Plus souffrance

One of the fascinating aspects of cycling is the diversity of physical builds and talents in the pro peloton. Although a careful attention to weight is the norm, and even the biggest sprinters can still look remarkably svelte, the burly still mix with the barely noticeable.

A quick glance across the team statistics from last year’s Tour de France gives an interesting comparison. Magnus Backstedt, then with Liquigas, was perhaps unsurprisingly at the top of the scales, weighing in at 94 kg (206 lbs) for his 1.93 metre frame. At the bottom end, Manuel Calvente from Spain, on Agritubel, tipped the scales – well, barely tipped them – at an astonishing 54 kg (118 pounds) for the 1.69 metre-tall rider: over 80 pounds less than Backstedt. The more well-known climber Leonardo Piepoli, the star of the mountains in the Giro, apparently weighs in at 52 kg.

While the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a poor tool for assessing athletes, it does make for some amusing comparisons. Backstedt rates as slightly overweight, while Piepoli would be assessed as clearly below normal weight.

Such is the life of the grimpeur. There would be no mistaking Backstedt if one were to see him out riding, and no doubt that he would tear the cranks off at a moment’s notice – especially if one were to call him overweight. It might be easy to misjudge the slightly-built Piepoli, though, until he disappeared into the stratosphere when the road turned upward.

Advances in training in recent years, and the attention to what might be called ‘preparation’, has levelled the competition in the mountains somewhat, no longer the playground of the underweight and underbuilt. No longer does the peloton, as Frankie Andreu so fascinatingly described, spread out across the road to prevent the Colombian mountain men from slipping through to cause havoc.

Still, performance on the long, tough climbs can still be relatively well judged by a quick glance at appendages. If, for example, the rider’s legs look like those below, it is a fair guess that they do not belong to Quickstep rider Carlos Barredo (the legs in question are Tom Boonen’s at the 2005 Tour, from cyclingnews).

Boo 1
With legs like these, Boonen can do most of his talking on the bike.

Another Classics specialist like Boonen is (or should we say was, as he retired last year) Peter Van Petegem. In his most successful season, 2003, Van Petegem focused almost entirely on the spring rides and consequently brought incredible form into the early races. That year, he won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double, last achieved by legend Roger De Vlaeminck. In fact, commentators had wondered if it was possible achieve the double again, but then Boonen followed VP two years later – and added the World Championship as well (Van Petegem placed third in 2003).

As can be seen from the following photo, actually from 2004, Van Petegem was not built for the mountains. His legs are clearly better suited to powering massive gears along and up the cobbles, rather than dancing on the pedals up the mountains.

Pete 1
PVP celebrates his good form.

That is not to say that he could not climb, though. To win the Tour of Flanders requires climbing ability, to be sure, but the short, steep climbs of the Ronde require brute strength, typically executed in the saddle for the steeper sections, and the capacity to repeat those short, powerful surges up the hills on a long, hard race – in 2003 it was 19 climbs over 256 kilometres.

That year, Van Petegem cemented his advantage over the tiring peloton on the Mur de Grammont (Muur van Geraardsbergen) with 17 kilometres to go. Only 1 kilometre in length with an altitude gain of just 50 metres, the storied climb is cobbled all the way and features pitches between 12 and 20%. A fearsome challenge.

Pete 2
How to climb the cobbles:101 (l’Equipe).

Only Frank Vandenbroucke could follow VP’s uphill charging attack, but it took its toll. Although both riders stayed away until the finish, Vandenbroucke had little left for the sprint and the win was Van Petegem’s.

Van Petegem was in clearly on form, and even on the podium his winter-honed thighs threatened to erupt from his riding shorts. Never a fan of the long tours (he finished the Tour de France only twice from three attempts, although he placed second on a stage in his debut year, 1996; in 1998, he dropped out just a few days before his TVM team was caught up in the doping scandals that year) he was the Classics specialist personified.

Which brings us back to the theme of this post, suffering. The Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and other races in Belgium of northern France in the spring are races of suffering. Long, tough courses, often in atrocious weather, early in the season when some riders are still finding their legs. As they say, hard man races.

In his career, Van Petegem took his time finding his form, his wins and successes coming later rather than earlier. And as he said in an interview last year: “The Tour of Flanders isn’t won in April, you know, it’s won in December and January when all the hard kilometres are done.”

“No one – no one – has arrived at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and had a lucky win without doing the training first,” he added.

Pete 3
Winter training paying off at Roubaix (l’Equipe).

Cycling is about hard work: the long kilometres of base-building, the focused attention to intervals, increasing strength, technique, and keeping fresh and injury free. Not an easy task, and made all the worse for having to endure the fickleness of the weather.

For those with only modest racing or riding goals this year, winter can be an opportunity to rest up, to revitalize with other pursuits – indoor and out. There’s time later, come late March or April to put 1,000 kilometres into the legs, ready for May and the rest of the season.

For those aiming higher, winter is the opportunity to put in the hard kilometres. When the wind is biting, the rain unrelenting, the sun a distant memory, the cold bone-chilling, and perhaps even snow on the roads, there is little consolation to be had. Except the knowledge that cycling is built on suffering, and that the fleeting pain of one individual is but a drop in the ocean of souffrance.

2 thoughts on “Plus souffrance

  1. Another great article, Guy.

    I’d love you hear your take on the whole climbing rate (VAM) measurement that Dr. Ferrari used to try to compare climbing feats by different riders on different ascents.

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