Riding high: Can cycling be addictive?

One of the many music books I got for Christmas this year was David Buckley’s excellent 2012 biography of Kraftwerk. Given the media shyness of the band since their official formation in 1970, I was surprised that there was enough material to even fill a chapter, let alone a whole book. However, I read the whole book by December 27th and one of the things I found most fascinating was the claim that the two key founding members of the band – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider – were obsessed with cycling. Cycling was so much a part of their daily lives from the early 1980s that – according to the other members of the ‘classic’ line-up, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür – it partly explains (along with the band’s perfectionist nature) the relatively low number of albums they released between 1981’s seminal Computer World and the present day. Even the most casual of Kraftwerk observers are probably aware of the band’s love of cycling as they released a single in 1983 about the Tour De France, and then 20 years later released their  2003 album Tour De France Soundtracks (their most recent album of original music).

People often talk about the ‘cycle of addiction’ but rarely about ‘addiction to cycling’ except occasional academic references in relation to exercise addiction (including some papers I have published myself). For instance, Dr. John Kerr in his 1997 book Motivation and Emotion in Sport speculated on the likely meta-motivational style of those people who are addicted to exercise. Dr. Kerr noted that it was the endurance type exercise activities (e.g. running, cycling, swimming, aerobics and weight training) that are most often associated with exercise addiction and dependence.

David Buckley devotes a whole section in his Kraftwerk biography to Hütter and Schneider’s obsession with cycling. He notes that “there is something compulsive about cycling; and this is not simply based on anecdotal evidence”, something with which I would concur based on the small amount of scientific evidence examining various types of exercise addiction. Most of the section on ‘cycling addiction’ relates to Hütter (although Schneider appears to be as equally enthusiastic about the joy of cycling). Buckley reported that:

“Ralf Hütter…the man-machine became the human bicycle. There is no denying that cycling was, and indeed still is, very important for Ralf Hütter…It is probably inaccurate to describe his passion for cycling as a hobby…it became more like a second (unpaid) job…The main problem with the [cycling] was, firstly, it took a huge chunk out of the conventional working day, and secondly, the effect of the work-out on the motivation of the individual”.

As Buckley then noted, after six hours cycling, the last thing Hütter wanted to do was work when he finally got to their infamous Kling Klang studio. He then went on to note:

“As [Hütter’s] fitness levels increased, he began attempting harder and harder climbs, longer and longer routes…[Hütter] estimated that at his peak, he was cycling around 200 kilometres a day. It had been reported that on occasion on Kraftwerk tours, the bus would drop [Hütter] off around 100 kilometres from the venue, and [Hütter] would complete the final stretch on his bike”.

To those of us who work in the addiction studies field, this description of engaging in ‘harder and harder [cycling] climbs’ by Buckley appears to be an example of ‘tolerance’ in all but name (i.e., the needing of more and more of an activity to gain the desired mood modification effect). Ralf Dorper, founder member of another of my favourite 1980s bands, Propaganda, said that in the mid-1980s:

“The only chance to meet Kraftwerk…would have been at one of these cycling shops. But then [Hütter and Schneider] got more and more into it, and they went to the really specialist shops outside of Dusseldorf…They would probably easily do 50 to 100 kilometres a day”.

Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür noticed his band members shift their focus away from music and on to cycling. He said that his colleagues became “fanatics” and “insane” about their cycling, and he also claimed in an interview with Buckley that cycling was an addiction and “became a kind of drug” for Hütter. Buckley also recounts Hütter’s cycling accident that left him in a coma. The most amusing anecdote was that on coming out of his coma, Hütter’s alleged first words were “Is my bike OK? What happened to my bike?” (something that Hütter denied in a June 2009 interview with British newspaper The Guardian). Hütter doesn’t deny his cycling passion and noted in one online interview I came across that:

Cycling is the man-machine, it’s about dynamics, always continuing straight ahead, forward, no stopping. He who stops falls over. There are really balanced artists who can remain upright at a standstill, but I can’t do that. It’s always forwards”

If newspaper reports are to be believed, Hütter may not be the only pop musician with a cycling addiction. An article in an October 2009 issue of The Guardian claimed that Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet was “now a road cycling addict” based on his new-found enthusiasm for cycling. The article then went on to talk about Ralf Hütter and that “his obsession with [cycling] reportedly became so all-encompassing it threatened the group”.

Arguably the most infamous ‘cycling addict’ was the 55-year old American man ‘Tom’ from Mt. Pleasant (Texas) who appeared on the US television show My Strange Addiction who cycles eight hours a day, seven days a week (over one million miles in a 25-year period). According to the show, Tom rides his bike at home, outside, and even in his office as he works. It was also revealed that Tom was in constant stress from his cycling, and that his constant cycling had made it painful for him to stand, and can barely walk. Alternatively, there is also an amusing 2010 article by Diana North listing ‘26 signs of cycling addiction’ (e.g., ‘Have you seriously considered building a second bike room addition to your home?’, ‘Are there more than three bike-related tattoos on your body?’, ‘Do people leaving messages on your voicemail start with “I know you’re on your bike right now, but…?”, etc.). There are also a variety of online accounts (mostly by cyclists) questioning whether their passion is an addiction such as an article by Scott Saifer in the magazine Road: The Journal of Road Cycling and Culture, an e-zine article by Nebojsa Djekanovic, and a personal account by ‘Doug’ who runs the Cycle Hub blog).

Although there is a fairly established scientific literature on exercise addiction in general, there is almost nothing on cycling addiction specifically (although I did come across one online article where a professional cyclist had adapted the Internet Addiction Test for other cyclists to self-diagnose whether they are addicted to cycling). A fairly recent 2007 book entitled Exercise Dependence edited by Drs. John Kerr, Koenraad Lindner and Michelle Blaydon had about 20 mentions of cycling in the context of exercise addiction (although again almost nothing specific). Most of the references were in relation to cycling being one of the endurance sports that can also be engaged in individually, and that individual endurance sports are more highly associated with exercise addiction.

There are also occasional references to triathletes (who run, cycle and swim) being dependent and/or addicted to exercise. There was also reference to research examining eating disorders among different professional athletes (as there is a relationship between exercise addiction and eating disorders that I reviewed in a previous blog). Kerr and colleagues quoted a group of 1990s studies by Dr. J. Sundgot-Borgen showing that the prevalence of eating disorders among elitist cyclists was 20% compared to cross-country skiers (33%), middle and long distance runners (27%), swimmers (15%) and orienteers (0%). Interestingly, one of the traits that appears to be associated with exercise addiction is perfectionism according to a 1990 paper by Dr. Caroline Davis that appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (which when linked back to Ralf Hütter’s experiences in Kraftwerk made me raise an eyebrow).

There is also some preliminary evidence that professional cyclists may be more prone to drug addictions than other groups of people. Although I was unable to fully read a French paper by Dr. J.C. Seznec in a 2002 issue of the Annales Medico-Psychologiques Revue Psychiatrique, the author claimed that sportsmen were specifically vulnerable to addiction. Seznec – a psychiatrist and sports doctor – highlighted there are some factors (predisposing factors, initiation factors and maintenance factors) that explain the association. Seznec concluded that:

“These addictions seem to be in direct relation with the brutal transformation that high-level sport towards professionalism suffered. This study makes us conclude that the practising of a professional sport predisposes to the development of an addiction and that it requires a specific preventive help”.

I’m certainly of the opinion that it is theoretically possible to be addicted to cycling, although the number of people genuinely affected is likely to be small. This is one area that I might consider doing some personal research into – especially if it meant I could interview the members of Kraftwerk!

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631-646.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Exercise addiction: Symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417.

Buckley, D. (2012). Kraftwerk Publication. London: Omnibus.

Davis, C. (1990). Weight and diet preoccupation and addictiveness: The role of exercise. Personality and Individual Differences, 11, 823-827.

Griffiths, M. D. (1997). Exercise addiction: A case study. Addiction Research, 5, 161-168.

Griffiths, M. D., Szabo, A., & Terry, A. (2005). The exercise addiction inventory: a quick and easy screening tool for health practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(6), e30-31.

Kerr, J. H. (1997) Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory. Hove: Psychology Press.

Kerr, J.H., Lindner, K.J. & Blaydon, M. (2007). Exercise Dependence. Oxford: Routledge.

Seznec, J. C. (2002). Toxicomanie et cyclisme professionnel [Drug addiction and professional cycling]. Annales Medico-Psychologiques Revue Psychiatrique, 160, 72-76.

Sundgot-Borgen, J. (1993). Prevalence of eating disorders in female elite athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 3, 29-40.

Sundgot-Borgen, J. (1994). Eating disorders in female athletes. Sports Medicine, 17, 176-188.

Sundgot-Borgen, J. (1994) ‘Risk and trigger factors for the development of eating disorders in female elite athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26, 414-419.

Sundgot-Borgen, J., Torstveit, G. and Klungland, M. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14, 25-32.

Terry, A., Szabo, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2004). The exercise addiction inventory: A new brief screening tool. Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 489-499.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 30, 2012, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Eating disorders, Exercise addiction, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technology, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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