machinery. It comes from the annoying internet users who get on line for the first time and go charging about without consciousness that there are pre-existing mores and ways of doing things.

    So, clearly you need more categories to your taxonomy. You seem to be A Real Biker (as someone said, how could you be fake?) who is reasonably familiar with everything that's going on in the biking world but isn't trying to go pro. There *is* a category between "utterly clueless beginner" and Lance Armstrong, you know ;)

  2. What Sisyphus says--and even among serious racers, there's everything from cat[egory] 5 or 4 for racing noobs all the way up to cat 1 (Lance Armstrong and the young men in a hurry trying to force him out!).

    A noob might have responded to a flat by taking the bike to a shop to have it fixed, or even putting the bike in the back of the garage and forgetting about it....

  3. If you were wearing cleats, I don't think you would have wanted to walk 5 miles in them, so there's no shame in having your friend come get you. I've done a fair bit of road cycling (though for exercise/commuting, not competitive) and I'd never heard of the dollar bill tip, so I guess that makes you more knowledgeable than a 'noob' :)

  4. Whew, glad you didn't have a total wipeout that left you and/or your bike scrambled on the road.

    I like Sisyphus' observation about there being a big category between clueless beginner and Lance Armstrong.