All posts by Guy WR

On meaning

Cycling is a beautiful sport. At its most artistic it is captivating and breathtaking. There is something about the juxtaposition of the machine, the suffering of the rider, and the backdrop of the outdoor stadiums that so utterly captivates us. Like any good entertainment, it appeals to us on a basic, emotional level. We allow ourselves to be swept along by the sheer visceral emotion of the experience – uplifting as well as tragic. Why, then, do we attempt to give pro cycle racing (and sport in general) a wider meaning, a moral significance?

What is life but a search for meaning: how did we get here, where are we going, what does it all mean? “The characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things,” said philosopher John Dewey. We want things to be more than emotive experiences; we want them to have a context and a weight in human affairs. This is where ‘myth making’ comes in, which, according to Roland Barthes, is a particularly “bourgeois affliction”. All sports go through this process and the myths are usually genuine attempts to give gravitas to human endeavour. More often, though, they are cynical attempts at marketing. The Tour de France is replete with examples. In 1910, Henri Desgrange co-opted the local vernacular of “circle of death” for the inclusion of the Pyrenees and played up the reports of bears and wild animals that would make the stage an “epic” one. Never mind that, as Graham Robb argues in ‘The Discovery of France’, cyclo-tourists, and likely a bunch of locals, had been crossing the peaks for years. The Tour ride was epic as it was documented in black and white – how little times have changed. Continue reading

Three paras on Contador

One must admit, dear reader, to now finding Alberto Contador an all-together more interesting rider now that he has shown some fragility and humility. Just one victory this year and 4th in the Tour – a race that he previously looked untouchable in with three victories on the road (one subsequently stripped). With his two Giro wins (one subsequently stripped) and two Vuelta wins as well, he remains the best grand tour rider of his generation. But seeing him struggle this year has made him seem, well, more real. Seemingly gone are the unstoppable attacks on the climbs and a cynic (or a realist?) might say that he is now operating under the same constraints as most of the peloton; this year he complained of “errors” in his race programme and different “sensations” in his legs for the Tour, the sorts of issues that can’t be smoothed out by other interventions. Contador has always been an elegant rider, and showed real fortitude in his 2009 Tour win, but there were always ‘doubts’ about his performances. Seemingly no longer.

One must admit, dear reader, to having a couple of degrees less separation from Contador than what might be expected. Once, through a local friend, your author had lunch at the home of one Bjarne Riis’ soigneurs in Denmark, and while said individual was out of town (at the Vuelta), there was apparently nothing but praise for Contador’s physiology. One mentions this not to claim insider or special knowledge, but simply that there can often be small coincidences (the purpose of the visit was not cycling) when certain events intersect. Based on such a coincidence, it is hard not to have more than just a passing interest in the subject.

One must admit, dear reader, to having been inspired by Contador’s equipment setup at this year’s Tour. Contador ran a mid-cage SRAM ‘WiFLi’ derailleur to enable him to use larger cogs (reported as a max of 28, although short-cage derailleurs are supposed to be able to support this size so presumably he did go larger at some point) on the rear so he could climb for longer in the big ring. He used this setup at the Vuelta last year as well. Having recently discovered the risks and rewards of big ring climbing – in a 50t, admittedly, not a 53t – your author now has a similar setup with a 30-12 (30, 27, 24, 21…) on the rear. The 30 is a bit redundant (although a nice 36×30 spin up some very steep climbs can be nice) and is not practical in the big ring except with some front derailleur tinkering and ill-advised cross chaining. But the second cog, the 27, is pretty versatile and 50×27 covers a lot of possibilities. And the 50×24 combo is a serious contender for short, steep-ish efforts. A 28-12 (28, 25, 23, 21…) might be the sweet-spot compromise. Mid-cage derailleurs certainly were not a PRO item in recent times, but perhaps they are now.

Winning times at the Vuelta in 2012. One must admit that the 'pistolero' salute might have been getting a bit old (SRAM pic)

Winning times at the Vuelta in 2012. One must admit that the ‘pistolero’ salute might have been getting a bit old (SRAM pic).

Etre en forme

I don’t know the climb well enough to quote its exact length and grade, but I do know it well enough to recall how the road first pitches up on a right-hand bend before a 90-degree left where it really starts to get steep, past the stand of rust red mail boxes set against the trees, before a brief respite and the pothole that is always seen too late, then the final cruel rise through the open fields where I once saw a coyote.

By all accounts it’s a climb that begs for the small chain ring and a sensible cadence. Instead, I shift into the 50×23 and turn my gaze down as the road starts to rise.

On passion

As Daniel Kahneman has argued, success equals talent plus luck. In his view, we give too little credence to the latter in assessing outcomes related to success. If we break it down further, though, we might argue that ‘talent’ can be subdivided into innate talent and then its application through practice and training. Indeed, there is an interesting debate going on about talent and its application, most recently seen in the book ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein (see a review and outline here).

The intricacies of that debate will not delay us here. But what about another factor under talent, that of passion?. Charly Wegelius’ autobiography ‘Domestique’ is a stark reminder of the sacrifices required to be successful as a professional cyclist. Wegelius has talent by the bidon full. But, crucially, he has an almost maniacal drive to make it as a professional cyclist. He devotes himself to this cause with monastic zeal, and is prepared to endure the tough racing and training, the privations, the isolation and solitude, the competition from all the other aspiring young pros, as well as shady team owners, mercurial sponsors, and over-zealous directors, and all for (at least initially) minimal reward in terms of remuneration and recognition. Late in his career, though, this raw passion for being a pro has taken its toll:

I hated cycling because of the gaping disparity between the way the sport looked on the outside, and what I knew to be the truth of it on the inside. I hated it because I had given my youth to it – so much of myself – and the payment was so meagre and fleeting, especially compared to those who took big risks and ignored the consequences. I hated it because I was so tired all the time, so tired that, from the age of 18 onwards, I couldn’t tell when I was sad or just exhausted. And I hated it because I wasn’t sure of I could really live without it.

Wegelius’ passion brought him success, but it was also an all consuming passion. “Me and my bike still needed each other,” he writes. Two sides to passion, therefore: the drive to take one farther than what just talent and its application can achieve, but also with a cost involved. Dedication brings its own rewards, but there is also a potential downside. Single mindedness is useful, although it can be at the expense of other parts of one’s life.

In anything we do, being passionate about the endeavour makes it easier to overcome barriers and hurdles and to stick with it when the going gets tough. Few of us are fortunate enough to make it to the lofty heights of world class professional success. Wegelius’ book reminds us of the sacrifices required to get there (if one also has the talent and the luck).

Not a fairy tale (pic from cyclingweekly)

Not a fairy tale (pic from cyclingweekly)

Tipples and tonics revisited

The seasons of tipples and tonics – fall and winter (maybe spring) – are fast approaching and while we may be focusing our attentions on a set of winter wheels with appropriate tyre-age, or that elusive yet perfect softshell jacket, do not forget to take care of your insides with a seasonally appropriate tipple or tonic on your ride.

Over at his site, Bill Strickland has a charming vignette about La Bomba, along with a very useful modern recipe (three ingredients, not four). Even if you can’t get the authentic version like Bill, a stainless steel hip flask will still fit in your jersey pocket and also add a nice touch of savoir-faire to your ride, not to mention a good conversation starter at your group ride cafe stop (before you rip their legs off on the way home in a caffeine, sugar and booze-induced haze).

If you prefer a shot of something a bit more wholesome to get you started, try this (courtesy of popular women’s magazine Self): combine 2 tbsp fresh orange juice, 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar (good for weight loss, apparently), one-eighth tsp powdered ginger, and a pinch each of turmeric and cayenne pepper. Perhaps this one is the best choice when heading out the door, with the flask in reserve for when the weather really turns nasty and you have to start digging deep into the suitcase of motivation.

The la bomba flask (from truebs.com)

The la bomba flask (from truebs.com)

Demystifying speed

“Of all the equipment on your bike, your legs are the most critical component… The bike typically makes up 30 percent of your total aerodynamic resistance, less than 15 percent of your total bike/rider mass, and 0 percent of the power generation.”

The above quotes are from aerospace engineer Jim Gourley’s book ‘Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed’, which crunches the numbers and adds a thick scientific veneer to many of the themes advanced (by a non-scientist) on this blog. According to his calculations, a 1 pound weight reduction is worth just 2.5 seconds on a 1-mile climb at a 7% gradient (the useful rule of thumb in the book is that a 10 watt ‘savings’ in power is worth just 40-60 seconds over a 25 mile distance). That carbon seatpost is just not going to do it.

Still, a 10+ pound weight reduction in the rider starts to add up to appreciable gains, especially on steeper climbs where gravity exerts a greater force. Wafer-thin climbing whippets have a distinct advantage. Which is why power to weight ratios have become all important for pro racers in grand tours. No longer can power be dramatically increased through doping. Weight has to come down. Which is why Chris Froome looked like he was suffering from an eating disorder rather than a course of EPO.

Crunching the numbers says that dramatic weight loss is the way to go for faster climbing, but don’t try it at home. Gourley recommends a power meter as a training tool and a way of measuring (and improving) efforts on the bike. “Given the choice between a new set of wheels and a power meter, skip the cosmetics and work on the engine. Get the most speed for your dollar. Remember the difference between a fast-looking bike and a bike that actually goes fast.” Build up the power of that engine first.

'An x-ray on top of a pair of thighs' (picture from The Guardian)

‘An x-ray on top of a pair of thighs’ (picture from The Guardian)

Vuelta adventures in prose

The Vuelta field was like the crew of a pirate ship. It was cobbled together with unmotivated riders who’d been pressganged into racing, riders who’d been injured earlier in the year, and a decent smattering of desperadoes and mercenaries to boot. There was no middle ground; either riders didn’t want to be there, or they were desperate to perform. The rate of rider abandons was staggering as teams sent troupes of exhausted riders to compete with Spaniards who wanted to plunder the race as quickly and violently as they could.

Throughout the race I started to feel like I was so focused on my own goal of survival that I wasn’t even really there. I was oblivious to everything else. I kept up to date with what was actually happening in the race by reading La Marca each morning, and often I was genuinely surprised to see the results. I was so far from being in the action that I had no idea what was going on in the actual race.

– Charly Wegelius in ‘Domestique’ on his experiences at the 2002 Vuelta.

Near the summit, the names of cyclists that were painted on the road have worn away with time. They tell the story of a race and mark a generation. Heras, Mancebo, Ullrich. Their names are fading like their results. Years ago, they stormed the climb in front of tens of thousands of fervent fans who had crossed the continent to see them ascend. Like ghosts their names now haunt cycling; they inspired with their heroics and disappointed when those performances were proven to be drug enhanced. But their inhuman performances still endure. Stories of their elegant force are forever told.

– Michael Barry in ‘Le Metier’.

Vuelta1

Another race for desperadoes this year? (pic from the official Libro de Ruta)