Cross-Rutted Column

Jean Turner | March 4, 2020



It’s the halfway point of the AMA Supercross Series, and there couldn’t be a more fitting time for the top two to pull even in championship points. As Ricky Carmichael has said, “This series starts in Daytona.” Here we are preparing for the iconic Daytona race, and Eli Tomac and Ken Roczen have gained zero ground on each other. Between the two of them, it might as well be Anaheim 1 all over again.

Thinking back to the actual start of the season, a group text with riding buddies asked the inevitable question before the first gate of 2020 dropped: Who’s your pick for the Supercross championship? I admitted that I’m not a big fan of Eli, but I think he’s going to get it together this season and finally pull it off.

A reply immediately came: “People have been saying Eli Tomac for three years! Definition of insanity!”

Cross-Rutted Column
When it comes to racing, is it logical or insane to expect the unexpected? Photo: Garth Milan/RBCP

Of course, this refers to the widespread quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” But everything about that famous “quote” is untrue. Not only is the statement categorically false, but Einstein also never said that. So please throw away that inspirational coffee mug because it is full of lies.

The spread of misinformation, no matter how trivial, is the bane of my existence, especially in this case as it has to do with my field of study—psychology. A true mental disorder that would fit the colloquial definition of “insane” (i.e., schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, etc.) has nothing to do with repetitive behavior.

This brings me to another common misused quote that makes me cringe: “You never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychologist’s office.” Not only is that highly unlikely, there is also no way to definitively know that there has never been a motorcycle rider who visited a psychologist. Now, I realize that saying is a hyperbole, but like I’ve said a million times, it’s still misinformation!

While we’re squashing falsehoods, there’s another one I need to get off my chest. All due respect to my co-worker, Rennie Scaysbrook, who wrote a nice editorial a while back about motorcycling and mental health, but it brings up a generalization that I constantly find myself at odds with. Experiencing stress and sadness in life is not mental illness, nor is it a health issue. Reacting to life’s ups and downs is perfectly normal—healthy, even. We’re humans, and life is tough. We’re happy, then we’re sad. Then we’re angry, then we forgive. We worry, then we celebrate. Having moods is part of normal human behavior, and does not mean you are unhealthy. People too often conflate mood with mental illness, especially when it comes to depression. I wish psychology had come up with a different word for it, because people think that being stuck in a sad state is the same thing. It is not. Depressive disorder has to do with dopamine levels and your brain’s inability to perform basic everyday functions. Yes, chronic stress and sadness can lead to depression, but simply being sad does not mean you are clinically depressed.

Riding your motorcycle might put some salve on the stress in your life (it certainly does for me), and improve your mood with a nice dose of endorphins, but we are talking about mood here. Not mental illness.

Think of it this way, you might feel crummy after binging on too much sugar during the holidays, but this does not mean you have diabetes. Are you on the road to type 2 diabetes? If that pattern continued for too long, perhaps you would be. Eating more vegetables might help you feel better, but your salad didn’t cure diabetes.

But back to my point. Our group text got me thinking about the so-called “definition of insanity,” vis-à-vis the yearly grind that supercross racers face. Here we are at the midpoint of the season where a field of hopefuls have been doing the same thing week after week—some for the third, fourth, fifth year in a row. All but one of them is expecting a different result. Are they insane?

Some would say yes, likely for different reasons. Most would say that these riders are determined athletes striving for greatness. Like any athlete, their craft is honed over years of practice, which, of course, means performing the same task again and again until you nail it. And from there, practicing it still until you nail it 10 times out of 10 rather than two or three times out of 10.

That sounds more like the definition of determination to me.

It might sound insane, because as humans, we have an innate tendency to oversimplify and rapidly judge our surroundings. In doing that, we tend to cast aside the ideas or actions that weren’t successful and don’t typically revisit them. In today’s forward-thinking society, this might seem like close-minded, judgmental behavior that we should break ourselves of, but think of it in terms of a caveman who needed to figure out that fire is hot and he probably shouldn’t touch it. Or that there’s a sabre-tooth living in that cave; I probably shouldn’t go in there. Any caveman slow to learn these types of lessons because he was trying to remain open-minded to the possibility of a different outcome was far less likely to successfully spread his seed.

So what is the psychology behind this ostensibly counterintuitive need to reattempt the same feat year after year? After it has eluded so many riders time and again? (Perhaps the more relevant question is what on earth would possess the caveman to jump on that sabre-tooth and try to ride it?) Where does this burning desire to conquer the impossible come from? Can’t say I know the answer to that—not in words anyway, let alone any scientific terms. But look to the face of whoever is hoisting the AMA Supercross number-one plate over his head at the end of the season and perhaps you’ll see the answer.

Whose face will it be? Can’t say I know the answer to that either. Even at the halfway point of the series, I’m only 50% sure I could predict the outcome.

Supercross racing could be considered what science calls a chaotic dynamical system. These systems evolve with time, therefore, the further into the future you go, the less likely you are to predict the outcome. We’re halfway there, so it probably makes sense that I’m only half sure. The only logical prediction in a chaotic system is to expect the unexpected, which of course, flies in the face of our previous misattributed Einstein quote. No one expected Cooper Webb in 2019. Perhaps after three years of expecting Eli Tomac to win it, he’s finally unexpected in 2020. CN


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Jean Turner | Contributor A former staffer at Cycle News, Turner continues to contribute to the website and magazine as a columnist and someone we can count on to whip up a few thousand words on an off-road race when needed.