All posts by Guy WR

Summer reading

1. One of the themes in the novels of Cormac McCarthy deals with how the main characters are often at the mercy of larger forces that shape their lives. They think they are in control of their environments and that their choices will lead to certain outcomes. But their fates are tied instead to the actions of others (usually more powerful characters) or to larger historical forces that they are powerless to resist. It is almost as if they have no real free will and must accept their fates, just like Agent Smith says in ‘The Matrix': “You hear that Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

In one of the final scenes in the book of ‘No Country for Old Men’, the mysterious villain Anton Chirguh confronts the wife of the (anti-hero) Llewelyn Moss, Carla Jean, and before he shoots her explains the inevitability of their meeting.

I had no say in the matter. Every moment of your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

Mad ravings of a psychopathic killer? Yes! But McCarthy seems to be making a larger point that choices get made and these determine directions and outcomes, but these become lines and these lines intersect with others in ways that we cannot know. These ideas are echoed by the narrator of the book, Sheriff Bell, who seems to be struggling against the inexorable march of history. “You can say you like it or you don’t like it but it don’t change nothin’. I’ve told my deputies more than once that you fix what you can fix and you let the rest go.”

The idea of choice and freewill comes up again when Moss talks about starting over, which, in his view, is impossible. “You think when you wake up in the mornin’ yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there?”

2. We live under the illusion that we have free will and that everything involves a choice that we can make. We are masters of our fates due to the choices that we can make. Without straying too far into a philosophical discussion, we likely have much less free will than we think; many of our choices we make without thinking about it, based on our inbuilt reactions to stimuli, historical experience, and the nature of who we are (including social conditioning). Luck and probability play a huge role. And even if we have choices, we might – as McCarthy suggests – have imperfect information about where those choices will lead.

David Millar was a fan of Cormac McCarthy, as he recounts in ‘Racing Through the Dark’, and one wonders whether he himself ever thought that he was in some way prisoner to the inevitability of doping. Critics of his, and of those like Michael Barry and David Zabriskie and others, always say that they had a choice whether to dope or not to dope. They could have walked away.

But could they? If we replayed the crucial moment over again when they all decided to take EPO the outcome would probably not be any different. Maybe, given the forces that were shaping and directing their careers, there was no choice – only the illusion of choice. This is not necessarily to defend them, although it is a kind of defence, but simply to argue that what we as external observers see as choices might just be paths that cannot be changed. There are larger forces at play that drive individuals along these paths. (The idea that Bruyneel is a psychopathic figure like Chirguh is certainly an intriguing one.)

3. Perhaps your author is reaching somewhat here to draw some parallels. But one of the attractions of McCarthy’s novels is that there are no heroes. They are more like anti-heroes who are doing their best, perhaps trying to adhere to a heroic code, in the face of the greater adversities arrayed against them. They inevitably fail, but show us something deeper in the trying and the failing than in a heroic success. “Then he just stood there paying the brim of his hat slowly through his fingers. The posture of a man perhaps who has just buried something. I don’t know a damn thing, he said.”

Or perhaps it is just the writing; the mix of the lyrical and the philosophical. A search for meaning amidst the summer reading.

He stood there looking out across the desert. So quiet. Low hum of wind in the wires. High bloodweeds along the road. Wire grass and sacahuista. Beyond in the stone arroyos the tracks of dragons. The raw rock mountains shadowed in the late sun and to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains under a sky where rain curtains hung dark as soot along the quadrant. The god lives in silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash. He walked back to the cruiser and got in and pulled away.

Call it! Should Bruyneel have given his riders a coin toss to dope or not to dope?
Call it! Should Bruyneel have given his riders a coin toss to dope or not to dope?

I am a cyclist

1. Recently, dear reader, as part of a workplace ‘wellness’ programme, your author undertook a fitness assessment. Not a test for elite athletes, mind, with stationary bikes and VO2 maxes and so on, but a basic test for the general population. After a body composition assessment there were various exercises – a step test to measure heart rate recovery, push ups and sit ups, a vertical jump and others. The results were interesting.

With an afternoon resting heart rate of 60, 14% body fat, blood pressure 116/71, and tipping the scales at 144 lbs, your author’s metabolic age was close to half his chronological age. Cardio and general strength were all ‘excellent’ (the highest rating), while vertical jump – a measure of power – was ‘good’ to ‘very good’ (must work on that sprinting). In short, pretty much in the top bracket for overall health and fitness for the general population. Except…

…the flexibility test. The assessor set up the tape measure on the floor mat and it was immediately clear that with the big numbers starting from where one’s toes were placed that things were not going to go well. Seated, legs out, your author was given two tries to reach as far forward – and down the tape on the mat – as he was able. The result? Not good. Worse than not good, officially ‘below average’.

It was not that hard to interpret the fitness assessment overall. Cardio fitness, endurance and strength, check. Flexibility, fail. That lower back might bend like a kevlar beaded tyre, but those hamstrings are like carbon tubes on a Madone. Yes, your author is a cyclist.

2. On Sunday’s Seymour hill climb, which has been mentioned in some detail previously on this blog, your author posted 45:58. Not a new personal record (45:44), and not the sub-45 mins that still gets dreamed about, but well in the ballpark and the fastest time he has posted in several years. The legs felt good. After trying various bikes, gears, and strategies over the years, with different numbers of miles in the legs and weighing different weights, there have not been any strong correlations. There has been no magic formula. There is probably such a formula of weighing less, riding more, and an optimum gear/cadence, but that combination might be elusive given the time required to achieve it.

Still, in some ways it was satisfying not to achieve a dream time. As a popular philosopher once wrote, “dreams transform desires, drive you when you’re down.” It will be good to have something to aim for next year.

The PB from 2008 still holds. For another year at least.
The PB from 2008 still holds. For another year at least.

Pinning on a number

1. How do you pin on your number? Are you insouciant, with the minimal four pins, one on each corner, lower right on the jersey? Or perhaps you are more careful, with the economical five pins? Or are you fastidious with the six pins to ensure no possibility of it detaching and flapping in the wind? Or maybe you’re the individualist, pinning your number at a rakish angle across your back, making it nearly impossible for the race organizers to read it, but demonstrating your disdain of conformity?

Are you careful about how you pin it? Maybe it goes like this: first pin on the top left, into the seam of the right side of the left pocket; second pin in the next seam; then the third pin in the corner of the right pocket. Repeat along the bottom. Why so careful?

Pinning on a number feels like an important ritual; it feels like it must be done carefully, properly. It is partly out of respect to the organizers, volunteers all, to make their job easier. But it also seems like even taking part in an industrial park mid-week crit is part of something larger; we like to invest it with additional meaning.

2. We love our cycling and we often enjoy our racing, small scale as it might be. We might ensure our bikes are extra clean, we have our best kit, and that we’re prepared with a bag full of supplies and extra clothing. There may be other rituals – a special bag for shoes or helmet, a special order for packing everything, a special plan to ensure glasses are not left behind.

Racing can be stressful. We are often riding with strangers, unsure of their ability at speed, and sometimes uncertain of our own abilities when the going gets tough. We are not professionals, so we have an extra fear of crashing and having to limp home to our families. We supposedly are doing this for fun.

Racing is stimulating, but it is not always fun. It is a rewarding challenge. But you have to be in to win; you have to push yourself to make it seem all worth it. If you simply want to lurk down the back, you’ll spend your time chasing wheels and not feeling part of the action. This is not fun, it’s just a workout. Sprinting for a prime, chancing one’s legs with a breakaway, chasing down the escapees, or even contending for the final sprint – this is the point of turning up. This is what makes it worthwhile.

3. Your author has been struggling with enthusiasm for competitive events this year. The local crit series moved closer and at a manageable time, seeming to offer ample opportunities for high-intensity training or even a little stretching of the legs in a sprint. But initial races didn’t seem all that fun – an unfamiliar course, race rustiness, and then other riders managing unexpected crashes all conspired to dilute the experience. A $5 sprint suddenly didn’t seem to be worth effort. What should have been an interlude from work and family became more like a chore rather than a homage to the pinning on of a race number. So when the hour of the start time was brought forward, making it impossible for your author to get to the line on time it was more of a relief than disappointment. ‘Race to train’ is one mantra, but maybe it’s better simply to train instead.

Hill climb events are approaching, however, and your author will be attempting to best some of his personal records. Short, high-intensity climbs have been mastered but the longer, steady efforts are still proving elusive. A glance back over times from previous years, done on different bikes with different gears and under varying conditions reveals only one correlation – performance is directly related to the volume of riding. Long climbs are a function of strength and endurance and the latter appears to be lacking. Race day will perhaps shake out some further conclusions.

It has been a satisfying summer season of riding so far, but some niggling pains and injuries have been lurking since the spring, leading to frustration. Train hard, they say, and rest harder – but sometimes work and family obligations can make the latter difficult. One should not complain; indeed, one should be grateful for all that one has, and to be fit and able to enjoy the pleasure that is bike riding – whether recreation or racing. But pushing yourself that little bit more, raging against the slow dilution of one’s capabilities, can he exhausting work – physically and mentally.

Rituals like pinning on a number, or the other rituals we have with our bikes and our riding, add meaning and purpose to our endeavours. Otherwise, our insignificant attempts to scrape seconds off our race times or to crack the top 100 on Strava evaporate into futility. Rituals give a comforting illusion of action. And without action we have only contemplation. As the author Joseph Conrad wrote: “Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.”

Needless to say, Monsieur Stephen's power figure is a long way north of your author's.
The Mt. Seymour hill climb. Needless to say, Monsieur Stephens’s power figure is a long way north of your author’s.

The three best paragraphs

Did you enjoy the Tour this year, dear reader? There was Chris Froome’s scintillating victory on Mont Ventoux, intense team rivalries and machinations, a riveting competition among the sprinters, and a truly ‘epic’ stage where Alpe d’Huez was ascended twice. There were enthusiastic crowds, truly breathtaking scenery, and a plethora of information sources – tv, blogs, tweets, podcasts, – to allow total immersion in the complete Tour experience. There really is nothing else like it. Dramatic. Sweeping. Breathtaking.

Or did you find it a bit pedestrian? A Tour where one team (Sky) mostly dominated and one rider (Froome) looked untouchable in the mountains and on the flats. There were some great sprint and mountain-top finishes, to be sure, and a few new riders that lit up the proceedings (Quintana, for example) but it was mostly a lot of long, hot days of riding with not much happening of particular interest except for the highlights captured in a post-stage package or ‘how the race was won’ montage.

The Tour, dubbed chess on wheels, can often be as exciting as the board game – not very. Thrilling shouts punctuated by long silences that can only be filled by endless helicopter shots of sunflowers, rivers, chateaux, and fan constructed tributes (postcard snapshots of a France that exists more in the minds of tourists than in reality). Cycling is one of those sports where the action can be intense, but this is not always a given. Unlike football/soccer, say, or basketball or other fast-paced games, the action does not always speak for itself (until the final few kilometres). It might be more akin to baseball, or cricket, or even boxing. Which is perhaps why cycling and the Tour is such rich fodder for writers (a bit like baseball, cricket and boxing) because there are gaps that can be filled by the skilled prose stylist that add background, colour and meaning – the personalities, the hidden tactics, the small details and the larger machinations. Meanings are not explicit and we crave more from those with keen insights and flourishing pens.

With cycling, we sense that there is something larger going on, some deeper layers that are not always evident from the action on the road. We know that it’s brutally hard – even if it doesn’t always look that way on tv – and we know that there is more going on at different levels of the race than is immediately apparent. And we understand that it is historically rooted in a European context and we crave that background and culture and exoticism.

This is why there has been such a rich mythology that has grown up around the Tour (and pro cycling). There is much less mythology these days, as we have all become jaded and skeptical and cautious with our enthusiasm. We are not sure whether to re-embrace pro cycling or to push it away. As we search for meaning, we can again count on those skilled prose stylists to help us find our way. This post proposes, therefore, that the following excerpt, shamelessly copied from ‘The Cycling Anthology: Tour de France Special Edition’, which you can read more about here, might just be the best three paragraphs written on the Tour de France. Thank you, Mr. Jeremy Whittle.

The Tour is complex, grandiose, overblown. It is wayward, beautiful, sordid and sometimes demented. It is an anachronism, struggling to come to terms with corporate commitments, lurching uncertainly to meet new ethical expectations. In truth, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much of an event that has more in common with the ritual cruelty of the Coliseum than chess on wheels.

The riders come and go, the scandals come and go, the sponsors come and go. The race remains, the landscape unchanged and timeless, the seasons weathering rural roads that are baked in the summer, frozen and cracked through the winter.

In the end, though, it’s just a bike race. At the moment, the British are doing well, like the French, Italians, Belgians and Spaniards before them. It will pass and, soon enough, other champions will be along to replace them. Try and keep hold of that thought, when, as they inevitably will, all the intoxications of the Tour, the sound and the fury, once again get too much.

Quintana celebrating his stage win and the return of the Colombians (pic from
Quintana celebrating his stage win and the return of the Colombians (pic from

The dangerous summer revisited, again

1. Last year your author revisited an original post on The Dangerous Summer with an interlude that considered Hemingway, heroes, and the golden age of cycling. Re-reading it, there seems much that is still pertinent to the current debates in cycling, if your author doesn’t say so himself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, one might say. This might be even more appropriate given that it would appear that the French senate will release a report on doping at the 1998 Tour during this year’s Tour itself. Pro cycling again tarnished by past transgressions.

Robert Millar readily admits that he is not a neutral observer, but he is certainly more than eloquent on the subject of past doping. There will no doubt be some skeletons coming out of closets if the report is indeed released and is as inflammatory as all expect. But will we be surprised? Would you, dear reader, be surprised if every single top rider at the 1998 Tour was taking EPO? One would hope not. Would you be surprised if every single Tour winner from 2006 backwards (with the likely exception of Greg LeMond) took something at some point in their career, whether it was EPO and transfusions or a little cortisone or a dash of testosterone? Prior to the EPO era, one did not need drugs to win the Tour, but it certainly could help – even if it was a bit of ‘hormone re-balancing’ at the start of the season or ahead of a major stage race. We might conclude that not all Tour winners doped during the Tour, but was any past winner completely in the clear for their entire career?

Doping was le metier for many, many riders; perhaps at the very least only a few amphetamines to get through the post-Tour criteriums, but doping nonetheless. The substances and the methods changed over time – amphetamines post-WW II, then cortisone and testosterone, followed by other steroids and transfusions, then EPO and a variety of micro-dosing and micro-transfusing techniques. Discussion was never far from the surface. Here is Robin Magowan in the widely-read, 80s classic Kings of the Road, talking of muscle growth from steroids and its strain on connecting tendons: “Watching ‘superman’ Fignon flail away day after glorious day on the Tour one felt that sooner or later something was bound to give way.” Which it did. Or on Hinault: “Coming upon Hinault in 1983 after not having seen him since his Tour ride in 1978 I remember being struck not only by the new hairiness, but by the hugely knotted calf muscles, the knots extending even into the lower thighs; legs more like that of a wrestler than a rider.”

Magowan might not have been correct in his assessments, literally accusing Fignon and Hinault in English-language print of doping, but such discussions were common place at the time. Would we be that surprised, though, if he was correct? Post-Armstrong, nothing is surprising any more. This does not diminish cycling necessarily, as we cannot go back and change what it has been for much of its history – a beautiful, captivating, gruelling, and desperately hard sport not for the faint of heart. Surely we’re ready to put the past behind us, unless there’s some materially beneficial to the current anti-doping regime that will come from further enquiry.

Post-1998, it should have all changed. But it did not. In Yellow Fever, his book on that Tour, Jeremy Whittle quotes an unidentified English-speaking professional. “Only the naive would now think that doping isn’t part of the sport, especially with the financial rewards now on offer, But it’s up to me to decide what I do and whether I cross that line. Right now I want to be competitive without going beyond it, but I can’t say that I’ll always feel that way.” The equation has changed now. Not the rewards – as high as ever – but the mood in the peloton and the absence of pressure to dope just to be competitive.

But human nature is tricky. At the end of Yellow Fever, Whittle eloquently recounts passing a young fan by the side of the road, a boy about six years old, “wide-eyed and expectant”, waiting for the riders of the Tour to pass and “waiting for his dreams to be fulfilled.” Whittle feels the guilt of the passive observer to the debacle that has been unfolding. “I wanted to stop and talk to him, to try to explain; to tell him that men are weak and greedy, and they grow old and faithless and forget their dreams… I wanted to tell him that I was sorry – that we were all sorry for the lies and the silence, for the cynicism and the loss of innocence. I wanted us both to believe again.”

It is a poignant soliloquy. But why should Whittle be sorry? Sorry that human nature is as it is, capable of so much but also so little? And just what would he have them both believe again? There are not any miracles now, thanks to Armstrong, if there ever were, thanks to a parade of others. As John le Carré has one of his characters note in A Delicate Truth, “What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity… it was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.” It is all ultimately just self serving. There was not and cannot be a golden age of cycling. As Ken Dryden says, “The golden age of anything is the age of everyone’s childhood.” Cycling is no different. Once the innocence is gone it is gone for good. You can’t just believe in it again somehow.

But the Tour de France is still captivating. One does not want to overcook it with the quotes, but let us have one more. “If you can control your emotions, chances are you don’t have many,” says Douglas Coupland. The Tour pulls us in, sick and depraved that it is. Heroes and villains all. The glorious excess. We cannot look away. We need not look away. That innocence is long, long gone but the sheer excitement remains.


Summer has arrived just in time for the Tour, it would seem, ushering in the hot, hot weather of early morning or evening rides punctuated by barbecues, cold beer, and chilled G&Ts. Reckless – even dangerous – plans are sometimes hatched in the heat; whether they come to fruition or not is another story.

Just recently, your author signed up to the Rapha Rising challenge on Strava, which is to ride 7,235 vertical metres of climbing (the equivalent of the Peyresourde, Ventoux and Col de Sarenne) in 8 days. For someone who counts three rides in a week as a luxury, this would indeed seem a worthy challenge. Your author’s intention was to start with Mt. Seymour and additions, good for 1,700 metres in one ride, followed by – later in the week – le parcours de Virenque, good for around 2,600 metres (perhaps closer to 3,000 with any luck). That would have left a rather significant <4,301 metres to knock off. With the space on the calendar, just not possible. It is with some disappointment, then, that this challenge has been opted out of.

Not to worry. One does what one can in the time available, keeping the fun aspect to the fore rather than worrying about the numbers. Those hills can be re-ridden in slower time, and perhaps savoured a little more. Anyway, your author counts himself lucky to have ridden the actual Ventoux as well as the Col de Sarenne. The latter included the ridiculous descent on the other side, followed by the Les Deux Alpes ascent made famous by Marco Pantani in 1998 (want to put an asterisk next to his name – the Tour de France is one continuous asterisk), before riding back up Alpe d’Huez. That was a long day out, but then – being on holiday following the Tour – what else was one to do.


Summer is also the perfect time for reading. The 100th running of the Tour has produced a plethora of new and updated titles but one really wonders whether yet another Tour book is really necessary. The history of the race keeps getting re-written, at least officially it would seem, so anything now is simply going to be a snapshot of the times. Still, safe hands seem to be producing all the titles so you really can’t go too wrong if additional titles are to your interest.

Along with the inevitable Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy re-reads, perhaps with a little James Salter and Julian Barnes (who has written quite eloquently about the Tour in Something to Declare) thrown in, there will be some cycling specific titles on the list (again, always way too ambitious) assembled by your correspondent. The good editors of The Cycling Anthology have produced volume 2 just in time for the Tour and, like the first volume, it is a little treasure trove of great short pieces on the race we can’t walk away from. The format, a small paperback that will fit most jersey pockets, is a reminder that the printed book is far from dead and that any decent cafe ride deserves a little reading material over one’s coffee. If you lean towards the e-reader, however, do check out The Bicycle Reader, deftly and economically presented by Jack Thurston (from the Bike Show podcast) et al and well worth the price. Two editions are out now and are little gems.

No summer reading is complete with an appropriate beverage. Let one hereby offer what might be dubbed the ‘Bimini’ as dictated by Hemingway in the first part of Islands in the Stream: “Where Thomas Hudson lay on the mattress his head was in the shade cast by the platform at the forward end of the flying bridge where the controls were and when Eddy came aft with the tall cold drink made of gin, lime juice, green coconut water, and chipped ice with just enough Angostura bitters to give it a rusty, rose colour, he held the drink in the shadow so the ice would not melt while he looked out over the sea.”

Magic. If you can’t get fresh green coconut water (which is pretty much a given), try the ubiquitous coconut water than is available in a multitude of varieties pretty much everywhere. As we know, the hydrating powers of coconut water have been vastly oversold, but it’s somewhere in between plain water and a good sports drink for its cycling application so you can pretend it has at least a non-deleterious effect if you are sampling it after a ride. Use the coconut water in place of the tonic as if making a (tall) G&T and add the lime juice (fresh, add the wedges afterwards) and bitters in quantities to whatever works best for you.

You can then ponder that Hemingway himself was probably the sort of character that would earn a Wiggins-esque expletive, but he could sure mix a drink and construct a sentence. He may have been a mean old drunk, but he left a written legacy larger than the sum of his character. Those Tour riders for the last 100 editions might have been mostly a bunch of dopers, but they did more than that and they did the same: races that gave cycling the history and mythology that keeps us captivated today. The new peloton is cleaner and more exciting than ever, but it doesn’t exist separately from this. The Tour is as glorious as it is base. In many ways, that’s why we celebrate it.

Pastis at Les Deux Alpes. Vive le Tour!
Pastis at Les Deux Alpes. Vive le Tour!

A Tour grimpeur to watch for

While many eyes are justifiably on the Colombian rider Nairo Quintana, expecting him to shine in the mountains of the Tour, a perhaps overlooked contender is the French rider Romain Sicard, riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi and making his Tour debut. Indeed, a few year ago Sicard was touted as France’s up-and-coming star. In 2009, in his first professional year riding as a junior for the Orbea team, Sicard won the junior World Champion road race (beating Quintana into second) and the Tour de l’Avenir overall (beating Tejay van Garderen). This was the start of a four-year French/Colombian hold on the Tour de l’Avenir with Quintana winning it in 2010, then Esteban Chaves in 2011, and Warren Barguil in 2012 – with Juan Ernesto Chamorro in second.

It would seem, though, that Sicard has struggled in subsequent years to make his mark. There have been impressive performances, such as at the Dauphine in 2010 (coming close to a stage win), but a hip alignment problem saw much of his 2011 season affected. He was 5th on the tough Bola del Mundo stage at the Vuelta last year, but has had no recent victories of note.

Sicard is rated as a climber and this is where he has shone in the past. Euskaltel-Euskadi will be stage hunting in the Tour, particularly in the Pyrenees and hoping to secure their fifth Tour stage win. Yes, despite their constant presence in the pro peloton for the Tour, wins have been hard-fought for and difficult to secure – Roberto Laiseka (2001), Iban Mayo (2003), Mikel Astarloza (2009) and Samuel Sánchez (2011).

Sicard climbing the Bolo del Mundo (pic Bike Race Info)
Sicard climbing the Bolo del Mundo (pic Bike Race Info)

Sicard was born in Bayonne and lives in Hasparren, in the French (or Northern) Basque Country, hence his professional association with Euskaltel-Euskadi. He is only the second Iparralde from this part of France to ride for the team, following on from Thierry Elissalde, also from Bayonne, who rode the 1995-95 seasons. According to reporting, when not living the on-the-road life of a professional cyclist, the 25 year old lives at home with his parents.

His build-up this season, according to reports, has been cautious and steady, with a few injuries now behind him, and Sicard is looking to make his presence felt, especially in those mountains close to home. “J’ai envie de me montrer acteur, surtout à l’occasion des étapes de montagne dans les Pyrénées,” he said. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to show himself as a player and the Pyrenees start on stage 8 on July 6 with the stage from Castres to the summit of Ax 3 Domaines. A five-climb monster for stage 9 follows the next day. As Jean Francois Pescheux, one of the Tour’s directors, notes for stage 8, “…the Spaniards will be ready. They are heading into their terrain…” Not just the Spaniards; the Basques too will be ready.

Before Peter Sagan, Sicard already has his finish line moves sorted, here winning the junior worlds (pic AFP)
Before Peter Sagan, Sicard already has his finish line moves sorted, here winning the junior worlds (pic AFP)

Some other Basque posts you may enjoy:

Samuel Sánchez has no shoulders

A political history of Orbea

An interlude: The Tour de France and the miraculous

Some 100 editions ago, when the Tour de France was first conceived, it was the original epic. L’Auto, as Christopher Thompson recounts, hailed the first edition in 1903 as “the most grandiose competition there has ever been.” The race might have been about selling newspapers, of advancing modernity, but it was also about the exceptional qualities of its participants: “…admirable men, truly exceptional beings, carrying in them extraordinary qualities…” Later, when they became the ‘giants of the road’, the riders were described as requiring “unfailing endurance, muscles of steel, and an iron temperament” as well as “unshakable willpower”.

So, the Tour was monstrous, colossal and gigantic – it was always about excess, not a normal event. And its participants were not normal men, they had extraordinary qualities. (As Thompson points out, by attaching exclusively male virtues to the sport, it set back women’s racing for years – the effects we’re still seeing). The message from the organizers to the participants was this: we will create this monstrous race and you will respond with unfailing endurance. No wonder, then, in this culture of excess, that the riders responded by employing any means necessary. As Rudi Altig said, they were not athletes (in the amateur tradition), they were professional cyclists.

For the 100th edition we are in an era that mixes the new with the old. We still have the excess of the race itself – still gigantic. But not only do we want the racers to be of an iron temperament, we also want their extraordinary qualities to include the moral virtues of fair play. The race is not just a spectacle, it has broader meaning – “the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Against this history of excess, it is perhaps no surprise that the new report on doping from Antoine Vayer and his team describes some performances as ‘miraculous’ and ‘mutant’, terms that would not have been out of place in L’Auto’s descriptions of the riders last century.

Vayer’s report, as reported, tells us two things we already knew: EPO works remarkably well and the Tour performances of the 90s, and at other grand tours, were likely – in perhaps all cases – achieved through doping; but there is an unclear line between what is possible with and without doping and we are not going to be able to define that line by crunching the numbers, despite Vayer’s efforts. The report attempts to define all performances on a spectrum from normal to not normal. But the Tour was always anything but normal. Was that not the idea? Everything about it was supposed to be miraculous.

This might be seen as part of a general push towards some sort of closure, a drawing of a line under the last 100 editions so that we can all move on to the new era. Bill Strickland as an admirable proposal for doing just this. But where will it end? Will all riders have to account for everything they took and when – a bit of cortisone here, some testosterone there, a dash of EPO, a transfusion, a soupçon of steroids. Perhaps that is what we need for closure.

But then what? We want the monstrous and the grandiose. We want the excess, the mythic and epic battles against the mountains and the elements. Like all sports, we want a spectacle. But that spectacle should not be outside our (always changing) perceptions of what is normal. And we also crave broader meaning. We want the riders to be our virtuous heroes, we want to believe in their qualities, not just their muscles of steel but also their essential goodness. We want them to represent the idealized qualities of our day. We want them to be better versions of ourselves.

Is this even possible? As Ken Dryden wrote, talking of his hockey career, “We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else.” There is a tension in our expectations and in reality. We can strive toward an ideal Tour, but we may not get there, and we should ask whether it really matters. What is this ‘pure’ ideal that we are seeking – what does it even mean? Is it possible to create an oasis of values that represent the best of humanity when it is us – irrevocably flawed – that are doing the creating? Perhaps. But we should not be disappointed if we do not achieve it. Georges Speicher, winner of the 1933 Tour said of the racers: “There are the powerful and the weak, the fortunate and the unlucky. Their names change as the years go by; but the characters are fundamentally the same.”

We get the Tour we deserve. Each edition is a mirror of the values of its time, throughout its history. By trying to label each performance as ‘clean’ or ‘tainted’ we are chasing a certainty that does not exist, for our own gratification because that certainty gives us something to hold on to, some kind of anchor point in the swirling currents that exist in cycling. If we just swim a little further we will supposedly find that perfect eddy of calm where true meaning is to be found. We are expecting too much. That eddy of calm does not exist. After perhaps the ‘cleanest’ Tour in history, in 2012, the questions are still being asked. They will never go away. Create a monstrous event like the Tour and the miraculous will happen – one way or another. Spectacle will beget spectacle. Is that not what we want?

Hailed as a hero, Pantani was reportedly described by Italian anti-doping authorities as one of the worst offenders.
Hailed as a hero, Pantani was reportedly described by Italian anti-doping authorities as one of the worst offenders in the peloton. In Vayer’s terms, a mutant.

An interlude: The (amateur) grimpeur’s manifesto

Climb. Lots.

The climb is your friend. It will teach you something.

The point of the journey is not to arrive. It is the experience.

That said, arriving at the top quicker will shorten the duration of the pain.

There are no shortcuts to climbing faster. Absolutely none.

Though shalt not covet another rider’s sub-1,300g climbing wheels.

Use the big ring at least once on every climb.

Lighten yourself before trying to lighten your bike.

We all dream of a 39×23 being our lowest gear and still being able to climb anything.

Race to train. Train to climb.

The only races worth really racing are hill climbs. You should bury yourself.

Race not to best other riders but to best yourself.

If you compete in crits or road races for training, you must attack on every climb. No exceptions. Getting shelled out the back may happen frequently, but at least you animated the race.

Do a ride with over 2,000 metres of climbing at least once a season.

Glory is fleeting. Pain can last for days, or even weeks and months.

There will always be someone faster.

Pierre's secret? White shoes! (Cycling Weekly pic)
Pierre’s secret? White shoes! (Cycling Weekly pic)

Ridiculously hard training: a redux

Thanks for your interest, dear readers, in the book giveaway. Peter M from NJ is the winner and will be receiving Chris Carmichael’s book shortly. I have to confess that my geography is not the best for the east coast of the US so I had to look up Peter’s location and zoom out a few times on google maps before seeing a name that I recognized. It looks to be a good area for some interesting riding, but in addition to getting on the bike, Peter also runs, roller skis, and does x-country ski racing in the winter. That sounds like a fairly well-rounded regime.

Peter writes: “Just about the hardest thing I’ve done for the last 4 seasons is the Climb to the Castle roller ski race up the Whiteface Mountain toll road in New York State. This happens in September or October, it’s a 5 mile race at an average 8% grade, for more than 2300 feet of vertical gain. In the four years I’ve done this, it’s only been sunny and wind free once. Usually it’s windy with some kind of precipitation. After the last hairpin 500 meters from the finish, one can expect headwinds of up to 50 mph blasting through a chute.”

Attendees at the race can mix with the US ski team, until, as Peter notes, “the starting gun goes off.” I must confess that I’m wondering if Peter actually needs any of Carmichael’s training advice, but I’m sure he will find the book interesting (as I did). Please stand by for another book giveaway (likely at the end of the summer). At present a post of epic proportions is being prepared that will somehow weave together Roland Barthes, Peter Sagan, the Tourmalet, and EPO with the thesis that pro racing is ‘place dependent’ and ultimately boring. Hopefully you will have the patience to wait this one out as the links are fairly tenuous at present and one does hope to be able to make such an effort at least vaguely coherent. Watch this space.

A lighter bike will not make you climb faster

1. Here is a common question for the aspiring grimpeur: will a lighter bike help me to climb faster? You may be tempted, dear reader, to answer in the affirmative immediately, citing the laws of physics, received industry wisdom and good old common sense. However, what are these ‘laws’ anyway, is the bike industry so wise, and does common sense actually make any, er, sense?

The easiest way to answer the question is through a little test. First, we pose a hypothesis: lighter bikes climb faster heavier ones. Then we test it. Your author has already done this and through the marvels of Strava has a nice bunch of data for various climbs at his disposal. A good hypothesis should be falsifiable. And this one is. All we need is one climb where a heavier bike climbed faster than a lighter one. Yep, got a couple of those – your author riding certain climbs faster on his steel, 20lb+, 105-equipped, relaxed angles, 32-spoke wheeled ‘winter’ bike than his (very, very modest) ‘race’ bike. Falsified: lighter bikes do not climb faster than heavier ones.

But, but… come your protests, what about physics and force and mass and the acceleration of gravity? What about those laws? Very good point. Those laws have been pretty well tested and not (yet) falsified, so they certainly stand. So we have a problem. A lighter bike should climb faster in theory, but in practice this is not always the case (we can reverse the hypothesis above and get the result that heavier bikes do not climb faster than lighter ones). Why is this the case? Well, and certainly obviously, the bike is but one part of the climbing equation. There is the rider, the big, heavy engine of the bike who performs differently at different times. The rider is the variable.

Physics says that a lighter bike will climb faster all other things being equal. But those things are almost never equal. Even on the same climb, one has to factor in environmental conditions, variations in rolling resistance, whether you remembered to lube your chain on a different day, carrying two bottles or one, not to mention the performance of the rider – early or end of season, peaking or over-trained, carrying a little extra weight, riding alone or racing against others. If these differences between different rides are minimized, a lighter bike should climb faster, but these variables count for a lot – it really is all about the engine: the rider. The best hypothesis might actually be, bike weight is not the determining factor in how fast a bike (and rider) climbs a particular ascent. That might well be the best fit for the evidence.


There is a grand bargain in the bike industry that was established many years ago and has been refined subsequently. It goes roughly like this. Bike publications test bikes. They divide them into artificial categories based primarily around price, construction parameters, and groupsets. At present, this approximates something like: high-end carbon and Dura-Ace level = racer; high-end carbon but with less stiffness and Ultegra level = performance/enthusiast; cheaper carbon or aluminium/aluminum and 105 level = recreational or entry-level.

The publications then go on to extol the various performance characteristics appropriate to each level. At times, they get tangled in the much-mocked semantics of ‘laterally stiff but vertically compliant’ but at all times must conclude that race bikes allowed them to dive in corners without hesitation, while performance bikes allowed them to go on long rides but still sprint for sign posts, while entry-level bikes found the right balance between price and performance. Almost without fail, however, they are careful not to say too much outright that suggests that actual, rigorous scientific testing took place. Phrases like the following emphasize (apparently) perceptible differences rather than actual test results: “felt faster on the climbs”, or “felt surprisingly comfortable despite its quick handling”, or “the wheels felt heavy and I was left behind on the uphills.”

The older, venerable publications like Bicycling do not – most of the time – actually say ‘this is faster’. The problem is, hand on heart, they cannot say that. To do so would require the sort of testing that is impossible with bikes – double-blinds with control groups and measuring instruments and blah, blah, blah. Part of the problem is ‘framing’ – if you ride a $8,000 bike, you will feel faster because you expect the bike to be faster; you may even ride faster because you feel speedy and motivated and more confident. Or, you may have the perfect storm of conditions where you can realize the performance gains that different bikes can offer. This does not mean, in an objective sense, that a particular bike is faster. It has a potential for performance that you may or may not be able to realize.

Another part of the problem is that there are not huge gains up for grabs from certain bike parameters (see here for a full discussion, perhaps the only time that Karl Popper has been mentioned in a bike blog). Another aspect is that bike testers, conducting subjective tests, may not actually be able to physically discern different performance characteristics in bikes – they feel different (most of the time) but what that actually means is unclear. This is why many reviews are full of obfuscating language and also surprises – bikes perform better or worse than expected, performing like more expensive models (whatever this means), or their handling is not as quick but they offer a ‘damped’ ride that can still win a sprint. Reviewers have to write something, but in this day and age where we measure everything (watts, seconds, grams, gradients, miles and so on) these fuzzy words have no comparable meaning.

Let us be clear: there are things that can be measured and the things that can in theory but cannot in practice. There are differences between bikes that are important, and they are different from each other. However, in terms of actual performance – not just feel – those differences are notable but not always significant. And we know this. We as riders know it, bike journalists know it, and the bike makers know it. That is the grand bargain – we are all in on it. It is not a scam, it is just the nature of cycling. It does not stop us as riders wanting upgrades, even though we know the performance gains are mostly marginal and achieved only in perfect conditions. We read the reviews, nod and smile, but still put the bike on our ‘wish list’ nonetheless. These bikes and products are aspirational, they are not essentials.

It may be the case that this bargain is breaking down. Firstly, there are the reviews that claim objective performance benefits of some magnitude from certain bikes and gear – such as the infamous Cycling News review of hydraulic brakes where their ‘scientific’ testing was riding down the same descent a second time with the new brakes (wow, what rigorous methodology!). Peloton magazine has been another perpetrator of such reviews, one of which was lampooned here on this blog, with bold claims of objective gains that simply collapse under any decent scrutiny. Bicycling magazine is on thin ice, too, with recent reviews like, “…I could dive into corners later…” (really, later than what – another bike; if so, which one, and how much later?). Or, “…the bike was stable enough that we could sit up and remove a jacket…” (what does this mean, that other bikes are not this stable – surely if you have the balance to do this you can do it on any bike?). It is a concern if subjective claims are giving way to supposedly objective ones with little evidence to support them. Should we worry?


At some point in time, every rider makes their own deal with the seemingly inexorable march of technological improvements. This deal might take on one of the following possibilities: first, new technology is embraced and adopted for its performance-enhancing potential; second, new technology is appreciated for its design and aesthetic innovation but not seen as a tool for speed; third, new technology is an aspirational or positional (or even status signifying) product that is adopted as part of a ‘progression’ or a reflection of riding stature; fourth, new technology is largely ignored until it trickles down (10-speed Tiagra becomes the new 105, 105 is the new Ultegra, Ultegra is now Dura-Ace, Dura-Ace is for pros only); fifth, a curmudgeonly approach is taken where new technology is seen as largely superfluous for the majority of riders and a hindrance to practical riding (another proprietary 11-speed chain and cassette means being locked into a pricey and frequent replacement process).

Within this schema, most riders likely make a calculation as to how much they are prepared to spend, what frame material they prefer, their ideal number of gears, and any other number of choices for equipment. Bike choice, groupset and other accessories are chosen either for what they might do (performance), how they might make the rider feel (the ‘feel’ of Titanium, for example), what it represents (Italian design, for example), or encompassing a particular philosophy of riding (new technology adopted because it represents progress). Racers might want the latest and (supposed) greatest but might also take pride in doing more with less. (Cosmo Catalano has written more eloquently and with more cutting wit than your author on some of these ideas and is well worth reading on the subject.)

Other riders become less interested in the bike and more in other products. Once a capable, functional and reliable bike has been secured, and that bike has proven to be versatile and durable, items like a better rain jacket, more comfortable shoes, or a better range of base layers for all riding conditions become more important. The focus of bike performance shifts to looking after the engine – the rider – rather than fussing over the minor details on the bike. There is also the placebo effect. Try it – if you really want to go faster on your next climb, put some fresh, white bar tape on. Yeah, it looks pretty fast, doesn’t it!

We cyclists have an odd relationship with technology. Eddy Merckx’s quote is well over used but perfectly encapsulates this whole argument: don’t ride upgrades, ride up grades. Focus on the rider, not on the bike. Yet Merckx was fastidious over his bikes, taking multiple models to his races, each with a slightly different set up. He had special frames built for him and was always tinkering, and he was supplied with the latest technological innovations of his time. He rode both upgrades and up grades.

None of us are Eddy Merckx. Still, it is easy to get fixated on new bikes and new technologies for the wrong reasons, thinking that they are a pathway or a progression to higher performance. In the perfect setting they can be – a lighter bike will climb faster, all other things being equal – but realizing those gains is not always possible. The bike industry is superb at offering us the latest innovations and there are many reasons why we will adopt them (or shun them as we choose). It is not particularly good, however, at explaining to us just what those innovations can offer us. Your author could be wrong, not having ridden nearly as many bikes as the test teams of prominent cycling publications. But common sense suggests that we as riders are not always attuned to the tiny differences that many bikes offer.

If it were possible, those would be good hypotheses to test – to get some real rigour into bike testing and all the claims that are made. But does it really matter? We are enamoured by numbers at present, tracking and analyzing them and comparing them. But riding is all about sensations and finding the bike that works best for you on this basis is all that is really needed. The ride can be so much more than just a collection of statistics. Still, it never hurts to make comparisons, because we are relentlessly troubled by nagging questions. One might wonder, “will these wheels make me climb faster?” They might, but then again they might not. When you’re deep into your reserves, fighting up a climb, the biggest determinant of your speed might be whether you have the mental and physical fortitude to stand up on the pedals and shift into a harder gear and push yourself that little bit more. At this moment in time, the bike you’re riding makes very little difference.

Said JJ Rousseau, "To be and appear to be, became two things entirely different, and from this distinction arose imposing ostentation, deceitful guile and all the vices which attend them." Whatever.
Said JJ Rousseau, “To be and appear to be, became two things entirely different, and from this distinction arose imposing ostentation, deceitful guile and all the vices which attend them.” Whatever.

Something that might actually help you climb faster is training. Don’t forget that there is a giveaway going on (which will run for a couple more weeks). See right here for all the details.

On cycling as a religion

In the book Religion for Atheists, author Alain de Botton looks at the ‘secular uses’ of religions, eschewing the supernatural claims but looking at the good ideas that religion has for running our societies and our lives. Under a series of headings, he then goes on to explore how this might be done. He assumes that we have a choice in doing so and ignores the idea of the religious impulse, what Freud said were “calls for consolation”, to explain and find comfort in the complex world around us. As such, our secular institutions may indeed already be drawing on many of the functions of consolation that religion provides.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that cycling has already done as de Botton suggests and, as such, may actually be a ‘religion’. This will be done using a number of the subject headings used by de Botton as well as several quotes from his book. The context is primarily the history of pro cycling as its starting point and road cycling as its conclusion (this is a blog for roadies by a roadie, after all). I’m sure you will appreciate, dear reader, that this is a somewhat lighthearted approach to the issue – and certainly not an exhaustive discussion. We might be able to define ‘cycling’ but ‘religion’ is certainly more complex. Still, iff you do not have religion in your life, you may see cycling in a new way. If you already have religion, perhaps you may agree that cycling also brings people together as faith does.


Community is to bring people together for support as well as moral instruction – how to get along together. Religion understands that the world can be a bewildering and lonely place most of the time and that strength and support can be achieved through solidarity, and that the lessons for coping with the world can be more efficiently taught to a group. As such, while the solo ride is perfect for contemplation and to articulate one’s own devotion, cycling is best done as part of a community – the group ride. This is because, as part of a group, an individual can ride farther and faster compared to riding alone. Cycling is perfectly designed to be done more efficiently as part of a group.

Like religion, barriers to participation are low. In a typical Christian church, for example, there is no hierarchy among the attendant devotees. There are, however, ceremonial routines to learn and until these are learned then a new attendee might find it difficult to keep up with the service. Cycling is the same; there are the rhythms of the particular group to learn. But this should not be a barrier. And while there may be others in the group whose particular devotion to their religion extends to ‘putting on their Sunday best’ of carbon wheels and electronic gruppos, a functional road bike in all cases will be sufficient to attend the worship.

Moral instruction (see more below) can also best be achieved on the group ride. Been tearing it up on Strava on your solo rides to clock new PBs? A group ride is a necessary corrective learn about the value of community, and to hone one’s skills in a group, riding a paceline, and demonstrating to non-believers (other road users) that cyclists are valid and trusted road users as well. Plus, you can learn new tricks, meet new training partners, find new routes (and cafes), score deals on new gear, and get carpool contacts for races.

We often complain that the modern world of hyper-capitalism is an isolating and atomizing place where we spend too much time glued to our screens and ignoring those around us. The group ride is the perfect opportunity to leave this behind and a simple way to find others with the same interests – bikes and biking. And like, say, a Sunday service, there will likely be a fixed time to meet planned in advance, a set duration, and a general theme (long and slow, hills, tempo). There may well be a ‘road captain’ to lead the service, sorry, ride, who will make sure that everyone can keep up and knows where to go. Many will, as noted, attend in their Saturday or Sunday best. And so long as you can ride, you will be welcome.

Kindness (and morality)

Religions are highly prescriptive about how members should behave towards each other. As de Botton writes: “Christianity never minded creating a moral atmosphere in which people could point out there flaws to one another and acknowledge that there was room for improvement in their behaviour.” At its heart, one might argue, religion is rules for living the good life – or the right life – here on earth before whatever comes after. Different religions are very particular about the conduct expected from their members.

Cycling is no different. While we might not always agree on the minute details of conduct, there is still a robust debate going on to refine those details into a code of etiquette. Think of the strictures against half-wheeling, or blowing through stop lights, or coming up behind another rider unannounced and sitting on their wheel, or shouldering into imaginary gaps in the cat.4 race. There are also the hand signals when riding in a group or paceline (stopping, turning, obstacles). Many of the rules are for safety – riding on the road can be hazardous after all – but they are also about building community (see above) along the way. They are also rules that get pointed out to new riders by more experienced ones, and any roadie should expect to have such advice proffered to them or be expected to do the same to others when etiquette is breached.

This does not even begin to scratch the surface of proper attire in road cycling, the sorts of rules more appropriate to Mennonites than a sporting pastime. The fundamentalist cycling sect Velominati has no less than 91 rules – the last one being “no food on training rides under 4 hours” – that covers kit coordination, bike colours and accessories, and various other strictures (appropriately, there doesn’t appear to be any room for women in this all-male sect). Like any good religion, these rules create a model of behaviour that is unobtainable by mortal riders, hence the necessary guilt that must be engendered. There’s always room for improvement.

Florentine artist Giotto painted the chapel walls in Florence with depictions of the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice) and the Christian values (faith, charity, hope). These virtues and values were naturally aspirational – how often do we fall short – but we might find some complementary ideas in cycling. There is the prudence we undertake when riding, so as not to overly endanger ourselves and others; the fortitude we show in the face of long climbs and indignant weather; the temperance of effort, ensuring that we can make it home; the notion of justice that all effort will have its reward. We have our faith in cycling, we show charity by giving others a wheel to follow, and we hope – in the words of Bob Roll, we ‘pray’ – that we don’t get dropped.

Catholics have role models in the forms of saints that embody particular virtues. Cycling, too, has its ‘saints’ that epitomize particular traits – transcendence, hardness, resilience, otherworldliness. Indeed, some riders from the pro peloton of history have taken on saint-like qualities – Coppi, Pantani – and are revered almost as beyond mere mortals. And saints can fall in and out of favour as their ‘miracles’ are revealed to be frauds and shams (think Armstrong) so perhaps there is a cautionary tale of expecting too much divine intervention when embracing a particular saint.


Christianity, according to de Botton, “has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the very of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death – and most of all in need of God.”

It is undoubtedly a conceit in road cycling to think, after a decent number of years on the road, that there is nothing left to learn. While we may mature as riders, this is an ongoing and life-long process. We are less wise than we think and we must commit ourselves to the bike on a regular basis to cement its gains. Muscle memory is resilient but it grows dull and loses its lustre over time without constant attention. Why else would we become so anxious when we spend too much time away from riding.

“Ideas also have to be repeated to us constantly… our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration,” says de Botton. Rituals help to train our minds through a spiritual process, much as we would train our bodies. Cycling is a repetition of a relatively limited number of movements but, as we know, it is only through repetition that we progress and that requires us to put in the miles. We might also see our modern existence as full of distractions and cycling is a spiritual process where we can achieve clarity of thought even as we concentrate on the road unfurling in front of us.


A long tradition of Christian pessimists, like Blaise Pascal, remind us of our “sinful and pitiful state.” For the vast majority of us, we are decidedly average as cyclists; we fall into that great chunky part of the bell curve of ability. We can ride and train hard, and make gains, but there will always be a number of riders much larger than zero who are better than us.

Like any good religion, cycling helps to keeping our achievements in perspective. We can become better riders than we were before, more skilled, faster, and better road companions but this process of growth is ultimately a personal one. Indeed, it may one of the most satisfying aspects of progressing in cycling that our own development can deliver tangible benefits greater than competitive racing where the thrill of success must be tempered by the sting of disappointment.

Within the humbleness of our own mediocrity, however, there is still room for self expression. We might characterize this as the difference between  Catholic versus Protestant views on the conduct of the sport. Perhaps it is a ‘flashy’ Catholic approach that attracts us to cycling, with its elaborate trappings of worship (think Campag Record and Colnago frames) and its gregarious adherents (most Italian racers); the style of riding is the reckless attack, preferably in the mountains, with a showy bravado (think Pantani). Winter is spent on the indoor trainer watching Giro re-runs and dreaming of the Dolomites.

Or perhaps we are more in tune with a ‘dour’ Protestantism with its spare style of worship and emphasis on function over form, where its heroes are grim-faced northern hard men (Brits and Flemish) pushing big gears over the cobbles through the crosswinds. Winter is spent on the bike in the cold and the dark dreaming of Flanders. Whatever our disposition, we remain at heart penitent before the talents in the pro peloton that are much more outsize than our own.


“Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness,” says de Botton. “Being put in our place by something larger, older and greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.”

As Greg LeMond said, it never gets any easier, you just go faster. Suffering is a constant in cycling if we want to push ourselves farther and faster. It keeps our goals in perspective. The bicycle is a hugely efficient way of translating our own energy into movement, but it pales in comparison to other forms of locomotion. We chip tiny increments of time off our personal bests, but these are minute achievements in the greater scheme of things. Action may give us consolation, a reprieve from idleness, but it has no larger meaning – our achievements are illusions.

As for perspective, we are continually humbled by the hills and the mountains. Our main adversaries in achievement are gravity and the rising road. Against the backdrop of nature we are insignificant. We never conquer climbs, we survive them. They will endure when we have gone home and put our bikes away for good. But we can take solace from this; with relatively limited effort (and fuel) we can traverse great distances in a day and summit impressive peaks. For this, the bicycle is truly and wondrous machine. But we are not all-conquering: there are always more climbs and more miles and we cannot hope to climb or cover all of them.


“Christian art understands that images are important partly because they can generate compassion, the fragile quality which enables to boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experience of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own,” according to de Botton.

Iconography is important in cycling. With the race action stretching out over miles and miles, it is not encapsulated into a restricted area like other sports. Without ‘goals’ and ‘scoring’ it is difficult to capture meaningful and exciting action during the race, until the finish. Still images, photographs – the art of cycling – fills this gap and is a powerful pull on our emotions. Pain and suffering is a common theme, and the racers’ battles against each other and their environment draws us in. We, too, suffer pain while riding – perhaps not to the same extent – and in that way we can empathize with what they are going through. The pictures stir our emotions and we feel compassion for the efforts of strangers.

De Botton goes on to argue that, “As if to reinforce the idea that to be human is, above all else, to partake in a common vulnerability to misfortune, disease and violence, Christian art returns us relentlessly to the flesh…” The visage of pain, the tortured limbs, is what cycling art is all about – it is all about the flesh, and it is fragile. We may or may not see glory, depending on our perspective, but we certainly see the suffering. We, too, are fragile. And this is why cycling photography is a more powerful medium than pictures of other sports; it captures action, emotion, suffering, and fragility, making it evocative of what is means to be human, to be striving for something larger. Cycle racing is mere spectacle – one might argue – but its depiction in art is always more dramatic; it has a moral quality that strives for greater meaning.


The French philosopher Auguste Comte did not support the doctrinal aspects of Christianity but saw value in religion. He thought that “a secular society devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, scientific discovery, popular entertainment and romantic love – a society lacking any sources of ethical instruction, consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity – would fall prey to untenable social maladies.”

We may disagree with Comte, for where would we be without wealth, science, entertainment and love. But his warning was over excess. We might see the corollary in cycling. If we construct a sport that gives undue emphasis to flashy and expensive equipment, that fetishizes speed and wattage, that is about grandiose events and self-satisfying ‘personal bests’ then this excessive individualism undermines the communal aspect of cycling. If we are simply glued to our GPS computers and Strava KOMs then we are throwing off community, kindness, education, pessimism and perspective, ultimately to our detriment as we shrink cycling to a narrow view of its potential.

The metaphysical core

Philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued that a religious attitude encompasses two central judgments about value: firstly, that life has objective meaning and that each person has a duty for living well – “accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others”, and; secondly, that nature “is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime”, something of intrinsic value and wonder.

As the above has suggested, in a metaphorical sense, cycling as a pastime might be considered as having a religious attitude for all the parallels that can be drawn. There is a morality at the core of cycling, and partaking in it is an educative process. There is also a wonder at the magnificence of nature and that we are humbled by it whenever we go for a (serious) ride.

If we throw off this attitude in cycling then we risk falling into Comte’s trap and maladies can only follow. One might not wish to overstate the case – this is a lighthearted blog after all – but if we let these values slide, then we are left only with the values of commercialism or self-satisfaction. It would seem a shame to lose the community building and transformative aspects of cycling. Plus, we’d surely miss our days of worship, in the group on the early-morning weekend roads, shoulder to shoulder or wheel to wheel, pondering the ethical implications of the latest professional doping scandal, trading the stresses and strains of the working week for stresses and strains on the legs, planning an epic ride that will affirm our humbleness.

Community revisited

Cycling lacks doctrine like religions have and faith is not at its core. It does have its rituals, however, and commonalities that have been hinted at above (although certainly not exhaustively and for your entertainment only). It incites passions and it can be the basis of a shared language between strangers. The journalist Janine di Giovanni said the following about the Catholic mass: “[It] reassured me in some way that wherever I went in the world I could find a common community bound by religion.” Anyone who has travelled to see the big pro races might share this sentiment – a common community bound by cycling. And not one that is divided along nationalistic lines with a hostile crowd depending on where you’re from and who you support. But a community that celebrates shared membership of the cult of suffering that is cycling – in a joyous, rapturous way, standing on the side of the road, the mountains sublime as a backdrop to the spectacle, the carnival, the camaraderie.IMG_0611

Ridiculously hard training (and a giveaway)

1. In early March, a rider turned up at the first of the local spring series races with 500 kilometres in his legs since the start of the year (later to find out that many others had 4-5 times the distance in theirs) and self-seeded into the C group for cat.4s and other slackers. These races, billed as ‘training races’, are usually fast and furious despite being early in the year. After a cold and wet winter, many racers – whether they be young guns on their way up or older racers just trying to stay in the game – are raring to go with pent up energy. They want to put the hammer down.

And on the rolling course they did just that. The C field was nearly 70 riders and the pace on the first two laps immediately started to thin out. The relentless selection continued and the front group of around 20 riders soon had a yawning chasm of a gap over anyone else. Slated for around 50 kms, the race was closer to 70 and after the first distance was reached this rider drifted off the back, the elastic well and truly snapped. After an initial futile chase he let the 15 or so riders in front of him go and rode out the rest of the race alone. Vicious cramping set in – not just in the calves, the first to go – but soon in the hamstrings and, unusually, the quads. And in the latter, not just a tiredness and soreness typical of hard riding but a twisting and knotting and binding that threatened to immobilize them altogether.

At the finish, this rider limped back to his car, consumed all the food and beverages he could find therein, and drove home and had a bath and a bourbon took his family to the park. The Strava metrics told the story: 72 kilometres, 875 metres of climbing, 2,059 calories, 32.4 km/h, and a ‘suffer score’ of 167 – rated ‘extreme’ – with over an hour, about half the ride, spent in the anaerobic threshold zone. Six weeks later, his proximal hamstring on his left leg was still gripped by a dull ache.


This story, dear reader, is not to brag as one can be sure that you have ridden harder for longer and at a faster pace. It serves as an example of the general truism in cycling (and perhaps any sport) that at some point you have to do some ridiculously hard training if you want to achieve a particular goal. Every rider flirts with the idea of taking on an extra challenge during the season – riding a really long ride, mixing it up in the local road races and crits, or beating a personal TT record. We are restless and, for whatever reason, want to push ourselves that little bit more. And to get there we have to hurt ourselves – overload and recovery, as they say – so that we can reach those goals.

To go long you need to ride longer rides. To go faster you need to ride faster in training and this typically involves some form of interval training. Every system has its own variations and certain approaches are in vogue at present – such as the Tabata protocol that involves 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times. Jonathan Vaughters has his own variation of this that flips it for 10 seconds of sprinting followed by 20 seconds of tempo over a 10 minute period. He suggests that it might not work for all cyclists simply because it is too hard, “…eventually, you’ll throw up.” Intervals are all very well in theory, but completing them to the letter is a challenge. As they say of amateurs, their main challenge is to go hard enough on hard days and soft enough on recovery days. Most of us ride somewhere in between all the time.

Vaughters has some other ridiculously hard training methods, such as riding at anaerobic threshold for an hour on day 2, following a intense ride on day 1, having not eaten anything for breakfast, thus teaching your body to burn fat at high intensities. “It’s excruciating.” Or, against all good advice, he suggests doing intervals two days in a row. One of your author’s favourites is the method Bob Roll suggests before a big event (although your author has yet to try it). Bobke suggests the following: every day for 2 weeks, wake up and eat 1 bowl of cereal, ride 100 miles, drink a shot of whiskey and a pint of Guinness, nap until 8pm, eat a cheeseburger, sleep all night. Then, a day before the event, take the day off and eat everything in the house. At the race, “you will be flying” but will have to take a month off afterwards to recover.

And there’s the rub. The most difficult aspect of ridiculously hard training might actually be the recovery. Sure, those of us who sit at desks most of the day most of the week have plenty of time to rest up. Or do we? Life has a way of getting in the way of recovery, dragging tired legs from chore to chore, trying to get enough sleep with a busy work and family routine. It can be difficult to make it happen, and that can lead to falling motivation and lack of commitment. Who needs that hill climb record anyway?


Perhaps it all comes back to what we want from the bike and just how far we want to take it. What motivates us to push ourselves that little bit more? What is behind that drive that sees us poring over google maps to link up stupidly steep climbs into a soul-crushing hill climb interval ride, or flogging ourselves in the big ring up a slope that should be tackled at a nice and easy cadence? Sometimes, the incentive to ride longer or faster makes us consider training ridiculously hard. Sometimes, it feels like the right thing to be doing.

Your author has already noted his obsession with beating his record time for the local Mt. Seymour climb and is gradually working towards this goal. As an aside, somewhat interestingly, he has yet to beat his best times on his training climbs that he set at the end of the season last year on his ‘winter’ bike – steel framed, 20lbs+, slack angles, 9-speed 105, 32-spoke wheels – thus offering a tentative proof that it is much less about the bike than you think. He has found some more tough climbs to work on, but has yet to get his ‘suffer score’ to extreme again, even in subsequent racing.

And so onto the giveaway. If you want to get started on some serious training but are not quite sure how to go about it, or want more of a systematic approach to the training you already do, you may be interested in Chris Carmichael’s system for the time-crunched cyclist. This is the second edition of the book from VeloPress and is packed full of detailed training plans for going faster and longer and whatever it is you need. This is a review copy and you, dear reader, can ‘win’ it for your own personal use. Just email guy[at]le-grimpeur[dot]net with your own favourite interval, hill climb route, Strava ride of extreme suffering, or a cool story about ridiculously hard training. In a few weeks the winner will be selected (somewhat objectively) and the best tips/stories published right here. The book will be sent to you – anywhere in the world – courtesy of your author. If Carmichael is not to your liking there are some other awesome books that you may prefer – if you win.

Your author is not a big believer in the mantra of cycling, glory through suffering, and will hopefully explore some ideas around this in subsequent blog posts. There is a new translation of Roland Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ out now that restores all the author’s columns into one book (including his piece on the Tour de France, previously excluded from the English edition and also with a more accurate translation) and it seems like a good opportunity to revisit his ideas. As well, the long-awaited entry on cycling as a religion is (slowly) taking shape. In the interim, the hills are beckoning. Sans gloire.

Win this book - email now!
Win this book – email now!

A project worth supporting

New posts are coming soon, dear reader. In the interim, you may wish to consider the following. As a reader of this blog there is a good chance that you are interested in the finer aspects of cycling style. You are aware that quality is worth seeking out and acquiring.

You may not be aware that Richard and Carolle from Red Dots Cycling in Vancouver have launched a funding campaign so they can offer custom embroidered caps. They already produce superb handmade cycling caps, which have been featured by Bicycling magazine, Cycling Inquisition, and Seven Cycles, among others. Their winter caps are an absolute ‘must have’ for any serious four-season riding (a current member of the pro peloton has one – true story!).

Custom embroidery is the next step because it will allow them to fully personalize their caps. Supporting this project is worthwhile because Richard and Carolle are offering all sorts of perks to their supporters. Getting in now makes a lot of sense – especially if you have a club or ride group. Anyway, you don’t need this blog to do all the explaining. Follow this link to the site and find out all about the Red Dots Cycling campaign.

Re-reading Armstrong

You may be familiar with this situation, chatting on a group ride or at the café stop when the subject of Lance Armstrong came up. Everyone had a view, an opinion, or perhaps even a story of seeing him – briefly – at a Tour de France in the past. And, if pushed, everyone would come down, sometimes vehemently, on the question of did he or didn’t he dope.

Now, with the USADA report and Armstrong’s own admission we now know the truth: he did. Everyone will still have an opinion on the minute details (we’re all experts on doping science now, after all) and on his character. But on the big question, the one we thought might never be answered, we know. And it’s a relief. We might still be talking about Armstrong for months or years to come, but it is hard not to feel that there has been some kind of closure, some kind of ending. If we want to move on we can.

There will now be a process underway to remove Armstrong from the record books, and no doubt official websites will be downplaying Armstrong’s Tour victories. But all those books and magazines and newspapers are all still there, with the glory years emblazoned on their pages in vivid colours. What a wild ride it has been! Looking back at those reports now takes on a different character, almost nostalgia for simpler times – we can read them with a kind of world-weariness. We know how the story ends, so we can go back to the beginning and look at those events with our new knowledge.


 Two book are on your author’s desk for writing this post: firstly, ‘Inside the Tour de France’ by David Walsh, published in 1994 but covering the 1993 Tour; secondly, ‘Lance Armstrong’s Comeback from Cancer’ by Samuel Abt, published in 1999 and including Abt’s reporting on Armstrong from 1992 until the end of the 1999 Tour.

By the time of the first book, David Walsh was already an experienced cycling journalist and had also written an excellent and intimate biography of Sean Kelly. He was yet, though, to have hit his stride as a crusader for anti-doping and started his battles with Armstrong. For how could he: Armstrong was in his first Tour de France, his first full professional season, still a neo-pro and the youngest rider in the race.

‘Inside the Tour de France’ is a series of vignettes, a Chaucerian survey of the players and the personalities – The Patron’s Tale, The Sprinter’s Tale, The Champion’s Tale – and so on. Armstrong’s is The Neophyte’s Tale, and Walsh already had him picked for something. “Of all the neophytes, he is the one with a future,” he wrote. Of the Tour, “He… expects to find out things about himself and discover if, one day, he can win this race.”


Walsh finds Armstrong eager to learn and confident to the point of brash. He was determined to make his mark despite his inexperience. He was already showing how driven he would become. “Physically I’m not anymore gifted than anybody else but it’s just this desire, just this rage,” Armstrong tells Walsh. And he indeed makes his mark, winning the stage into Verdun from a six-rider group that got away on the final climb. “I told myself… I didn’t say I’m going to win this sprint. I said there’s no way I’m gonna lose this sprint,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong dropped out of the Tour in 1993 on its 14th day. He was only at the race for a little taste, not trying to do too much too soon in his career. Besides, he was at the time more focused on the one-day classics, the races that suited his powerful build. Indeed, by the end of the season he would win one such race on a tough day in Oslo, Norway and become World Champion, just three weeks before his 22nd birthday.

Before he left the Tour, however, he rode the 59-kilometre time trial at Lake Madine. He finished 27th, six minutes behind the winner, Miguel Indurain, and it weighed heavily on his mind, according to Walsh. “I know I gotta learn how to do it,” said Armstrong of time trialling. “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much.” With help, he would learn how to do it. But before we get to his time trial dominance at the Tour there is more story to cover.


 Samuel Abt followed Armstrong from the start of his career and Armstrong never seemed to be reluctant to talk about his training, results and general philosophy on cycling. Looking back now, it’s hard not to weigh down everything that Armstrong said with the baggage of what would later unfold. “I want to be happy,” Armstrong told Abt in the early part of the 1994 season. “I want it [cycling] to make my family happy and right now it’s doing that. The day it doesn’t is the day I’m going to stop.”

Abt chronicles Armstrong struggling in the 1994 season while wearing the rainbow jersey. There were results, including 2nd in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Armstrong was one of the top-ranked pro riders, but the wins were not coming as he would have liked. “It seems to be much more difficult this year for some reason,” said Armstrong. “There’s a lot of guys that go much faster this year… my strength within the peloton has sort of gone down.”

Even Abt knew the reason for this at the time, noting that EPO use was becoming widespread and that the Italian teams were believed to have started using it wholesale that year. From isolated use among only some of the riders, those with the access to the best doctors and suppliers, it would soon be sweeping the peloton. As teammate George Hincapie said in his affidavit to the USADA, after Milan-San Remo in 1995 he spoke with Armstrong about how they “got crushed” in the race. “He said, in substance, that he did not wish to get crushed any more and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”

Improvements came for Armstrong in 1995: overall winner at the Tour DuPont; a Tour de France stage win in Limoges after the shocking death of teammate Fabio Casartelli on the road; and a win at the Clasica San Sebastian – his first classics win in Europe and victory in a race that in 1992 he had competed in as the first of his pro career in Europe and finished last. Even ahead of the Tour de France he was confident. “I’m definitely fit, much more fit than I’ve ever been in my life, ever,” said Armstrong. He was not looking to contend the overall but to continue to develop as a rider. His goal, though, was clear. “Certainly if my development curve continues to go in the way that it’s been going, there’s no reason that in five years I can’t contend for this race.”

comebckBut everything was derailed at the end of 1996 with Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis, a story already well known to all readers. Near the end of the year, surgery completed but treatment still ongoing, he spoke to Abt about his future. “I would love to race but nothing is going to make me happier than to live,” said Armstrong. “Life is the number one priority. Professional cycling is number two. No, to create awareness for testicular cancer is number two. Professional cycling is number three.”

The following year, 1997, was all about recovery, but Armstrong was never far away from cycling, including a visit to the Tour de France as a spectator. According to what he told Abt, Armstrong was never entirely certain that he would return to cycling. “I have a lot of options, though, and that’s a nice position to be in.” Racing again was one option, but so was working elsewhere in the cycling industry or even studying business at the University of Texas. But by September he was planning his comeback, and part of his motivation was to send a signal to the cancer community. “I’m very curious about whether I can compete at the highest level again,” Armstrong told Abt. “That’s part of the reason I want to come back, to see if I can do it. It would also be great for the cancer community. The perception is that once you get cancer, you’re never the same afterward. I’d like to prove that wrong.”

Whatever pharmacological assistance he received, Armstrong’s return to the highest level of professional sports was indeed remarkable. His first race in 1998 was the Ruta del Sol, riding for the U.S. Postal Team. But whether he would carry on with a racing career was apparently never a given and he was reluctant to sign a contract for 1999. He was happy with the results of his ‘first’ career and that he had proved to the cancer community that a full recovery was possible. “I set out to do what I wanted to do, and I was a lot closer to packing it in after Ruta del Sol than many people think,” said Armstrong. “Just because I proved it.”

But after winning the four-day Tour of Luxembourg and a fourth overall at the Vuelta Espana later in 1998, everything changed. The new season, 1999, would see Johan Bruyneel taking over as director at U.S. Postal, bringing with him former ONCE doctor Luis Garcia del Moral. The Tour de France became an explicit objective, a year ahead of Armstrong’s stated goal in 1995, if he was indeed still sticking to that schedule. Nothing was left to chance – stages were reconnoitred, and Armstrong built a strong team around him for the mountains with Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston dubbed the ‘A’ team. “During the 1999 Tour de France,” Hamilton said in his USADA affidavit, “Lance, Kevin and I used EPO every third or fourth day, until the third week of the Tour” when Armstrong had sufficient time over the rest of the field. “Lance, Kevin and I also used a substance known as Actovegin.”


 In his book, Abt recounts the action of the 1999 Tour, covering Armstrong’s win in the prologue, the two time trials, and the infamous mountain stage win on stage 10 to Sestrieres where he crushed the climbers and the rest of the field. He did not know what was apparently going on behind the scenes. The high-cadence, pedal-spinning Armstrong was leaner and meaner and it was a dominating performance. The only other rider to wear the yellow jersey was sprinter Jan Kirsipuu, for just six stages out of the twenty.

Greg LeMond was duly impressed, his own story of a comeback after his hunting accident reminiscent of Armstrong’s own story. But his observations in 1999 are of course prescient, even before his later comments on ‘the greatest comeback’ versus ‘the greatest fraud’. “I figure I had three months that went right for me after the hunting accident,” LeMond tells Abt, the months where he won two Tours and the World Championship. “The rest were just pure suffering, struggling, fatigue, always tired. But Lance, it’s pretty incredible. He’s stronger than he was before his cancer. It’s impressive.”

But there was no shortage of controversy at the Tour in 1999. After the debacle of the Tour in 1998, doping was on the minds of everyone. Extra reporters were covering the race looking for scandal, and they soon found one with Armstrong’s positive test for cortisone. The UCI cleared him, of course, despite the now confirmed backdated prescription. Abt recounts Armstrong’s run-in with a reporter from Le Monde, the French paper that had devoted in-depth coverage to doping at the Tour. Already barred from interviews with the team, Armstrong responded to one question with, “Are you calling me a liar or a doper?”

Armstrong was also defiant about the doping innuendos. “It’s bad for the sport, so I can get worked up,” he said. “It’s disturbing for the sport. I think it’s unfair.” And, “There’s no answer other than hard work. This team [U.S. Postal] has done more work than anybody else.” It is hard to guess, even now, what must have been going through his mind when he made those statements.

And so the stage was set. The beginning of crushing Tour wins, but the lingering questions, rightly so in what was a remarkable return from cancer to Tour winner. In response to the questions, Armstrong was already establishing in 1999 the template for the strident details of doping that would follow. “You have to believe in yourself,” Abt reported him as saying. “You have to fight, you have to hold the line.”

Armstrong held the line until his confession to Oprah Winfrey where he admitted to doping for all of his Tour wins. There are many minor details still to fill in. We have the affidavits from his teammates to the USADA, the inside story from Tyler Hamilton, and the investigative journalism of David Walsh that first revealed Armstrong’s links to Dr Michele Ferrari. Others have filled in the gaps. We may never get all the details from Armstrong himself, but that doesn’t matter. We have the broad outlines of how it went down, a good deal of the specifics, and we know how it began and how it ended.

All of this might not have changed how you feel about Armstrong, or whether you can re-read about his Tour wins or watch those old DVDs or YouTube clips. But it does add a frisson to the experience, even if it is just to make it a touch surreal. As recounted here, every event and quote now seems to foreshadow something else, or prompt many ‘what if’ questions, or even leave the detached fan even more confused about the machinations going on behind the scenes or between the protagonists. In some ways it has been reduced to an intimate human drama, one that we on the outside should not have been privy to. Is what repels us the same thing that draws us in?

Still, some statements become particularly revealing. Talking to Samuel Abt during the 1999 Tour, Armstrong responded to rumours of his own doping: “You… [build] a career and a reputation, and they can tear it down in 15 seconds. It’s scary.” But for Armstrong’s case it ultimately took much longer than 15 seconds. He ducked and dived for nearly 15 more years before the USADA landed the punch that put him on the ropes beyond any reasonable doubt. And it was not his detractors, the UCI or the ASO who did it – but a government legal case built on the testimony of his own former teammates, not something that anyone could have foreseen in 1999.

The magnificent victories and the inspiring cancer charity work, juxtaposed against the fraud, lies, deceit, threats, and bullying. We might see it as overwhelming in its enormity, difficult to describe in a way to capture it all. But David Walsh was certainly right in 1993. Armstrong did indeed have quite the future ahead of him in cycling. It took twenty years to finish the story.

On participation

1. Taking part in local races is a satisfying experience. There is pleasure to be gained in the rituals of preparation – cleaning and maintenance of the bike, preparing drinks and snacks, checking the route and planning (usually imaginary) strategies. There is catching up with old acquaintances, making new ones, and seeing others’ new bikes and equipment and team kit. There is atmosphere to soak up and the small satisfaction of supporting the volunteers from the clubs who put on the races and who do so out of a love of the sport – whose only reward seems to be praise (tempered by inevitable criticism) from us racers.

Racing is also a humbling experience. You can have been carving it up on Strava, but riding in and against a larger group inevitably results in a realization that one’s condition is just not quite good enough. Even if you podium in your category, you know that the next ability level is much, much harder. It is a truism in cycling that you get out of it what you put in. That is, the most difficult ‘talent’ to develop for racing is endurance, simply because it takes time – a commodity we do not always have. Turning up for a 70+ kilometre race at tempo and threshold speed having ridden only shorter rides at such intensities will simply not be good enough.

That said, endurance is a simple talent to develop in theory. You just need to ride. Lots. So, keeping your expectations realistic when sitting on the start line is important. In some way, it is probably less frustrating to be dropped two laps from the finish, having not really been prepared for the race distance, than to have rocked up with a couple of thousand kilometres in your legs from the start of the year only to see things fall apart in the final half lap (for whatever reason).

2. Getting dropped is statistically the overwhelmingly likely outcome from any racing experience. It might happen early, late, or even at the end in the final sprint. But it will happen. One had better get used to it, although there will always be the post-race reflection on the moment of its occurrence (we take our racing seriously after all) and whether one could have just made a final dig to delay it happening.

Getting dropped in the sprint happens quickly, so it is difficult to reflect on it fully. But when it happens at a slower speed, there are those agonizing moments when the wheel you are following starts to slip away, the elastic stretches – as they say – before snapping. And even though just a few metres seems an easy gap to close, it inexorably becomes a chasm that is impossible to bridge. And you’re done.

Those with less experience tend to find getting dropped a frustrating experience, as if all the effort (and financial cost) of turning up and taking part has somehow been invalidated by being left behind. But getting dropped is the norm and investing it with too much emotional energy just leads to unwarranted disappointment. We are racing not for glory (okay, perhaps those upgrade points are important) but because we can and because racing in the bunch and following wheels and making attacks and pulling on the front and passing others on the climbs is, simply, all good fun.

Having been dropped, there is always the option of heading back to the car park and packing up to go home. But better to finish the race and clock your time to see how far down you were. ‘Race to train’ means that next time those extra endurance miles might push the moment of the elastic snapping until later in the race, perhaps even in the final sprint. Then one’s moment of self-reflection will not be on the quiet back straight as the bunch slips away but on the finishing sprint and those agonizing choices of when to go, which wheel to follow, the gear to choose, and whether just a bit more effort might have given one a spot on the podium.

3. Success on the bike cannot be bought or borrowed. It comes from talent and luck, from hard work, time and effort. We delude ourselves if we think our racing is anything more than it actually is. But it feels good to push oneself. And if there is a small slice of modest glory, it feels like a triumph over life’s normal routine.

There is also camaraderie and being part of a larger community gathering. And when, in future years, you see a former young local rider at the Tour de France racing as a professional, you can have some small satisfaction of thinking back to the local scene where they got their start, and how by participating in it and supporting it you played a tiny role in giving that rider the opportunity to progress. And if you are really, really lucky, maybe you will have a cool story to tell your friends about how you once followed their wheel.

It's all about fun, I think...
It’s all about fun, I think…