The ride better project (Or: A rambling manifesto)

I.

“We think in generalities, but we live in details.” – Alfred North Whitehead

It is a staple of cycling media that the main purpose of cycling is to go faster (the mainstream cycling media that caters to the road cycling amateur racer or enthusiast). How-to articles are a regular occurrence, equipment reviews focus on weight (reduced weight apparently helping you to go faster), and bike reviews always make a comment on how ‘fast’ a bike is (the rough equivalent of testing a car without reference to what engine it has, but never mind). Reviews have reached a kind of pseudoscience degree of ridiculousness – effectively advertorial (true quote: “I honestly felt like this shoe made me faster”; this raises some interesting cognitive biases and interesting questions of epistemology) – that won’t be discussed here and is best left to the more capable (and perhaps more cynical).

If you were a roadie a few decades ago, your main interest probably was in going faster. You were likely a young aspiring racer in what was a mostly fringe pursuit. Your interest was in progression up through the category classes in road racing. (If you, dear reader, are one of these riders right now, stop reading here. And best of luck.) There were no fondos or other general events and anybody who was bike riding for fun was probably on a mountain bike.

This idea of progression remains the main thinking of the industry, despite there being a large number of riders who are not interested in moving up as amateur racers. And now it is much more consumer driven. As you progress (i.e. get faster) you graduate onto (supposedly) better bikes and equipment. Bike reviews regularly note whether a road bike is a beginner version, or for an enthusiast, or an aspiring racer. This is despite the marginal difference between bikes in these different classes – at least in terms of performance – and that trickle-down has meant that groupsets and wheelsets and other components, even at the lower end, are more than adequate in most cases and the potential performance gains of more expensive equipment entirely minuscule.

As well, we are currently in the age of the ‘details’ about our riding. We are now able to measure and record a huge number of parameters that even a few years ago were out of reach. Once, in the age of the basic bike computer, only distance and speed could be recorded – perhaps HR if lucky. There was no real way to compare performances with others, except for the stop sign sprint or to front up to race day and to see how you placed, which would be a factor of who else was there on the day.

Now, with varying degrees of investment, we can record power output, possibly VO2 max, not to mention various permutations of speed, distance and cadence, as well as our location and our ride stats compared to others on a variety of courses through apps such as Strava. There is very little that is left undocumented and unrecorded.

The purpose of this technology is more speed. A print ad for the Garmin Vector power meter pedals reads: “Without power, I never sniffed the podium – even at Cat 4. Now I’m a Cat 2.” Technology and information leads to more speed, and progression. As do other improvements, such as Specialized’s #aeroiseverything campaign: the goal, again, is to go faster. Not too far away, surely, are drag coefficients printed on product packaging, alongside numbers for weight.

Combined with the ubiquitous training plan, we are in thrall of the numbers and bending them to our service with the goal of speed. This is how we progress – more miles, higher FTP, more KOMs and trophies – all validating what we are doing and the effort we are putting in. What is effort without reward? And that reward is more speed, and perhaps progression onto a new (faster, of course) bike and a set of carbon aero wheels.

Strava is the prime example of being in the thrall of numbers. A ride is measured in terms of distance and metres climbed – the basis for earning trophies – as well as achievements of PBs and KOMs. There is a ranking system, among all Strava users but also in the clubs that you can form with fellow riders. The higher the numbers, the higher the ranking. Thus, the value of a ride is in generating higher numbers, and the purpose of a ride – according to Strava – is to Prove It: go faster, higher, stronger, and longer, and achieve more. Then share it. After all, if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen.

But does this matter? A confession: I like trying to ride fast at times, and I enjoy pushing myself and seeing the results (such as they are) on Strava. Competition can be good, and training harder has some other value (exercise needs some intensity from time to time to maximize its health benefits). But in the pursuit of speed is something else being lost? In the book ‘The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In A World of Constant Connection’ the author, Michael Harris, explores to effect of internet technology, social media and constant connection to our lives and how it affects us in various ways. [1] But to lament what we have lost means establishing a moral value to various activities. Is reading a book in quiet contemplation better than noodling away on Twitter?

I want to do two things for the remainder of this piece. Firstly, to argue that the pursuit of more speed is ultimately going to end in disappointment and more frustration than satisfaction. This is because there is an upper limit to performance and, as well, over time, you will actually get slower. Secondly, to argue that there are other goals for riding that will give greater satisfaction than just the pursuit of speed (and the sharing of it on social media). Ultimately, despite wanting to avoid a moral judgement, I suggest that the mental and social/community aspects have more enduring value than being able to record a new personal best. Although it was not its intention, the overall argument might be seen in the context of ideas of alienation: a mindset focused on a narrow definition of cycling, aided and abetted by (often but not always) commercial interests, prevents individual enjoyment – even flourishing – of all the aspects of cycling. If riding a bike is about freedom, then the pursuit of speed will keep you in a kind of bondage.

II.

“It doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster.” —Greg LeMond

LeMond’s quote above is a staple of the amateur canon, alongside “Ride. Lots.” (Merckx) and various permutations of “HTFU” and so on. LeMond’s notion is that cycling doesn’t get easier – as you’re always working at your limit – but you do get faster. That is, you progress. But if we dissect this a little, we find that the statement is actually not true, or only true in certain circumstances.

Firstly, cycling does get easier. If you’ve been riding a good number of years, think about the sort of ride you could do tomorrow. There’s a good chance you could bust out 100 kilometres at a decent pace. Maybe you could even go 120 or 140+. You are conditioned to ride you bike at a normal pace for a long period of time, and to cover the sort of distances that would make most people – your friends and family, for example – raise their eyebrows at your accomplishment. But for you, this is entirely normal. There might be some lying down afterwards, or some pain for the next few days, but it does get easier.

Secondly, you don’t always go faster. No doubt LeMond made his statement early in his career when he was getting faster, when he was clearly the most gifted cyclist in the world, when he was just killing it in Europe. No disrespect intended, but at some point he stopped getting faster.

Physiology and opportunity/environment are discussed in the next section, but here I want to comment on speed versus aging. Have a look at this article on age, training and speed  from Outside magazine. Misleadingly, the title is the opposite of what the article actually says. Age is entirely relevant and, if you want to make gains – or prevent reversals – you need to adopt a very specific approach to training. In the actual book, Friel notes that age affects aerobic capacity from the 30s onward and muscle capacity from the 40s.[2]  Numbers will vary, and there are different factors at play (such as economy) but his rough rule of thumb is that if you’re doing only long and slow rides, the decline in overall performance will be about 1 per cent every year or greater. Doing intensity training has been shown to cut that in half and slow the pace of decline, according to Friel.

Such training can also produce some short-term gains, which might be a good motivating factor because doing hard training is not always very much fun. As noted below, opportunity and motivation are important, and these are not always present. How easy was it to thrash yourself back in the day when you didn’t have much else going on during the weekend, then have a big afternoon nap or a lie in the next day? For many of us, those days are past. But the core message is consistent: your fitness is going to decline. You will get slower over time. It’s just a case of by how much. If, like your author, you’ve been riding for a long time, those glory years (such as they were) are never coming back. I’m reluctant to let go of some of the (barely better than average) personal records I have, but need to be resigned to knowing that I won’t get near that level again. And if you, dear reader, haven’t had any glory years, and that’s important to you, it might be a good idea to get one in now.

III.

“Athletes are essentially always distinguished by both their training environments and their genes.” – David Epstein

David Epstein’s book ‘The Sports Gene’ is an invaluable primer on how nature and nurture affects our sporting performance. [3] As an endurance sport, aerobic capacity is the often regarded as the primary determinant of how fast we can ride as a cyclist. There are some very interesting sports science debates ongoing about aerobic capacity, particularly its measurement through VO2 max, and whether this measurement is the correct one for comparing performances. Ross Tucker suggests that this aerobic capacity is just one of three components that determine performance.

Still, as Michael Hutchinson notes in his book ‘Faster’, across a large sample there is a very strong correlation between aerobic capacity and performance in endurance sports like cycling.[4] It is only at the top end that very fine distinctions in efficiency and sustainability make the difference for elite athletes. For elite athletes, these differences can be important. Hutchinson, in a lab test, posted a VO2 max of 90ml/m/kg. Yep, you read that right! That’s a number that’s probably double what many recreational riders could post, meaning that he’s transferring twice as much oxygen to his muscles as us. That was a number that put him in the elite of the elite of endurance athletes. It was enough to get him multiple UK TT titles, and other victories, but did not mean he could beat Tony Martin. The problem, as he put it, was what happened when the oxygen got to his muscles. He couldn’t convert it to the sustainable power numbers necessary due to efficiency ‘limitations’ and the circular relationship could not be squared. His performance was ultimately limited by a particular aspect of his physiology.

Looking broader, Epstein’s main takeaway for our purposes here is that genetics has a double effect on how we perform as a cyclist. Firstly, genetics determines our base aerobic ability (also our muscle composition – if you don’t have sufficient fast-twitch fibres to sprint fast, you can’t ‘develop’ them). Secondly, genetics also determines how we respond to training in increasing our aerobic capacity (and other factors that translate into speed). On this second point, traditionally, being talented but not making it to the top was seen as some kind of moral failing – not being prepared to put in the effort. Now we know that different athletes, even with the same innate talent, respond in different ways to training – even if it’s the same training programme. Athletes are high or low responders, depending on their genetically determined physiology.

At the most basic, we all start off at different ability levels; with training, we improve at different rates, and at some point the benefit of that training levels out. We all hit diminishing returns at some point – even pro riders do – and it’s just a case of when that happens. As they say, results may vary. When one thinks about it, this is entirely obvious. As beginner cyclists back in the day, we all remember who was fast straight out of the blocks, who got better over time, and the different levels at which we plateaued. Even given all the time in the world for training, we all reach our peaks at some point and at different ability levels.

Legendary running coach Jack Daniels builds on this and notes that the ingredients of success are talent (ability), motivation, opportunity, and direction (coaching/training).[5] Talent is the most important, but there are other factors. Opportunity is your environment and all those factors in your life that allow you to train or prevent you from training. Motivation might be how badly you want to chase those numbers. Do you enjoy the 6-hour endurance rides, or, after 3 hours, do you want to get home to build Lego with your kids?

At some point, all these factors typically conspire to put limits on your gains. And ability is an important limitation. If you are following a training programme for your target goal or event, and you don’t reach that goal, this is not necessarily a failure. It might be your genes. It might be because you’re not that motivated to kill yourself on intervals when you have a busy life. And that’s okay. We should be careful of the emotional energy we expend on trying to reach goals based on going faster, as these goals may not be obtainable no matter how hard we try.

IV.

“A tense and busy futility is the best Americans can do by way of down time. How else to explain golf?” – P.J. O’Rourke

“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.” – Marshall McLuhan

Michael Hutchinson in his book concludes by explaining that after a career of trying to go faster, in which he never really got much faster than in his early days, he still enjoyed the journey. The point of departure was not to arrive. It didn’t matter that he never got that much faster, but he enjoyed the challenge. (As an aside, his story about ceramic bearings is hilarious. At much expense he installs them in his hubs and marvels at their frictionless spinning. The amount of watts saved on the road? Zero.) This seems like a particularly English (he’s Irish, but stay with me) approach to the question of success. In North America, we tend to be a lot more earnest – hence P.J. O’Rourke’s quote – and that somehow everything that we do must be turned into a competition (see cooking, poker, fishing, all sports as competitive shows on TV) that reflects our moral victories or failures.

In his essay on fitness from n+1, Mark Greif opens with, “Nothing demonstrates our nostalgia for factory work as well as the modern gym.”[6] He mistakenly discounts any value from the fitness industry, but his broader point is that we easily turn an activity that’s supposed to be an escape from the dull monotony of working life into, well, a dull monotony. We cyclists, especially those who avoid gyms – even spinning classes – might scoff at this notion. But how easily we can turn our rides into exactly the same: training rides with hill repeats where we ride by numbers on screens on our bikes or (soon) right on our glasses, each effort carefully regulated by our goals and targets as part of a greater plan of progression – insulated and isolated. Why even bother going out on the road at all?

This type of riding easily fits with the professionalization of amateur sport, all for the goal of existential heroism (to borrow someone’s excellent description). “Sponsor yourself” the Assos tagline exhorts. Forget that we are not professionals, that our purpose for riding is (or should be) entirely different from theirs. Forget that we don’t get financially rewarded for our ability and dedication. Forget that our livelihoods are not based on seconds and metres. Yet we buy easily into this earnestness. It’s easy to be cynical that this is exactly how the industry wants us to be: individuated and competitive, fixated on marginal gains, willing to open our wallets to the new, shiny and (supposedly) faster products that continuously proliferate. As Greif says, “the only truly essential pieces of equipment in modern exercise are numbers”, and these attain “talismanic status” as a measure of our achievement.[7]

Chasing numbers and the rituals of social media – posting our results or following them online – becomes like an addiction. Is the first thing you do after a ride is to check your results on Strava? It’s not so much the outcome but, like an addict, the rituals that are involved. We might not think it so, but the technology gives us artificial perceptions and values, as McLuhan suggests, so that we see our rides as to be measured in a certain way. And as we succumb to the thrall of these processes, unwittingly, we change how we are as riders. Riding becomes not an escape from our normal routines, but an extension of them, a new kind of ‘work’ with structures, targets, and connectedness.

Part of the problem, too, with technology – especially the bike itself – is that we can come to see it, under the tutelage of a technology-obsessed industry, as not a simple tool, like a pair of running shoes or a hockey stick, but as something with properties itself. Think of the headline “the fastest bike ever”. As engineer Jim Gourley notes in his book ‘Faster’ the bike typically makes up 30 per cent of your total aerodynamic resistance, less than 15 per cent of your total bike/rider mass, and 0 per cent of the power generation.[8] Yet this does not stop us apparently obsessing over the tiniest differences in weight and aero resistance, or ascribing speed properties to it, even though the bike cannot pedal itself.

I’ll get to Matthew Crawford and cognitive engagement in the next section, but I really like his ideas in context of finding agency in a difficult to understand modern world and that we become fragile individuals whose “freedom and dignity depend on… being insulated from contingency” where technology is a kind of “magic for accomplishing this”.[9]  Getting faster is supposed to free us from our own limitations (physical and mental) and the bike and all its associated technology is another means of achieving such freedom and perhaps even dignity. We don’t want to be faced with any limits – wind resistance, or having to modulate our riding depending on the conditions (disc brakes promise flawless modulation all the time, electronic shifting promises perfect gear changes, tubeless wheels promise no more punctures) – or any contingency in the real world that holds us back from being our best selves. This feeds into the view of the bike as a form of technological solutionism that will simply progress to better and better (read: faster and faster) outcomes – even if the sceptic can’t help but notice that progress in bike technology is very incremental.

And what of these great gains? Well, with all the bells and whistles of full aero design and equipment, the gains up for grabs are apparently 5 minutes over a 40-kilometre time trial (or <10% performance increase, as results may vary – and with the cost of the bike it’s hardly free). A triumph of technology or a massive yawn? What is clear, though, is that even with technology, going much faster is hard (and expensive). Bike technology, beyond the basics, does not offer much magic. If we give too much emphasis to the goal of speed, as a representation of achievement – even dignity – or some kind of freedom from the restrictions of the world, we’re only going to be disappointed.

V.

“It is in the encounter between the self and the brute alien otherness of the real that beautiful things become possible.” – Matthew B. Crawford

In a recent podcast interview with journalist Richard Moore, recently retired pro cyclist David Millar lamented that cycling, as primarily an endurance sport, did not leave him with a legacy skill set. Down the park with his kids, he couldn’t do something fancy with a soccer ball like an ex-football pro, or he couldn’t tear it up as a master on the tennis circuit. Like all of us, although at a completely different level, he had hit maximum speed and the only trajectory was downward.

But cycling is a skill-based pastime. Millar may not have given it much thought, or underrated the skills that he has after years and years of bike riding. Think of Vincenzo Nibali winning Il Lombardia with his descending skills, or Peter Sagan becoming World Champion with his mix of endurance and skill. Or Millar’s own Tour de France commentary on television of Thibault Pinot’s crash on an alpine descent where Millar instantly saw Pinot’s error of looking in the wrong place through the corner.

Many of the skills we have as cyclists we probably don’t think about – how we scan through car windows when riding down a line of parked cars to see if drivers might be about to open doors, how we drift back a little in the group when hitting an uphill as we know that anyone who stands up to get more power will lose half a bike length in front of us. Then there are the flashier skills, such as track standing or wheelies or clearing a set of doubles. Many of even the basics of riding, like pedalling shoulder to shoulder with a friend while chatting about the route, we take for granted if we’ve been at it long enough.

As Matthew B. Crawford notes in his excellent book ‘The World Beyond Your Head’, tools (such as bikes; he uses the example of the hockey stick) become “cognitive extensions”: our brains treat them as part of our bodies.[10] The bike is a cyclist’s tool by which she encounters the (brute alien otherness of the real) world, and through those encounters skills are developed. Think of the satisfactions of riding – sprinting through a set of rolling hills, perfectly hitting the lines in a twisting decent, pulling through on a paceline – and how these experiences are all about the interface between your bike and the road (and not about the abstract numbers appearing on your bike computer). Some of these experiences are based on going fast – but it need not be absolute speed, but relative speed, or even not speed based at all (ah, the perfect track stand).

Unlike being fast, which will top out and diminish, the growth of bike skills can take place over a lifetime. It might also be part of who we are. Crawford argues that we are always aiming to be more skilled as our future selves and that, “this state of being on our way to somewhere else is our peculiar human way of being in the world.”[11] Many of the skills require attention, however, what Crawford calls a kind of cognitive ‘alert watchfulness’ where one is highly attuned to one’s environment and what is taking place in it. (Perhaps this goes some way to explaining cyclists’ obsessiveness over wheels and tyres (maybe it’s just me?) as these are the primary interface between the bike and the road.)

But this alert watchfulness can be interrupted by distractions, of which our fixation on monitoring our numbers is an example. The zenith might be the new HUD glasses , which seem specifically designed to take you further inside your head and away from your actual riding environment. We are potentially swapping out the real world of skill development (not to mention the therapeutically mental benefits of going for a ride and escaping all the usual stresses of routines, structures and constant connectedness) for an artificial environment that might actually make us worse riders by disconnecting us from the roads we ride on.

Crawford also notes that the Western view of the ideal self has been someone that is securing their freedom by “rendering the external world fully pliable” to their will, in which we might see parallels to the view that the only limitation on getting faster is our will to make it happen.[12] There is the tendency to view the world as friction, a limitation to be overcome through training, aerodynamics and electronic shifting, rather than seeing the world as inherently full of challenges that we don’t necessarily have to smooth over (as per the discussion of technology in the previous section). It is probably a stretch to take this argument too far into cycling, but there is a tendency for even bike technology to be pulling us into ‘passivity and dependence’ on an artificially constructed notion of what cycling is that gives undue emphasis to personal performance and tools that will (supposedly) get us there. Zwift’s tagline is “…weather, traffic, time constraints and distance from other cyclists can take the fun out of it.” Sure, but riding is never perfect and is not meant to be. That’s part of it – and for it to be riding there has to be some engagement with the real world. Otherwise it’s not really cycling at all.

Such technology is focused on the individual, pushing them towards individual achievement of narrowly defined goals. This forgets that cyclists go faster in groups (think about all those Strava records you’ll never break because they were set on a group ride where the fastest sprinter got towed along at 40+kph before being let loose) and that the most important riding skills are those needed in and developed by group riding. Just try turning up to your group ride in HUD glasses and see how popular you are. Riding with others can be a challenge, and important skills that define us as cyclists are developed by doing so – we can ride faster (if that’s important) and expend less energy and ride longer with the support of others.

We can also learn important skills – descending and cornering, for example – by riding with those who have better command of their bike than us. Personal ambitions might be subsumed for the well-being of the group, such as taking an extra long pull, or drafting someone back into the group, and these are all things we do as cyclists because we see it for what it is: a pastime we share with others. As well, in a group, experienced riders can act as mentors, teaching us how to ride safely as well as swiftly, and setting out the norms and expectations that are part of riding as a group and sharing the road (with cyclists and other road users). It is these skills and norms that separate ‘cycling’ from just simply ‘riding a bike’ and define us as cyclists.

Cycling has the potential to keep us engaged with others, to allow us to learn new skills and keep growing as riders, and to keep us humble. And it’s fun! We might not achieve Crawford’s ‘beautiful things’, but riding a bike can be an exhilarating experience. And we can make riding the antithesis of work, routine, structure, targets, and numbers. We might flatter ourselves that in our riding group we can be beautiful. But even if not, there is much more potential for encounters with the sheer joy of riding a bike than being plugged into an artificial environment away from the hiss of tyres on the road.

VI.

“Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.” – Adam Gopnik

We tend to regard successful sports persons as paragons of achievement, their dedication and hard work worthy of praise and admiration; sacrifice and suffering for the sake of glory. Glory through suffering, if you like. But Gopnik is arguing that sporting achievement says little, in fact, about human character. The values of applied effort say little about the sort of person an athlete is – and whether they are worthy of our adulation.

Perhaps at the elite/professional level this is true. But at the amateur level I don’t think sports needs to be a wasteland of moral worth. It may be a bit alarmist to say so, but I think that cycling as a sport/pastime has got it backwards. The current industry emphasis on speed assumes that any kind of mental/psychological or social/community benefit will naturally flow from the pursuit of getter faster (or maybe it’s just too fixated on supposed innovation to think of anything else). But what if this was reversed? What if the fitness gains were made secondary to the building of an enriched cycling community that was focused on riding better in support of each other, rather than in competition for more KOMs? What if the point of riding was to actually have fun, and to share that fun with others? What if the point of having a team or a ride group was not to smash others at fondos but to encourage others to join in the sport, and build a community of enthusiasts around local bike shops and businesses?

Think about the best rides you’ve had recently. Was it a series of hill repeats where you hit some new power numbers? Or was it a back road escape with riding buddies where you sat in the sun at a brewpub afterwards and talked trash about the Vuelta Espana? Chances are it was the latter. If it was the former, fine – we probably all enjoy doing both types of riding. But the limited focus on goals and gains currently out there makes a poverty of cycling by ignoring the much wider potential that it offers. There is so much more that cycling can offer to all of us than some kind of limited physical self-improvement. If this is making a moral claim of greater worth of some kinds of riding, then so be it.

Perhaps, ultimately, a claim for a different way of riding is difficult to sustain. It affects me not if you’re chasing the numbers on your pro replica bike with support of a coach and your local wattbike studio. That’s a bunch of resources flowing into cycling right there, which is a good thing. I can choose how I ride and, one suspects, we all find our place on the spectrum of possibilities to our own predilections and satisfactions. But the emphasis on one type of riding ignores other possibilities and the relentless repetition of numbers-based riding threatens to crowd out other means of satisfaction and success on the bike. There’s an earnestness there that, ultimately, relegates fun and fellowship to a lower priority level. As I’ve argued here, in broad strokes admittedly, there are benefits to a different approach – mentally and communally.

To summarize, at some point we will all stop going faster. What then? An obsession with speed ignores that it is a finite pursuit. Skills can continue to be developed over a lifetime of cycling, and those skills are best developed out there on the road, in all conditions, whilst riding with others. We are better off becoming more connected socially and communally than to the artificial constructions that technology offers. We will be better riders and better people. Let me conclude, then, with a provocative claim based on the above: riding in a smoothly functioning paceline builds a cyclist’s character; winning the sprint does not.

VII.

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are the prime venue for the expression of human beauty. – David Foster Wallace

I tend to agree with Wallace that there is something grotesque about professional sport. ‘Glory through suffering’ is faintly sinister and excuses all manner of excesses (see here, for example). Perhaps a subsequent post will discuss this further. Yet we are drawn to professional sport in ways that are difficult to explain. We are captivated. In reviewing (American) football in Esquire, Tom Junod writes: “We could no longer pretend that we were watching anything other than men and boys destroying themselves and one another for our viewing pleasure.” Junod argues that football has now reached a level of athletic excellence – of beauty – that “we tolerate what happens off the field because of what happens on the field”. This is what Wallace is talking about with his idea of human beauty – or “kinetic beauty”.[13] He struggles to define it (in the context of tennis) because watching professional sportspersons is to see physical genius so great that we have to “define it in terms of what it is not”.[14]

What is it that makes us fans of professional cycling? While there are different aspects of the racing that appeal to us all, it is not always speed – or who wins – that is the main reason we watch. Speed is hovering there in the background, but it is how the riders deal with the environmental obstacles, such as the pave or the mountains, that captures our attentions. Sure, we marvel at the speed by which professional riders can conquer these obstacles, but we are looking for something else beyond pure speed. Otherwise, track racing would be the most popular of cycling disciplines.

I would argue that we are looking for beauty, in Wallace’s sense, but also a more basic expression of humanity – whether it be suffering or some other attributes. It is no coincidence that the monikers for great champions say little about raw speed. Sure, they were fast, which is why they were champions, but they have typically been nicknamed for showing something more about the human condition. Think of Merckx (the Cannibal), or Hinault (the Badger), or Kelly (King Kelly), or Pantani (the Pirate). What made them exciting in their riding was that their speed was in the service of expressing their personality, expressing some characteristic – admirable or not – that showed who they were as a person.

There have been plenty of fast riders, but not all of them have received similar nicknames, because – I would argue – they didn’t show any characteristics on the bike other than speed and winning. Think of Miguel Indurain; the best that the sport could come up with was ‘Big Mig’ during his dull reign of pure monotonous speed. Or Lance Armstrong: who showed plenty of character off the bike, but apparently not enough on it to earn an appropriate moniker. Chris Froome is the fastest guy in the world on a bike riding up a mountain. But what moves us more: Froome launching another high-cadence mountain attack, flawlessly translating his watts per kg into a carefully calculated move, or Tom Dumoulin fighting with his bike, on the edge of his physical and mental resources, alone against the climbers, revealing his inner most self for us all to see?

Which makes me think that we are less obsessed with speed and winning than we think. To the extent that pro cycling inspires our own (much, much more modest) cycling efforts, it is inspiring not because of the physical gifts of the riders, but because they use those gifts in the service of giving meaning to their existence – expressing themselves as to what it means to be a person, with all the contradictions that this might involve. It is the social aspect and the group dynamic that matters more than their pure performance.

VIII.

“Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music [and cycling] is the best. Wisdom is the domain of the Wiz, which is extinct.” – Frank Zappa (from ‘Packard Goose’, Joe’s Garage)

You might have found, dear reader, if you made it this far, that the above is a bit overblown, perhaps in the realm of #firstworldproblems (or what a friend of mine calls #princessproblems). You will see how I enjoy taking ‘big picture’ ideas and applying them to cycling, perhaps stretching credibility too far and revealing my own (thinly supported) biases. You may be correct. Based on my own experience, and observed in a select group of others, I think we all tend to find our own level – a middle ground between fun and seriousness, technology and tradition, riding outdoors or in, racing and training, going fast and going slow, and all those decisions. Our interest in riding varies over time, throughout the season and from year-to-year, and competes with all the other things we have going on in our lives. We might be obsessed with power meters one month, Strava KOMs another, and just riding for fun another – long miles, sprint miles, and everything in between. We’ve been riding bikes long enough to understand these rhythms, and how cycling is a big tent with room for all sorts of perspectives. We’re self aware enough to see how it all works.

But what worries me, is that at some point we surrender all the different narratives and start to accept one dominant narrative (cycling is the new golf, for example) and the largely relentless drive of technological solutionism starts to change how we ride and how we regard riding. New comers into the sport, young and old, have only this dominant narrative and are not prepared to accept or learn from the other narratives that are going on in parallel. They will see no value in viewing cycling in a different way. Which is why the different narratives about cycling can be competing as well as complementary.

There are many vibrant cycling communities, that put group riding and cycling clubs to the fore, where there are well-established mechanisms for inculcating new riders into the cycling fold and giving them the skills and perspectives they need to ride in races and in other organized events. This is what we should be supporting, and ensuring that this is how cycling continues to develop in the future. We should take all claims to the contrary with a large dose of scepticism. Online and technology-based narratives are no substitute for time spent with others out on the road having fun, even if they help keep our enthusiasm going all year round. Ultimately, community is what cycling is all about. All the rest – if that matters to you – will follow. Forget about riding faster. Think about how to ride better.

I realize that this is making some kind of value judgement, or attaching more moral worth to certain kinds of riding. As Daniel Kahneman has said, “We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.” Which is what I’ve done here. I hope, though, that I’ve made a convincing case for a different ‘best story’. Ultimately, and as Zappa might say, “Who gives a fuck, anyway?” Whatever makes you happy. But at least give some other conceptions of the cycling good life a try. You might be surprised.

 

[1] Michael Harris, The End Of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In A World of Constant Connection, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2014.

[2] Joe Friel, Fast After Fifty: How To Race Strong For The Rest Of Your Life, VeloPress, 2015 (see chapter 1 for the effects of aging).

[3] David Epstein, The Sports Gene: Inside The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, Current, 2013. thesportsgene.com

[4] Michael Hutchinson, Faster: The Obsession, Science And Luck Behind The World’s Fastest Cyclists, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

[5] Jack Daniels, Daniels’ Running Formula, Human Kinetics, 3rd ed, 2014.

[6] Mark Greif, ‘The Fit And The Dead’, reprinted in Harper’s Magazine, September 2004, p11.

[7] Greif, p12.

[8] Jim Gourley, Faster:Demystifying The Science Of Triathlon Speed, VeloPress, 2013.

[9] Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming An Individual In An Age Of Distraction, Allen Lane, 2015, p117 (page numbers are from first edition).

[10] Crawford, p46.

[11] Crawford, p67.

[12] Crawford, p26.

[13] David Foster Wallace, ‘Federer Both Flesh And Not’, Both Flesh And Not, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, p8. (The ‘beauty’ quote is also from the same source.)

[14] Wallace, p14.

NB: This post has been modified from the original for publication purposes. This version was dated November 30, 2015.