Being the Sweep

On every bike tour IBT (International Bicycle Tours) does, there is a Sweep. [1] On nearly Sweep 4every bike tour I have taken with IBT—the Danube (twice), Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, the Rhine and the Mosel Rivers, and most recently the Loing River valley in France—I have had a chance to be the Sweep for one day.

We were working our way up toward Paris on September 17 when I was chosen as Sweep most recently. The Sweep’s job is to be dead last. IBT prides itself on never losing anyone on a bike trip and the key to all that is the Sweep. [2] Here’s how serious they are about it.

  • If your bike breaks down, the Sweep waits with you until it can be fixed or replaced
  • If you have to find a bush that will accommodate taking a discrete leak, the Sweep will wait for you
  • If there is a picture you really need to take and which will take you away from the bike path, you tell the Sweep and go wherever you need to go and when you get back, the Sweep is waiting for you.
  • Being the Sweep is one of the very few things you can do that will allow people to address you by your status (Sweep) rather than your name, as in “Thank you Sweep.”

So I always thought it was a big deal to be chosen Sweep for that day. That makes sense to me. The leader thinks I can be counted on to exercise the discipline of being last and to make the unpredictable decisions that crop up from time to time. Here’s what didn’t make sense to me. I took positive pleasure in my Sweep day. And when I did, I remembered that Sweep 3I had enjoyed it on those earlier days as well. I enjoyed interactions between the other riders that I would not have paid any attention to before and, even better, I was simply not irked at the normal run of stupid things that someone will do on any given day.  Here is the Village of Mammés, at the confluence of the Loing and the Seine, by the way.  I wouldn’t swear that we saw this exact scene, but we saw quite a few like it.

So…more responsibility and less irritation and more pleasure. Not really a common combination, is it? How does it work?

My guess is that it works because when I am the Sweep, my own wishes are not the top item on my mental agenda. Ordinarily, I have a pretty acute sense of what I want to happen and sometimes I allow that to morph over to “what should happen.” But when I have a job—being Sweep is a job—the top item is whether the things I am responsible for are happening. Am I really the last rider? Is the group getting too strung out?  The riders below are not us.  There were twice as many of “us” but you get the idea.

So what happens if someone wants to stop and take pictures of each other—not “look how Sweep 5beautiful France is” pictures, but “here I am in front of some garden gate” pictures? If I were not the Sweep, I would just pass them and rejoin the group. No harm; no foul. As the Sweep, I have to wait until they are done unless waiting too long would separate us too much from the rest of the riders. It seems to me, taking my own personality into account, that waiting for people to do things that don’t have any value anyway (no value I recognize) would be extraordinarily irksome. But it was not.

Why? Well, if the top item on the agenda is “Am I doing my job well?” then the second item, “Am I being inconvenienced by the lack of discipline of my fellow riders?” just does not get asked. If it did get asked, the answer would be Yes! and I am quite sure I would either be angry or engaged in some sort of anger management strategy. But nothing they are doing is preventing me from being the very last rider, which is my job, so only the first question is asked and by that standard, everything is just fine.

Sweep 2It doesn’t make sense right away. When I am freed to do what I want—I am one rider in a line of riders—I get irked by the gimmicks other riders use. Some of those things are selfish. Some are just insensitive. Some are dangerous. I disapprove of them in principle and several times, had a fall from my bike because of them, a sad fact to which I refer later.[3] But in every case where I am just one rider among many, the top question in my mind is “Am I being inconvenienced by the lack of discipline of my fellow riders?” And, as I noted earlier, when the question gets asked, the answer is certain and my own emotional struggles follow directly.  This actually is the Loing, just upstream from the Seine. Isn’t it gorgeous?

One solution—the Sweep solution—is to put some other question first. That way the “personal grievance” question doesn’t get asked and so never gets answered. I confess that it is tempting in principle. I wouldn’t have personal wants like the other riders. I would have only the obligations and satisfactions that go with my status.

In addition to that, there is a lot of language that is used in the church I attend and in the religious materials I study that gives support to this kind of notion. It probably wouldn’t do any harm to start with the funny ones. Jesus says in Matthew 20:16 that the last shall be first and my job as Sweep is to be last so it’s really a path to advancement. In addition, a formulation of the church’s ministry to “the least, the lost, and the last,” would surely include Sweeps who are, as the saying goes, “last, but not least.”

OK, I’ve had my fun. Here are some problems with my formulations so far. I’ll deal with the religious ones first and then with the psychological ones. If you are using as your illustration, a society where there are masters and slaves [4], everyone knows what the slave’s duties are. But “serving” a bicycling group could mean riding up close to the leader; it could mean falling into line with some of the slower riders; it could mean walking your bike up a hill because you don’t want there to be only one walker; [5] it might mean being a very active corner and helping the other bikers navigate a tricky intersection safely. In a master/slave setting, you can tell who is “serving.” On an IBT tour, you can’t. Doing “what needs to be done” in an attitude of serving is a pretty good approximation and, as a further advantage, only you will know when you are doing it. And when you have failed to do it.

Sweep 1It is entirely possible that you can serve your fellow bikers best by engaging yourself as completely in the countryside as safety will allow and just enjoying the ride. You don’t have to pay any attention to the others at all, but if seeing you enjoying the valley helps them remember to enjoy the valley, that’s probably a good thing, although you are not likely to find out about it.  Neither of these guys is me either, but I did fall off my bike four times in four days of riding and I wanted to remind myself.

From a psychological standpoint, I am pretty sure that the first thing I am responsible for is being who I am. Knowing who I am and being who I am is the foundation of everything else I might do. [6] Being who I am makes me a knowable entity, someone the others can be confident of; someone they know how to relate to. Being who I am allows me to place myself confidently in the various sets of social relationships that will be available.

I need to be sure that the fuel I need to run on is available. I know that’s a very general notion, but the kind of fuel I run on is sure to be different than the kind you run on and I don’t want to make too narrow a point. When I run low on fuel, I start to make bad decisions, often thoughtless and selfish decisions, about what to do. I put “enough of the right kind of fuel” up there with good food and enough sleep.

In short, to pick two very broad aspects of self-maintenance, I need to be who I am and I need to make sure that I have access to enough of the fuel that enables me to be that person. In the light of that, I see the Sweep solution as a really good solution for a day. It is kind of a vacation from myself. But that is also why it is a short range solution: I want to be myself. I just don’t want to have to be myself all the time.

[1] I don’t think we are supposed to capitalize the word, but I want to draw attention to the status itself. Every day, someone plays the role of Sweep and whoever it is gets treated differently that day.
[2] And the corners, but I don’t think this particular reflection will take me as far as the corners.
[3] In addition, that is, to being generally clumsy and having a deteriorating sense of balance.
[4] The same word, doulos, is rendered either “servant” or “slave” depending on the context.
[5] The Sweep WILL walk. It’s not a choice for the Sweep. There isn’t any other way to be last.
[6] Again, the elegant phrasing of Snell and Gail Putney, “an accurate and acceptable self-image”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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