All posts by Guy WR

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.

2.

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?

3.

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

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.

Education

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.

Pessimism

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.

Perspective

“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.

Art

“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.

Institutions

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.

2.

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?

3.

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.