An incident on a cycle race circuit got me thinking about the common good.
It’s great to be able to cycle with my club again on a Saturday morning. We’re allowed out in socially-distanced groups of six and we set off from different locations in and around Canterbury. My group was heading out to the sea at Sandwich via Betteshanger, where we planned to do a lap of the 3km circuit which has been built on the site of a former coal mine.
Normally there is an admirable sense of the common good when we ride together. If someone gets a puncture everyone stops and there is a generous sharing of expertise and equipment. Special consideration is given to anyone who is struggling. And, crucially, we take it in turns to cycle in front. When I’m directly behind another bike I’m saving about 30% of energy compared to being at the front of the pack. Alternating the leadership means that we can maintain the pace and that no one person gets too tired. I never fully appreciated before doing it how important it is in cycling to work as a team.
However, when we get onto that circuit at Betteshanger it’s every man and woman for themself! There’s a start and finish line and a smooth, fast surface and the competitive urge quickly kicks in. We were about two thirds of the way round and I was strategically placed behind Jon, Craig and Steve. Noticing that Steve was flagging I glided easily into third. Then with a couple of bends to go, and with plenty still in the tank (thanks to Jon and Craig having done the hard work!), I made my move. I sprinted ahead and was going fast. I thought I had the gold medal in the bag. Then shortly before the finish Craig flashed past me. When I’d made the break he had tucked in behind me, and I hadn’t heard him due to the wind. He picked the perfect moment to overtake and cross the line first. I was second and Jon, who had carried us round for most of the circuit, came in third.
We had a good laugh about it afterwards and I told the others about something that happened in a recent Olympics. It was a women’s long-distance cycling road race and there was a group of five out ahead with a few kilometres to go. They had a decent lead but the gap was narrowing. It needed one of them to go out in front and increase the pace. Yet each of them knew that if she was the one to make the break then the others would tuck in behind and she would be overtaken before the finish (similar to what happened to me at Betteshanger!). They even had a discussion about it, each of them urging someone to go for it. As far as I remember none of them made a break and the chasing group caught up and it was one of that group who went on to win gold, so all five missed out. What would I have done in that situation? I really don’t know.
Covid-19 has also thrown up moral dilemmas, some of them in the area of personal liberty and self-interest versus the common good. The emptying of supermarket shelves back in March was a classic case of self-interest getting the better of us. And having said that, I’m not suggesting that self-interest is a bad thing in itself, rather that there needs to be a balance between self-interest and the common good. Finding that balance is not always straightforward. The whole area of social gathering, travel, the wearing of face masks, even physical touch has become a bit of a minefield. Can I give a hug to my friend who I haven’t seen for ages? Can I lower the mask if the train carriage is deserted? In what circumstances can I justifiably break the rules?
The latest encyclical of Pope France is called ‘Fratelli Tutti’. This has been translated into English as ‘Brothers and Sisters All’, and it is a call to universal solidarity, and at a time when we need more than ever to co-operate across divides and to have a concern for the common good. At the heart of the encyclical is the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told the story after declaring to someone that the second greatest commandment is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (the greatest commandment being to love your God), and then being asked, “But who is my neighbour?”. In the parable the person in need is aided not by ‘one of their own’, both of whom walked by on the other side. Rather it was a ‘foreigner’ who recognised the plight of their fellow human being and put their own agenda to one side in order to reach out and help. If like the Good Samaritan I can see that everyone is my neighbour (not just those with whom I might share a geographical or a biological link) then surely this will radically affect how I treat others. And if I can see that we truly are all part of one human family, with the earth as our common home then surely this will have an impact on how I treat the planet and its resources.
Coming back to Covid, there are some things in the current myriad of regulations and restrictions that I don’t much care for. I particularly don’t like wearing a face mask. But I’ll put up with it, for the sake of my brothers and sisters, and for the sake of the common good. Mind you, when it comes to winning Olympic cycling gold, or even racing at Betteshanger, it’s not so clear cut…