“Yeah, I play golf, why are you asking?”
“I like to think that I can guess a guy’s sport from the way he rides a bike.”

I used to feel a bit ashamed of the one genetic advantage afforded me at the moment of conception. My parents, fucking while chain-smoking and sipping martinis, each contributed to my DNA a pitiful, nearly useless VO2 of around 40mL/kg/min. (VO2, or more properly VO2-max, is the measurement that physiologists use to express peak oxygen take-up in working muscles.) If neither contribution on its own would be sufficient to fuel the exploits of a steakhouse bowling captain, I somehow managed to get both, combining two mediocrities into one fairly sublime gift, slightly exceeding the magic threshold of eighty. Not that later on I wouldn’t — by many people’s way of thinking — pretty much squander this gift. On my own terms, however, I believe I got something out of it. Precisely what, apart from puritanical satisfaction in the sense-obliterating effort of it, I’m not sure. Or wouldn’t be able to articulate. I won no medals, no championships, no gilded cups, no squirming podium babes in minidresses,† no fabulous sums of money. But I did get paid — checks were written in my name — to compete at an elite level, and that’s a rare experience upon this, the worst of all the planets.

Because my sport (from which I continue to earn a modest income as a physiology consultant) has lately incurred at an amateur level — or more realistically at a recreational level — a huge infiltration of guys who have no apparent control over their physical being, I find I am inclined to rant more and more about the difference between athletes and, what shall we call them? — blocks of wood.

I’m not criticizing these people. That’s simply the image — blocks of wood — that came to mind: dense, squat, quick to topple, chunky, poorly rolling. And wooden, to state the obvious. But in the interest of concision it might make more sense to use a familiar Yiddish word for blocks of wood: klutzes.

And it’s a difference you can see, a theory you can develop, without visiting a championship swimming arena, a Premier League football stadium, an Olympic track-and-field venue. In a crowded supermarket yesterday, I watched with abstracted fascination as shoppers — some pushing carts, others pulling wheelie baskets behind them or carrying smaller baskets in the crooks of elbows — moved through aisles, hustled between and around free-standing displays of goods and produce, jiggered into lines at the deli counter. Even in such a routine environment as a grocery store, you could tell. Or I could. (As I say, this sort of watching, analyzing, and evaluating is my job, has been for nearly thirty years. Admittedly, the context in which I work is generally not so variable, diffuse, or unrelated — in a categorical sense — to sport.)

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Klutzes — again, let me assure you, I’ve chosen my vernacular with sincere affection; several of one’s closest friends are klutzes, after all — dart about from point to point. If another shopper’s cart crosses unexpectedly in front of them, klutzes race toward it and jerkily stop, waiting for it to pass. (Sometimes such confrontations can be rather awkwarder than that, with clanking metal, bumped shins, sneers of impatience.) After waiting, they immediately push off, exploding to maximum speed. If lucky, they may with a single crazy thrust arrive at the next item on their shopping list — cauliflower or mayonnaise or hotdog buns or frozen peas. Or they may fail to reach that target, as their frenetic bobbing-and-weaving among other shoppers occurs over and over and over, within mere meters of where they began. Even alone in some department of obscure interest (red chard, bulk wild rice, Ethiopian Berbere, what have you), their path unobstructed by cruel fate, they’ll still manage to snag the cart’s rear casters on a corner abutment, or on the feet of a display rack. I watched one shopper repeatedly — repeatedly — run over her own great toe. So much for that pedicure.

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Ethiopian Berbere

If you’ve ever observed lab rats in mazes, knocking into each other, reversing, circling their own tails in search of … whatever the hell they’re searching for, you’ll have a good idea of klutzy behavior. (Usually in such studies, what awaits these frazzled rodents is healthful nutrition at one exit, pellets of crack cocaine at another. Guess which they prefer.) Looking idly at shoppers, I can’t measure — gauge, judge, codify — everything I’d need to know to determine whether they’d be good at my sport. Without testing I can’t know, can’t even estimate, their ability to, whatever — buffer metabolic pH shifts or delay the point at which tricarboxylic acid reactions give way to glycolysis. Even the appearance of their musculature seldom proves a reliable indicator, although it’s a fairly safe bet that a man weighing a hundred kilos, bearing rolls of, er, adipose tissue at his waistline, is unlikely to prosper in a sport in which anything above sixty-five kilos counts as overweight.††

By contrast, athletes (by which I mean in this context intuitively graceful people) join several points together at once, creating a continuous, flowing, integrated sequence. Navigating among these points — after starting from a rough interpretation of possible routes (if that’s the right word) and physical forces at play — an athletic person then applies an ongoing secondary interpretation. Mainly this involves corrections — such as for direction, momentum, groundspeed, spatial orientation, and active synchronization with fellow shoppers — as proprioceptive feedback varies and shifts along the way. What it looks like to the rest of us, watching, is an uninterrupted blending process. The natural athlete’s cart slows down — smoothly, gradually, efficiently — in anticipation of conflict with other, frequently witless patrons, so that its reduced speed allows it to pass cleanly by. Whereupon full speed is once again — smoothly, gradually, efficiently — regained. You see no jerkiness, or frustration, or hesitation. No impatience. And almost no backing up, to restart the process. The athlete’s cart or basket never runs into or jostles fellow citizens.

I watched one man — who must have been in his mid-to-late seventies — negotiate that fraught geography with astonishing ease and fluidity. He moved like a ghost — quietly, serenely. Never seeming to be traveling quickly, he nevertheless covered huge swathes of aisle much more adeptly, as well much faster, than people nearby. I could sense that he might be or might once have been an accomplished tennis player, or a great shortstop. Or a dancer, maybe — his physique seemed to suggest something formerly compact and elegant, with soft-sloping épaulement and traces of turn-out.

Here’s the other thing: not only was this man never in a struggle against physics, against time, against contingency, against mathematical odds, he seemed to be completely at ease with humanity. Not once, while I observed, did he get in anybody else’s way, confuse or rebuff anybody else’s progress, regardless of how inept that “anybody” might have been. It was as if he weren’t there at all — like someone, or something, that didn’t exist in this dimension.

* This I recount from many years ago. During a training session on the rural roads of Napa County, a teammate and I found ourselves approaching, and then mixing with, a group of amateur riders. These were, as the expression goes, weekend-warrior types — titans of industry or dentistry, who spend enormous amounts of money on equipment and clothing and twiddle round the countryside pretending to be real men. This teammate, normally polite and empathetic to the point of pathology, was finally unable to suppress his contempt. To the cockiest alpha-warrior he said, “Are you a golfer by any chance?” 

† What, politically incorrect? But I refer to a time before the sponsor’s chattel would be dressed up in business attire — pants suits and ruffled blouses — and told never to bat eye lashes or otherwise debase themselves sexually.

†† Give or take, depending on the rider’s height and specific discipline within this sport. Pure “climbers,” the guys who win in the high mountains may weigh ten kilos less that. Fewer? Less? Fewer? Less?