The Sporting Life 

Zach Dundas, author of The Renegade Sportsman, explains his wild journey into the underbelly of American sports culture.

In the introduction to his new book, Zach Dundas acknowledges that most sports fans "prefer their competitive athletes sober, aerodynamically shaved, and honed to a pitiless muscular edge. They prefer their events 'organized.'" Not Dundas.

While attending a cyclocross race—an event he describes as "a rustic form of bike racing that combines grueling obstacles, hellacious ascents and descents, a fetish for bad weather, athletic masochism, and rabid beer consumption"—Dundas had an epiphany. Fans consistently bummed out by the mega-business of professional sports deserved something more pure, less fame-obsessed and, well, more fun than what was being offered in major venues. They deserved to know about events like cyclocross.

Dundas' epiphany led to a cross-country journey into our country's burgeoning alternative sports landscape—and to his first book, The Renegade Sportsman, which was released this month. We caught up with the former Indy arts editor and current Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer to learn more about his theory on the future of sports, how 1970s stadium rock is like professional basketball and to discuss something called "soccer."

Indy: The Renegade Sportsman is based on something you've dubbed the "Two Futures of Sports Theory." Please explain.

Dundas: Well, as I was conceiving of the book, it struck me that we never think about sports as a cultural movement, like music or art. Because 90 percent of the attention paid to sports goes to mainstream, major league sports, we tend to view sports as this weird combination of big business and celebrity gossip. And yet sports, like music or art or literature, is a manifestation of culture before anything else. In music, even people who are just fans of mainstream pop recognize the role played by the band that plays in the corner bar—the grassroots level of chaos that keeps the overall organism alive. So my Two Futures of Sports Theory (which has a pretentious name by design) tries to apply that thinking to sports. Obviously, the major leagues will just keep getting bigger, barring civilization-wide catastrophe. But I also think there is an opportunity for a much more cohesive, vibrant, grassroots sports underground to thrive at the same time, and that the two can feed off of each other.

Indy: Each chapter delves into a different alternative sporting culture. What criteria did you use for choosing what made the book, and what didn't?

Dundas: It was like porn—you know it when you see it. I was really attracted to sports that are being organized, or even invented, by the participants themselves as we speak. Roller derby fits that bill, as does bike polo. I wrote at length about a bike race in Iowa, the Trans-Iowa, which is effectively staged by one man but has nonetheless achieved a certain legendary status. I was looking for that kind of dirty-fingernailed Yankee ingenuity, mostly. At the same time, there's a broad spectrum within the book—I wrote about the Cresta Run, which is this crazy sledding event in Switzerland that seems to attract European aristocrats almost exclusively, just because I think it's cool and bizarre.

Indy: Which sport made the biggest impression on you, for better or worse?

Dundas: It's hard to argue with the Trans-Iowa. It's a cycling triple-century over the worst backroads you can imagine, out in the middle of nowhere. (The Iowa-style middle of nowhere, not the Montana-style middle of nowhere, i.e., you're surrounded by seas of corn.) Just physically, it's a monumental task and achievement—I really doubt that many professional athletes, in any sport, could outdo the guys who finished in the top five, in about 25 hours. Culturally, it was a reminder that this part of the country that people tend to think of as very boring and conventional is actually home to a bunch of very creative, engaged people. I think that resonated with me as a Montanan. And just personally, everyone involved in the race has this kind of folkloric stature, from Guitar Ted, the guy who runs the race, to Ira Ryan, the cycling fanatic who won the edition I witnessed.

Indy: Almost every sport involves—requires?—the consumption of alcohol in some way. Did you need more Bengay or detox after your research?

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