In praise of slow

The bicycle is mechanical perfection. When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Progess should have stopped when man invented the bicycle. — Elizabeth West.

What else is there that can be said about the humble, magnificent bicycle? Its ability to range over impressive distances with a minimum of energy is unequalled. A 100 watt light bulb, burning all day, is the energy equivalent of a normal human daily diet – and exemplary cycling feats can be achieved on such a diet alone. Running a marathon is a impressive effort, yet the same distance on a bicycle a mere trifle. A double-marathon run nearly unthinkable; for a cyclist, a good ride. Only when the distances reach 100 miles, or a double-metric century, is the average rider really challenged.

As well, the equivalent light bulb energy can propel a cyclist at an easy 25-30 kph, or higher, seemingly forever, on a flat rode. Resistance is offered only by friction, of bearings and tyres on the road, and of the air – and there are days when overcoming that resistance is effortless. Unlike running, too, energy is stored as momentum; stopping pedalling allows forward motion to continue whereas stopping running results in a complete stop.

The human body, too, is the perfect engine for the bicycle. Not only are the energy expenditures low, the replenishment costs are cheap (not as cheap as the equivalent energy in gasoline, though), and the engine will actually start to perform better over time – as the rider gets fitter – rather than wearing out, although not indefinitely of course.

For speed on flat roads, aerodynamics is the key. Gravity is one’s friend, keeping the bike anchored to the road. And when the road heads downhill, gravity is an even greater friend, pulling the bike faster at breathtaking velocity, the surge of adrenaline as the bike rolls so securely despite the narrow tyres and minimal road contact, thoughts of disaster and its consequences securely banished as speeds nudge over 70 kph.

Much of the thrill of cycling comes from speed. One does not have to be Tom Boonen pumping out 1600 watts plus to drop the gears down, stand up on the pedals, and stamp out a tempo to spin the bike up to 50 kph or faster. There is a genuine sensation of speed, of the scenery flashing past, of racing cars on city streets: the humble cyclist, magnificently matching the mighty automobile with nothing but one’s own engine to drive the wheels.

But when the road turns upward, into the hills and mountains, the equation of motion changes, turned entirely on its head. Air resistance is the least of a rider’s worries, for it is now gravity that is not one’s friend but an implacable enemy. Gravity is constant and relentless; unlike wind, it does not blow one day and not the next, or from behind to give one a boost. Gravity waits for the rider, weights the rider, dragging one backward, downward, inexorably.

Slow 1
The start of a climb can sometimes be the most satisfying.

The aerodynamic rider on the flat or downhill works with the resistance, conforming to it, shaping to create a flow. With gravity, the rider fights it, battles it, seeks not to work with it but to overcome it. It will drive riders to distraction: the fastidious lightening of bikes, discarding a water bottle – despite it constituting less than 1% of one’s overall weight.

Gravity can be overcome, and the bicycle propelled at impressive speeds up the steepest of inclines. But it does not involve the beautiful symmetry of the rider in a time-trial tuck position on the most shapely of bikes. It takes suffering. It takes pain of burning lungs and eviscerated legs. Bile and lactic acid. Sweat and grimacing. Climbing at speed on a bike it a constant fight and there is little relief. Only a slight easing of effort is possible, otherwise the bike’s speed drops at an alarming rate – the cycling equivalent of running.

But as one’s speed drops to 20, 15, even 10 kph on the longest and toughest of climbs, there is a beauty in slowing down. Early rides, Spring rides, are the best time to enjoy this sensation. Tearing one’s own legs off, or the legs off the bunch, seems less important. That can wait at least a couple more weeks.

Slow 3
The curious solace of the upward road.

For now, climbing is time to savour the rhythm of slow riding. The spin becomes less effort, breathing less laboured, and one’s gaze can shift from three metres ahead of the front wheel to one’s surroundings. A bike at this speed seems to move so slowly, almost like walking; the trees on the side of the road do not flash by, but are revealed slowly; every metre of the road can be counted and chronicled.

Spring reveals fresh opportunities to consider one’s environment, the retreat of the snow line on a mountain ride, the return of new growth, new greenery, perhaps still shaded by a lifting mist or kept glistening by the damp air. Furtive glimpses of deer emerging from the woods, or perhaps even the dark shape of a bear (a relatively common sighting for this writer, in case the reader is wondering).

Slow 4
Kilometre 11, 825 metres.

On such a ride, one can not help but feel that climbing is not a battle with gravity, but a chance to experience another fulfilling aspect of cycling easily overlooked in the rush for speed. Slow climbing is a chance to savour the road, to embrace the mountain; not to fight against it but to conform with it, accepting the magnificence of the upward road, but to be humbled by its challenge.

Le grimpeur looks forward to every year’s summer and the prospect of repeated battles with gravity on the longest and steepest of climbs; where chasing a wheel is the most excruciating of efforts; where every pedal stroke seems a labour of pain; where in the final sprint over the crest every cell in one’s body is fighting against the rider’s willpower that demands the big ring be engaged and the pedals attacked with exquisite force. The agony and ecstasy of climbing.

But for now, this writer is singing the praises of slow.

Slow 3
Concluding a Spring climb can also be satisfying.

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