Three theories of riding

As the long days of summer start to dwindle, one’s thoughts easily turn to the season that is passing and what the next might hold. It is a contemplative time. I have also been reading the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (which is not really about climbing better, although it could be); this is a most excellent book and many of the well-reasoned ideas dovetail with the random inclinations that have been informing my own performance, such as it is.

Three theories underpin my approach to cycling, and maybe to life in general, and these are outlined below for your consideration.

1. Double down.

There is only so much time in the day, the season and the year to get things done, especially if you want to do them well. It is easy to be spread too thin. Alongside family/home life and work, there is only room for one other thing for myself. I would like to be able to pursue other activities and hobbies. But I like to do things well and so want to be able to focus on one thing, which means making decisions about what gets done and what does not. Which is why I have doubled down on cycling.

There have been other contenders, but cycling ticks important boxes: it is good for physical and mental health, it gets one outside, and there is an important social aspect. It is also something that one can get better at over time (see also 3. below) and there are many aspects of it that can be explored: the riding, the gear, the history. It is an entry point into many different areas and making that transition from someone who rides a bike to ‘cyclist’.

2. Play the long game.

One needs to be into cycling for the long game. Seasons come and go, and performance (miles, speed) goes up and down, enthusiasm waxes and wanes. But fallow years can be followed by fertile ones (okay, enough with the mixed metaphors). Time frames should be measured in years, not days. There will always be another chance for ‘a big year’ or a special event, or to try a new cycling discipline.

If you approach it right, there are no bad rides, no bad seasons, no bad years. They are just different. Over time, there is a cumulative gain – in health and enjoyment – which sets one up for a lifetime of the benefits that cycling has to offer. One just has to (literally) ride out the rougher times and hang in there. With cycling, something is better than nothing. In the time constrained seasons, go for small gains; when time allows, go big.

3. Have a purpose.

Motivation can also ebb and flow. It is easy to become fixated on narrow metrics, like miles ridden or speeds climbed. This year for your author has been a challenging one – miles are down and climbing times on the slow side of the expected range.

But there are other reasons to ride, for yourself and for others (I would have liked to have done more group rides this year, for example) and there should always be a wider purpose to getting on the bike – for the sake of riding itself and also for the wider benefits (such as being healthier and happier, which is of benefit at home and work as well). Also, think about how your riding contributes to your own development as well as those you ride with.

‘Ride better’ is your author’s purpose. Even though it might sound trite, it is actually more of a challenge than it sounds. It has been outlined in some detail, and argued for substantively, on this very blog.

Like any good theories, these three are subject to revision as the evidence piles up. But they might be useful as a starting point, dear reader, for your own approach to the bike.

There is presumably a purpose to this pain…


Ultimate climbing guide – part 3 – weight and training

In 1952, Alpe d’Huez was included for the first time in the Tour de France and it was also the Tour’s first mountain-top finish of its kind. Its inclusion was somewhat of a novelty, and it would seem that few predicted at the time that the climb would become one of the most famous in the race.

Fittingly, then, it was a legend of cycling that christened the later-to-be legendary climb with its first victor: Fausto Coppi. The climb came at the end of stage 10, 266 kilometres (kms) from Lausanne in Switzerland and with no other major climbs along the way. French rider Jean Robic took off at the base of the Alpe, at Bourg d’Oisans, but Coppi was soon on his wheel. The Italian quickly took over the pace making, often in his big chainring (probably a 52). “Coppi didn’t seem to exert any extra effort at all,” according to Miroir-Sprint. With 6 kms to go, Coppi was gone. Robic would finish the stage 1’20” down.

Official timing of the climb started in 1990. Since then, the actual distances used to compare the fastest times have become shorter, making comparisons difficult. This blog has looked at the evolution of the times for the climb. There has been some comparative timing of the 13.8-km section and the 14.5-km distance. In 1995, it was Marco Pantani’s 36’50” for the 13.8 kms that is generally considered the fastest (he was 38’04” for 14.5 kms); in 1997 he was faster overall with 37’35” over the longer distance, which is often compared to Lance Armstrong’s time in 2004 of 37’36” for the same distance.

According to Jean-Paul Vespini, Tour director Jacques Goddet timed Coppi up the climb (assumed to be the 13.8-km stretch) with a time of 45’22”. Riders in the late 1970s (the Tour did not return to the Alpe until 1976, as summit finishes were then less popular) and the 1980s chipped away at this time and pulled it down into the low 40 minute range. Lucho Herrera probably did sub-41′ in 1987. It was not until the 1990s that times went below 40′ and not just by Pantani. Not coincidentally, this was the great era of EPO. Times above 39’30” (Carlos Sastre in 2008), like Sammy Sanchez’s 42’21” as the fastest ascent in 2011, which are now the norm, are cited as evidence of cleaner cycling without blood doping.

Whatever the specific times in minutes and seconds (and the question marks over who doped with what and when), let us take a broad brush to the issue at hand. The difference between 45′ and 40′ – Coppi to today – represents an 11% time improvement. That’s quite substantial. Or, to put it another way, around 21 seconds per kilometre of the climb, or (roughly) 19 kph versus 21 kph. As an Italian journalist once said: Coppi was the greatest; Merckx was the best. So, something changed between 1952 and today – other than doping – and it is difficult not to conclude that a substantially significant factor was weight.

Weight and climbing

Gravity is a constant force, no matter how fast you go up a climb (unlike air resistance, which increases); it changes only with the gradient. The most significant improvement that you can make for climbing faster is to reduce the weight that you have to carry up the climb – the weight that gravity will be acting upon. (And the best thing is that you don’t have to practice an aero tuck and hold it – although reducing your frontal area can have benefits on climbs, too – you always get the benefit of weighing less.) Let’s crunch some numbers. Your author’s index climb is Mount Seymour, which is somewhere around 12.5 kms (distances seem to vary but we’re not going to be too specific here), with 900 metres of gain at 7% average with the steepest section at 16%. Using some calculations thanks to Analytic Cycling, a 1 lb weight reduction will save around 15 seconds in time over the course of the climb.

So let’s make that a rule of thumb for this discussion: 1 lb = 15 seconds. This is very helpful for considering where weight savings are best made. Take for example the 1,550 gram wheelset mentioned in previously as being reviewed in Peloton magazine as not a “dedicated climbing wheel”. What might we use instead? Campagnolo’s Hyperon Ultra tubular comes in at 1,231 grams per pair (wow!), a saving of 319 grams. On Mount Seymour, that would get you nearly 10 seconds off a time of <45 minutes (o.4% faster). If you are interested in saving seconds, you might agree with the magazine reviewer. Or you might note that 319 grams is equivalent to a Tacx pro team water bottle half full (around 300 mls or 10 oz). So, you could have a set of dedicated climbing wheels, or you could save the same amount of weight by ditching a half-full water bottle and achieve the same effect.

Your author is not against lighter equipment. But there is no such thing as a ‘climbing wheel’; there are just wheelsets and weights. The weight of a wheelset needs to be seen in the overall context of total bike and rider weight. It is all just subjective opinion as to what constitutes a climbing wheel. Given that total bike and rider weight will in most cases for amateur riders be north of 160 lbs, the difference in wheel weights is a tiny percentage.

The broader point is this. The biggest time gains are to be made from making the biggest reductions – and those are going to come from the rider. Right now, you, dear reader, are at least 5 lbs over weight. You may think you’re in pretty good shape but there is plenty to trim. And that 5 lbs might even be more than the difference between Andy Schleck’s bike and the bikes that most of us are riding. Yes, you can take over a minute off your favourite long climb simply by dropping the pounds – and you can do it for way less money than trying to gram shave you bike. Even dropping just one pound is the difference between a high-end set of wheels and an average pair.

What is your ideal weight? According to Joe Friel (in Bicycling magazine, May 2012), top male riders are 2.1-2.4 lbs per inch of height. Yup, crunch those numbers and you may get a surprise; if you’re going to be a dedicated grimpeur you will want to be at 2.1 or under. As Bicycling notes, “For many cyclists, these numbers may be aggressively low… not be realistic… or even healthy to maintain long-term.” Yikes! Published numbers suggest that Cadel Evans is at 2.2, along with Pierre Rolland (who is taller and heavier), with Sammy Sanchez at 2.1 (a little taller than Evans and the same weight); at the extreme, John Gadret posts 1.9 – five feet seven tall and just 130 lbs.

Training (and talent)

Fausto Coppi may have been hauling what in today’s terms was a lead sled up Alpe d’Huez in 1952, but he still did it faster than any of us could ever hope for. This was possible because of his training and – let’s be honest – his enormous talent (and possibly a few tablets, but let us not dwell on that). The whole point of this discussion is that the rider matters. The rider matters a lot. Equipment and wheels and gram shaving matters, too, but just not as much (someone with more access to the numbers should do an analysis of Coppi’s climb and the benefit he would have had from a lighter bike; his bike was probably at least 7-8 lbs heavier than today). The biggest gains you will get in climbing will come from trimming down (as noted above) and training smarter.

According to Joe Friel, the minimum amount of training for a cat.4 or masters racer annually is 7 hours per week or 364 hours per year. Even if you average just 25 kph, that is 8,750 kms. If you want to be competitive at cat.3, you had better put in at least 500 hours or somewhere north of 12,500 kms. If, like your author, 6,000 kms annually is a good year for riding, then you might be wondering just how you can be competitive.

Chris Carmichael has a training book for the ‘time-crunched’ cyclist, based on a minimum of six hours per week. That number should probably be regarded as the absolute minimum for any training plan. Less than six hours and you are not training, you are just riding. But this is no bad thing. As numerous coaches have pointed out, you need only make your ‘training’ rides as long as your longest event. If your biggest goal for the year is a <45 minute maximum hill climb or crit race, you only need rides of that duration as preparation.

What is important, though, is intensity. As Chris Carmichael noted in a recent column, the problem with the traditional ‘base building’ approach of long, slow rides is that for amateurs with not enough time to dedicate to a proper base (15 hours per week), the body soon adapts to the infrequent schedule and gains are limited. But a big base is not needed for shorter events. What is needed is intensity. If you want to be able to ride hard, you need to practice riding hard. On a limited training schedule, recovery is not usually a problem, so you can afford to push things a little more. Want to be able to stand up and attack on the hills? Practice doing just that.

If you want to get really serious, you will probably need a training plan of some sort. But if you are just ‘riding’, there are gains to be made just from variation – throw in some hills, a few sprints against your riding buddies, some long periods in the drops in the big ring (also good for developing a more aerodynamic position). In addition, if you are a masters rider, Friel recommends strength training as well to offset the effects of the aging process. Finally, if you are serious about dropping the weight, a diet is like training while not training and you still get the benefits on the bike. Overall, even with a limited riding schedule you can still make performance gains – and race competitively in shorter events if that is one of your goals. If climbing faster is part of that, remember: lower weight + intensity = climbing faster.

Final thoughts

As has been stressed throughout this series, equipment matters. Aerodynamics and lighter weights all make a difference in certain contexts. What matters more, though, is the rider. We all know this to be true. There is no reason not to invest in better equipment if you are serious about racing or personal performance goals. At some point, though, we all start to think, “If only I had X, I would be going faster.” It is probably true, you would. But there is so much untapped personal potential that us amateurs have, that we must not forget that the biggest gains will come from our own self improvement. That is the great thing about cycling, it is the great leveler. Despite our bike weight, we will never be faster than Coppi up Alpe d’Huez. Training – and ultimately talent (and there is nothing that can be done to improve that) – is the primary determinant of performance.

Ultimately, though, what is riding all about? This three-part series has looked at the tools for climbing faster. But to what end? It is all too easy to become enslaved by a training regime whose purpose over time becomes nebulous. It can become like a strait jacket, particularly if time is short. There are many other rewards from riding than the relentless pursuit of personal bests. Sometimes the simple pleasure of simply riding should be enough.

Wait – isn’t this supposed to be fun? (Glotman Simpson pic)
(Originally posted on April 17, 2012.)

Ultimate climbing guide – part 2 – aerodynamics

If there is one non-cycling book worth reading this year, it should probably be Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman. To paraphrase the product description from the publisher: “Two systems drive the way we think and make choices, Kahneman explains: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities as well as the biases of fast thinking and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and our choices.” Why this is interesting in the context of this blog post will be returned to below.

Talking of books, VeloPress is publishing in North America the fantastic Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore, who argues, eloquently if not entirely convincingly, that 1986 was the “greatest Tour de France”. The obvious rival Tour to this claim is 1989. As we know, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon at this edition because of aerodynamics. In an article in issue 10 of Peloton magazine, John Wilcockson goes into this in some detail. Interestingly, wind tunnel tests after LeMond’s win revealed that his aero bars were only worth an 8 second gain as LeMond’s position on the bike (which he had spent much time perfecting) was already highly aerodynamic. But the bars were not the reason for his narrow win, as his helmet was actually acting like a “sort of parachute” and cost him 12 seconds. Therefore, it was more LeMond himself, not his bike and gear, who beat the ailing Fignon. This is worth keeping in mind as this discussion progresses.

Retarding forces

Going faster on a bicycle involves overcoming resistance: wind resistance, rolling resistance from the tyres, bearing friction, and gravity. At speeds below 13 kph, the dominant forces are rolling resistance and bearing friction. But once these are overcome, they increase only slightly with speed – once you’ve gotten rolling there’s not much to hold you back. Gravity is a constant and only changes depending on the gradient of the climb; you can out sprint gravity. Wind resistance, however, increases as the square of speed over 13 kph – it gets harder to go faster (refer to Ed Burke, High-Tech Cycling, for much of the technical information here). The higher your speed, therefore, the greater importance of increasing aerodynamics but the less absolute benefit you will gain.

Weight, so important in climbing, is much less of a factor on flat roads (although it does have some role in acceleration). For example, reducing the drag of a bike by having its cables inside the handlebars and frame (reducing drag by about 10 grams) is equivalent to dropping over 2 lbs in weight over a 40 km time trial, but even then it is only a handful of seconds. For climbing, the key point is that aerodynamics can play a role, but it is going to be a minor one because of the relatively low speeds. On a 10 km climb, the best you might hope for is around 1 minute in time gain in theory: if you can reach speeds of 20-24 kph in some sections and you can maintain an aero position (and still get the same power output) for the duration. Aero equipment, such as wheels, will give you a time advantage somewhere south of this figure. If these are not the conditions then the gains from aerodynamics are going to be much less. But still, because air resistance is lower at lower speeds, there are decent absolute gains to be made relative to your speed. Any time a long climb levels off a little for a decent distance and you can kick it over 20 kph, ‘getting aero’ will be a handful of seconds of advantage (for more on this, see part 3).

Pantani getting aero in the drops while climbing.

One example of the important of aerodynamics in cycling in general is the hour record. In one study, the researchers charted the power outputs of the hour record holders, based in some cases on power meter readings where available but on calculation in others. They were equalized for comparison, which was a difficult process given the difficulty in calculating wind resistance for different shaped riders (the outsize Miguel Indurain, for example, was a problem). When Eddy Merckx posted 49.431 kms, his corrected power was 429 watts on average for the duration. Moser, Obree and Boardman all bested this record but they did so by producing less power – aerodynamics was their advantage. It was not until Indurain that power levels were higher than Merckx; Indurain recorded 436 watts in 1994. Tony Rominger (infamously coached by Michel Ferrari, whatever that might mean) produced 460 watts when he pushed the record over 55 kms, with a standard bike but aero wheels and an aero bar. Chris Boardman’s record of 56.375 km was achieved with less watts than Rominger (but more than Merckx) using an aero bike and the ‘superman’ position.

When Boardman beat Merckx’s traditional record (and only just: 49.441 km) in 2000, on a standard track bike following the UCI regulation change, he produced less power so must have had a slightly better position (not that it was easy – he couldn’t walk for four days afterwards). Overall, since the 1960s, the study estimated that the gains in the record were 40% attributable to riders producing more power and 60% due to aerodynamics. The takeaway message is that aerodynamics matters quite a bit, at least in the rarefied world of adding just a few more metres to the hour record, but so does wattage – and the latter is up to the rider to produce.

Position versus equipment

The drag of your bike is around 25-35% of the total. In other words, you the rider are 65-75% of the drag (some studies suggest that it might be slightly higher). A rider’s position on the bike is the key factor in reducing drag, and studies have concluded that gains can be up to 5-6 minutes over a 40 km flat course. The difference made by aero wheels, in contrast, is only around 1.5 minutes, according to one study; this is with all other factors being equal – if you cannot hold an aero position, for example, you might offset any benefit from the wheels. As well, because your body makes up the majority of the drag, even wearing a skinsuit and riding standard wheels can be as much of an advantage as regular kit and aero wheels.

So, the first step to reducing your drag and overcoming wind resistance is going immediately to your LBS and getting them to set you up correctly on your bike so you can get your back as flat as possible on the hoods and comfortably reach the drops to get even more streamlined. You should then watch Fabio Cancellara and spend time working on it until you can mimic his position on the hoods (refer to 2012’s Milano-Sanremo, for example). You may also wish to include his simulated aero bar position where he rests his forearms on the flat of the bar and emulates an aero bar position (it’s harder to do than it looks, while not weaving from side-to-side and thus negating the drag reducing effect; Cancellara is of course not the only pro to use this position – Tom Boonen did pretty well at Paris-Roubaix using it). It all stems from Roger de Vlaeminck, the king of the ‘on the hoods’ aero position. Let the following picture be your guide.

The current focus on aerodynamics means that there are lots of misconceptions about the scope of the gains to be made. For example, in the same issue of Peloton magazine, in a review of the $2,700 Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 wheels, reviewer Ben Edwards writes: “It’s speed you will feel palpably, on your first ride.” (In the same review, Edwards notes that the 1,550 grams weight of the wheels excludes them from being “a dedicated climbing wheel”, another sort of myth that the next part of this ultimate climbing guide addresses.) There are figures of 10 grams of reduced drag over other aero wheels used in the article, which, as Edwards notes, equates to less than 1 watt of energy at 40 kph (or, as is noted in High-Tech Cycling, the drag produced by holding a pencil up in a 30 mile-per-hour wind). Yet Edwards is apparently able to notice this difference, in particular whilst coming out of corners on a fast ride as “they corner as if on proverbial rails… and you will be rewarded with a gap… you will go farther, faster with less energy.” To be able to notice such a performance difference, just 1 watt, is indeed very impressive. But it is entirely fanciful. The limit of aerodynamic gain in a cornering situation, according to a rough calculation at Analytic Cycling, is at most half a wheel length or about 0.02 seconds. Are we really to believe that someone can discern this difference whilst on their bike and attribute it solely to the wheels?

Perception v reality

Let us then see where Kahneman fits into all of this. Our System One way of thinking is basically our instincts. This system, which is active all the time, is constantly making assessments and judgements about all manner of things in our environment. It is very good at its job, but it is also easily distracted. It is particularly bad at complex problems involving numbers, statistics and probabilities. It is also easily fooled by optical illusions (the famous ‘which line is longer’ test) and prone to biases, particularly when there is ‘anchoring’ or ‘framing’ involved. The vulnerabilities of System One is why we have System Two, our considered mode of analytic thinking where we carefully consider a problem before reaching a conclusion, to balance the impulsiveness of System One. This is why Kahneman’s book references fast and slowing thinking – System One and System Two, respectively.

The main conclusion we should be aware of is that our instincts, perceptions and snap judgements can be wrong. They are highly subjective and easily influenced by other factors. It would be very difficult, in an objective sense, to measure the speed difference between two wheel sets on the open road. In a cornering situation, for example, you as the test rider would have to mimic the exact wattage, riding position, and line through the corner on each set of wheels to control the major variables. Given that riding position is the most important aerodynamic factor, it would be nearly impossible to keep it uniform in a meaningful way. But this apparently does not stop reviewers’ instincts from taking over and proclaiming that one set of wheels is noticeably faster than another.

One of the particular biases that influences System One is the so-called anchoring effect, where we place an over reliance on a particular piece of information in making our judgement. In this context, if we are told that a very expensive wheelset is more aerodynamic than another, and that this has been proved by wind tunnel testing, we are – one would argue – more likely to conclude by riding said wheelset that it is faster than a more modest set of wheels. In fact, we might conclude that it is even faster than the tests showed and say that it is worth a bike length in a sprint when the actual objective laws of physics will show that this is not possible (all other factors being equal). This would be a good case of System One (our instincts) versus System Two (the objective application of the laws of nature). The anchoring effect will be stronger if the information comes from an authority source (like a respected bike magazine, for example) or if it confirms strongly-held beliefs or conventional wisdom (aerodynamic wheels make bikes go lots faster, for example).

In all manner of situations, people will often say, “Yes, but what about in the real world” as if there are different rules for how things work in different environments. In the real world, people often pride themselves on their instincts and how good they are at making snap judgements. This is particularly the case if those judgements confirm strongly-held beliefs. In many cases, psychologists in experiments have found that subjects will cling to their beliefs with even more tenacity when they are exposed to contrary evidence. They simply refuse to believe that their judgements are wrong.  Our System Two mode of thinking is a powerful analytical tool, but we are prone to ignoring it, under-utilizing it, or refusing to believe its conclusions.

It is extremely improbable, if not impossible, for anyone to be able to perceive the drag difference between different wheelsets coming out of a single corner. Sure, they may feel different or even faster, but that does not mean they are noticeably faster in an objective sense at a specific point in time. The speed gains will be cumulative over time, but not immediately discernible. But how do you refute someone who claims that they “feel palpably” faster or that they got a gap riding the wheels? (Although you could say, “Wow, you can feel the <0.02 seconds in time difference coming out of the corner – that’s incredible!”) Paying $2,700 is a lot of money to “feel palpably” faster. One could almost guarantee that buying a pair of handmade Rapha shoes and drinking two negronis would make you feel faster, too; still a bit pricey, but you’d have change left over.

What it means

Aerodynamics matters. Reducing the drag of the rider matters a lot more than reducing the drag caused by wheels. At least Bicycling magazine, in a test of aero wheels that included the Aeolus 5, said that “measurable differences are pretty small” and includes a quote from Steve Hed: “Early on, our comparison was to a box-section Mavic rim; we’re not saving anyone a minute over 40 km anymore. Now it’s more like seconds.”

So, according to Hed, the drag gain was 60 seconds over 40 km, or 1.5 seconds per kilometre (0r 0.0015 seconds per metre). That is pretty consistent with the figure cited in the study noted above. They are little gains that add up the longer you ride. If you are a pro cyclist, seconds matter. Just one second might be the difference between first and second in a long race, or small aerodynamic gains add up over time – like on Boonen’s Paris-Roubaix breakaway (although how much was down to aerodynamics, particularly as he is a big rider, and how much was his incredible form is a big question). When it is your livelihood, it matters; you will do anything to get a possible advantage. For amateurs, though, should we be obsessing as much over a handful of seconds? Furthermore, as has been argued previously on this blog, controlling all the variables so that a tiny reduction in wheel drag that is measured under controlled conditions does make a quantifiable difference on the open road is very difficult, if not impossible. Does that make $2,700 for a set of wheels worthwhile?

When reading bike and component reviews, we usually have our System Two modes of thinking in full function. We understand that reviewers have to write something about their riding experience and that a simple account of facts and figures would be extremely boring. We ignore highly subjective performance claims and we know that if Freddy Maertens circa 1976 on his bike of that day was transported forward in time to our local crit, he would easily out ride each and every other competitor on their 13.6-pound bikes with aero wheels. We know that it is the rider that matters most. We know that phrases like “cornering on rails” have no objective meaning because there is nothing that can be quantified and compared. We also know from our own experience that cornering has more to do with a rider’s line and ability than equipment – although upgrades can give us more confidence in our our abilities.

So why does it matter what gets written? Because our System Two is lazy, we might fall into the thrall of System One thinking and trust our instincts, particularly if it confirms our biases, especially if that bias is a mantra in the bike industry: that spending a lot more money will make you go a lot faster. We might start thinking that the gains from equipment are more than they actually are. And this is a sloppy way to approach a sport and a pastime. An alternative review, therefore, could read like this:

In controlled conditions these wheels will save you 1 minute in a 40 km time trial over a standard set of wheels. In most cases on the road, you would only save this amount of time if you kept all other drag factors constant, something that is difficult but not impossible to achieve. These wheels may not feel immediately faster when you ride them as their initial speed advantage is small and only accumulates over time. You might find they give you, all other factors being equal, a bike length or so of advantage at your mid-week crit, but the young gun on a borrowed cross bike will still beat you to the line. Conversely, however, you may feel quite a bit faster on these wheels – even if the speed difference is tiny – simply because they are superbly made and presented and appear to be really fast. The thrill of new wheels may prompt you to push yourself a bit harder. If a potential gain of 1 minute over 40 km is important enough to you to spend $2,700 (if you are not a pro rider already, in which case your sponsor has given you these wheels) and replace the $500 wheels you already have, then go for it. However, you may wish to first attend to a number of other factors – such as your ability to ride in the drops or an even more aerodynamic position for long periods of time. In fact, you should do this right now – and throw in some intervals – instead of reading this review and obsessing over carbon wheels. Your abilities as a rider will have more of an impact than your equipment.

The review in Peloton magazine, an otherwise fine and excellent publication well worth reading, has been singled out in this blog post but it is not the exception in the supposedly objective product reviews that we get in bicycling publications. We should be mindful as to how biases influence subjective judgements. We should understand that objective comparisons are not possible outside of controlled situations. And it matters because the cost of bicycles and components are – at the top end – skyrocketing, even while we enjoy the great benefits of trickle-down to the lower end. It matters because at some point we might start believing that $2,700 aero wheels are essential for going faster. And to go faster is what everyone wants, right?

There are a number of good reasons to buy high-end bikes and components. Performance is one of them, and the potential benefits are (mostly) very real. But they are not as much as you will be led to believe by reading magazine reviews. It is not honesty that is needed but rigour (or rigor, for US readers) in review writing. The facts and figures are all there for anyone to access, and a little System Two thinking will go a long way to confirming or disproving what our System One instincts might be telling us. So, get into your drops more, or do some intervals, or buy a cross bike from your LBS for extra training and give the change to support junior cycling or donate a kids bike to a worthy cause. Do all these things. Think more. Think harder. Ride more. Ride harder. (This series concludes with part 3.)

Freddy Maertens won 13 stages at the Vuelta a Espana in 1977 (AFP photo).
(Originally published on April 9, 2012 and modified from the original for clarity.)

Ultimate climbing guide – part 1 – gearing

Andy Hampsten’s ride over the Gavia at the 1988 Giro d’Italia is the stuff of legend (read an analysis here and an account from Andy himself here). Once he’d claimed the maglia rosa, however, there were still eight days of racing to go and Erik Breukink – the winner of the Gavia stage – was just 15 seconds behind. Urs Zimmerman, later to ride for 7-Eleven, was also snapping at his heels.

One of the key tests before Milan was the 18-kilometre hill climb time trial from Levico Terme to Vetriolo. But Hampsten was ready and had already inspected the course. Based on his observations, he swapped out his 39 chainring for a 42 and fitted an 8-speed cassette starting from a 21 and dropping 19-18-17 [etc] rather than the usual 23-21-19-17 [etc] to make his gearing higher again and to also keep the ratios closer together.

Hampsten won the stage and pushed Breukink out of contention. “I hurt so bad it was like a meditation,” Hampsten said, according to journalist John Wilcockson. “I knew I was winning… but I wasn’t conscious of the fact.” He survived a scare from Zimmerman in the last mountain stage in the Dolomites, saved by exemplary team tactics, and after the final time trial in Milan the Giro was his.


Hampsten’s story is interesting because of the attention he paid to his gearing for the uphill time trial. To climb faster, a rider has two choices: spin the pedals faster; or push a harder gear – or the correct combination of the two. Finding the optimal gear and spin can be a detailed business.

Your author is fascinated with the process of gear choice, given his interest in climbing and his particular enjoyment of the hill climb race (for which, it must be noted, his performances are decidedly modest). At present his preferred lowest gear is a 36×25. This gives a metres development of 3.1 (the distance moved with one crank turn, a different measurement to the usual gear inches), which is slightly easier than a 39×26 (or equivalent to a 34×23 for a compact crank) but noticeably tougher than a 34×25 (and a full kilometre per hour (kph) faster at 80 rpm).  Also, having a 25-23-21 [etc] ratio on the cassette instead of, say, 26-23-21 [etc] means that there is not a big jump between the lowest gear and the next cog on the cassette – keeping the ratios not too far apart.

A compact crankset, or nearly so, makes a lot of sense for a lot of serious climbing but it can be limiting to have a 34 for flatter riding instead of a 39 (hence why your author swapped out the 34 for a 36). SRAM compact cranks have a variety of after-market chainrings and a 38 (paired with a 52) is an option. To get a 3.1 metres development ratio would require a 26 cog but the 13% change in ratio from a 26 to a 23, instead of 9% between the 25 and the 23, can be disconcerting when riding – it feels too wide. At 3.3 metres development, a 38×25 – or 3.4 metres for a 39×25 – might be too tough to spin effectively. Each 0.1 metre change is about a 3% difference, so switching to a 39 would be nearly a 10% harder gear to push.

According to many experts, the optimal cadence is around 80 rpm, although for climbing some argue that it is closer to 70 rpm. This balances both efficiency and fatigue, apparently. So, ideally, you want a gear that you can spin at this rate for the climb that you want to go fastest on (the rest of the time, we make do with the gears we have and adapt). This is an interesting exercise to do if you have a cadence monitor and don’t mind staring at your screen during a hill climb. Simply sit at 75 rpm and shift gears to keep your cadence constant. It is a particularly methodical way to approach the problem of how to gauge your efforts but can yield useful results.

Over time, you will want to be able to push a larger gear at the same cadence on the same part of the climb. For example, being able to spin the 36×23 at 75 rpm instead of the 36×25 gives a speed increase of 1.3 kph – a noticeable increase on a long, steep climb.

Keeping your cadence constant is one approach. The other, of course, is to fit a harder gear and just tough it out. Fight to find your spin and force yourself to ride faster. Forget about the cadence monitor. If your legs are burning, choose an easier gear; if your lungs are crying out for relief, choose a harder gear. If both are at their limit, and you’ve run out of gearing options, there’s not much you can do…

Ratios versus cadence

Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France in 2001 provides an interesting study in the issue of gear ratios versus cadence. As is well known, Armstrong developed a high cadence climbing style, spinning at 90 rpm and over. “It takes better aerobic conditioning to pedal at a higher cadence,” according to his coach Chris Carmichael. “And you have to train a lot at high cadence to develop efficiency. Most people are more efficient at 80 rpm than they are at 90 rpm.”

Armstrong’s spin was easy to see in action, but it was certainly not the case that he was using ridiculously lower gears. His cassettes in 2001 typically ran 23-21-19 [etc] like most other riders. So it was a case of spinning a slightly easier gear slightly faster. For example, if Jan Ullrich, known for his ‘big gear’ style was in his 39×19 at 75 rpm he would be at nearly 20 kph. If Armstrong was spinning at 90 rpm in a 39×25 he would be at about the same speed; to drop Ullrich he would need to spin up to 95 rpm (21 kph) or drop into his 23 (21.5 kph). Better still, spin the 21 at 95 rpm for 23 kph, which is what he did for part of the climb of Alpe d’Huez in 2001 (he averaged 22.1 kph for the 14 kilometres) when he won the stage by two minutes from Ullrich, famously giving him ‘The Look’ as he left him behind.

Interestingly, the next day, in the hill climb time trial to Chamrousse, Armstrong adjusted his gearing to suit the conditions, like Hampsten did in the example at the start of this post. According to John Wilcockson, Armstrong felt that the 23 on Alpe d’Huez had been too low (oh to have that feeling!) but the 21 a bit high. So for the time trial he fitted a 12-22 cassette so that his lowest gears were 22-21-20-19, thus keeping the ratio difference at around 5% between each gear. Whether it was this gear change, his high cadence style, or the familiarity he had with the course after scouting it out before the Tour, he won the stage and took another minute out of Ullrich. He would, of course, go on to win his third Tour in a row that year.

Part 2…

Climbing faster is not just about the gear you can push and how fast you can spin it (and the methods you use to achieve that), but it is in practical terms the primary route. As you develop more strength, endurance, power, conditioning or whatever, you need a practical way to translate that into performance. And taking on a harder gear, or a faster spin, or a combination of the two is how you put it into practice. For most of us, developing a high-cadence style much more than 80-85 rpm is not a possibility, so keeping a constant spin at around this level but graduating to bigger gears is the route to more speed.

Other than our own mediocrity, the principal impediment to more speed is gravity, which is the subject of part 2 to this ultimate climbing guide.

Ullrich concedes to the superior climbing of Armstrong

This post was modified from the original following reference to sources. It was originally published on February 23, 2012.

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.
Continue reading “Re-reading Armstrong”

Les prisonniers

For their 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song called The Prisoner, inspired by the 1960s TV show of the same name. The song is introduced by dialogue from the actual series (“Who are you? The new number 2. Who is number 1. You are number 6. I am not a number, I am a free man…”). The band’s manager had to call the show’s creator and lead actor, Patrick McGoohan, for permission to use the dialogue. Despite managing such a devilish band, the manager was hesitant to ask the suave and sophisticated McGoohan. According to the story, after a stumbled request, McGoohan replied simply, “Do it!” and hung up.

The Prisoner was a surreal and psychedelic show befitting its time, and its cryptic and confusing premise and story foreshadowed more recent shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. McGoohan was in some ways reprising his secret agent character from Danger Man. But we know little of his character except that he has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a seaside village (the show was filmed in Wales in Portmeirion, famous for its Italian-inspired architecture). The show flirts with ideas of totalitarianism, mind control, and indoctrination. McGoohan had complete creative freedom over the show and ran loose. Unfortunately, the show’s producer pulled the plug on the series, forcing a rushed and surreal final episode that left viewers agog.

The Prisoner was a hit in France, released there just before the May 1968 riots. As commentators have pointed out, despite its anti-communitarian message of personal liberation – the antithesis of the spirit of ’68 – it was wildly popular. McGoohan himself suggested that its popularity might have been due to the spirit of revolution in the show, his character’s attempts to throw off the yoke of oppression of the order under which he is held captive. Continue reading “Les prisonniers”

The dangerous summer revisited, yet again (EH part 5)


In Paul Morand’s story, the ‘Six-Day Night’, part of his ‘Open All Night’ collection published in 1922, the narrator of the story is pursuing a woman named Leah whose companion is taking part in the six-day race at the Vél d’Hiv – the Winter Velodrome – in Paris. Explains Leah: “He’s a stayer, a six-day man. He’s riding a six-day race. What! Never heard of Pattimatheu where you come from?” The narrator follows Leah to the velodrome to see the action. “Shrill whistles pierced the air. There were four thousand yells, Parisian yells, coming from well down in the throat. The sprints began… The sixteen racers repassed unfailingly every twenty seconds in a compact platoon.”Leah and Pettimatheu are a couple but in his pursuit the narrator finds himself more involved in the action, down amongst the riders in their ‘pit’ area. “Now drawn out into file, the sound of each lap was briefer than the preceding, and at the bell sixteen men passed, like roulette balls projected in straight lines from the twisted curve-banking.” It is nighttime, near the end of the event, and the constant racing has taken its toll on riders and their support crews. “Stained mechanics in khaki shirts, with five days’ beard, wound the handlebars with tarred thread, stacked up the wheels that needed going over, tightened a nut here and there… The men who had been replaced got off their machines for two hours’ sleep. Their managers stopped them, catching the saddles and handlebars, unwrapped their straps from the pedals, and conducted their colts with tender care to their couches.”

Leah appears to be coming around to the narrator’s intentions. It is the sixth night of racing, 158 hours of racing and nearly 4,000 kilometres covered. “It was very late. The night sprints were over. The racers went round with their hands reversed to rest their wrists.” Despite Leah’s apparent intentions to follow the narrator home and abandon Pettimatheu, the narrator wants to remain. “Nothing would have given me greater pleasure, even yesterday,” I replied, caressing her. “And possibly tomorrow. But today my whole heart is here… I want Pettimatheu to win… We have become part of the velodrome, an instant of the race, a waiting for the victory. A few hours more.” The story then ends with ambiguity, whether Pettimatheu will win and whether indeed our narrator will indeed be successful in winning the affections of Leah. Continue reading “The dangerous summer revisited, yet again (EH part 5)”

The dangerous summer revisited, again (EH part 4)


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?

Continue reading “The dangerous summer revisited, again (EH part 4)”

The dangerous summer revisited (EH part 3)

Ernest Hemingway and cycling is an ongoing theme on this blog. Hemingway’s legacy is a mixed one, particularly in literary circles. In reviewing the publication of the first volume of his collected letters (in itself an interesting story, given that all the new letters come from archives in the basement of his former house in Cuba), Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books repeats the typical charge that Hemingway inflated his own experiences into his fiction then did little to deny the myths he had created. “The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it,” O’Hagan writes.

Perhaps Hemingway was complicit in this process, or perhaps it is just easy to see it that way. His writing, so much of it based on experience, skates uneasily between truth and fiction. His early works drew on personal events, although clearly fictionalized. Later, in Islands in the Stream, for example, the main character of Thomas Hudson appears to substitute almost entirely for Hemingway and his life in the Caribbean. In The Green Hills of Africa he sets out to write real events as if they were fiction; his posthumous follow-up, Under Kilimanjaro (first published as True At First Light) is a ‘fictional memoir’ – and much of it must indeed be fiction, although just how much is for scholars to unravel. Indeed, in the book Hemingway acknowledges that truth can be slippery: “…but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…” But does this matter? Surely it is unimportant that Hemingway may have enlarged himself through the process of his writing. Going wider, do we really care if the author himself was a lying, alcoholic, misogynistic egotist? Do we not read Hemingway’s books for what they are, not what they pretend the author to be?

But personality matters. All the more so, one might argue, in professional sports where much of our fascination is with the personalities taking part and not just the action on the pitch or on the road. Perhaps part of the fascination with Hemingway, and why the publication of his letters from 100 years ago matters, is because of his outsize personality. He was a literary figure but also a public figure and his life was anything but uninteresting.

What your author finds more interesting is that Hemingway, in his works, never seemed to be interested in the big picture, in the big issues of his time. In his fiction (and even his reportage) the focus was often very narrow – the individual swimming in the currents of history, rather than the history itself. One might contrast this with his contemporary John Dos Passos and his sweeping trilogy, U.S.A. Or, to take another tack, note that the Spanish Civil War saw Hemingway produce For Whom the Bell Tolls – a heroic tale of sacrifice for the republican cause – while George Orwell wrote a Homage to Catalonia – the tragic collapse of the revolution into cynical betrayals. Elsewhere, the fate of Hemingway’s beloved Velodrome d’Hiver as the round-up location for 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs from 16-17 July (when the Tour de France would have been running had it not been suspended due to the war) to be shipped to German concentration camps (only 811 survived) never receives a mention in his wartime reporting, surely an interesting story with parallels worth drawing.

Perhaps the newly discovered letters will contain comment, although – as historian Tony Judt has pointed out – discussion of the Holocaust, in France and elsewhere, did not really start taking place until decades later. (A future post will look at the Vel d’Hiv events in some detail.) Hemingway might not have actually known what transpired. When he was circulating around old haunts in Paris following its liberation, there is no mention of whether he went past (frustratingly, in Carlos Baker’s nearly 1,000-page biography, there is no listing in the index for the Vel d’Hiv at all, although it is mentioned in parts of the text). Hemingway was involved in the thick of the action on the approach to Paris in 1944, working as a war correspondent but managing to become the liaison between a group of French irregulars and US troops. He was later mocked for being more interested in ‘liberating’ the Hotel Ritz and its bar, and he did apparently exaggerate his role in the liberation of the Travellers Club, but the most detailed accounts suggest that he did actually find himself in considerable physical danger as the Germans fought their rearguard action. Playing soldier and inflating his successes likely obscured the actual role – minor, but indeed dangerous – that he did play. As always, it was writing he did best and on the approach to Paris he wrote this memorable line: “…I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”

One could argue that Hemingway never really claimed to be more than he was. He took his experiences and wrote them up as fact or fiction, as the experiences of the individual. He wrote what he wanted and should not be accused of sins of omission. His works should judged on their literary merits rather than for what they say about the author. But, for the sake of this discussion, let us take this focus on the individual versus history and run with it a little further and see where it takes us.

One of Robert Capa’s famous pictures from the 1939 Tour de France, here showing French rider Rene Vietto (International Center of Photography).
The autobiography (and heroism)

There are numerous books on cycling that are excellent and well worth reading (another future post will discuss some of these). As a rule, cycling autobiographies do not make for the most dramatic of reading. They are either self-serving to various degrees (like a Hemingway book, if the critics are to be believed) or just dull: an impossibly-talented youngster enters the rarefied and pedestrian professional cycling world and wins lots of races and suffers some notable, character-building setbacks that are then overcome. Unlike a biographer, the autobiographer finds it difficult to step back, to view themselves from the necessary distance.

The exception to this rule is The Game by Ken Dryden. This is not a cycling book but a book about hockey and the author’s experiences with the almost always victorious Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Regarded by some as the best sports autobiography available, part of its appeal is surely that the author can indeed detach himself from the various narratives and consider many of the wider questions of sport, although tensions remain: “Even now… I can’t forget enough to get outside my story and see it as others do.” There are echoes of Dryden in David Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, where – despite the criticisms that he does not go far enough and still wants to control the narrative – Millar is able to detach himself and give an unconventional and brutally honest account of his experiences and to do so with candour and humility.

Millar’s comeback is a heroic one, but perhaps he is ultimately an anti-hero, in terms that Hemingway would recognize. His downfall was almost preordained by a system that cared little for individuals but saw them ultimately as pawns in a larger game of success, fame, money, glory and power. Such was the milieu in pro cycling in which he participated. His choices were always constrained by the system and it was run by those in power to be thus. Perhaps there is – contrary to the grandiose prose we are often subjected to – little actual heroism in sport, just a mistaken believe in the claims of those who would seek to inflate its essence to sell the sport to the public. On this point, Dryden is illustrative and worth quoting at length:

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. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead, we are no more than examples, metaphors, because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose again.

Yes, even if you know little about hockey (like your author, although better informed now), there are some very thought provoking insights in The Game.

The golden age (of cycling)

It was a dangerous summer of cycling for a number of reasons, but perhaps no more so than the ongoing sage of Lance Armstrong and the charges against him of doping. Thousands of keyboard strokes have already been expended on the subject, and many more will follow. The editorials have been engaging but have ultimately said more about where the author has positioned themselves in the debate over the last few years than their actual subject. Indeed, perhaps you, dear reader, took some satisfaction from the pithy statements made by long-time supporting journalists, or took some delight in those long vilified being able to at last been seen as capably doing their jobs.

With the USADA file threatening even more revelations the spotlight of media will again be on the less salubrious aspects of cycling. For some, these revelations will be neatly assigned to the ‘bad old days’ and we can put them behind us and move on. For others, they will represent just a few more cracks in cycling’s edifice, perhaps not to bring it down completely but at least to leave it well scarred. This we might lament, just as writer Jeremy Whittle notes in his book Bad Blood: “In a problematic world, sport should offer escape; it should offer sanctuary from the casual lies and banal cruelties that punctuate everyday life. Rather than embodying the ugliest elements in human nature, it should strive to encapsulate the best.”

Overall, these are noble sentiments, but too idealistic. This is what sports should represent to us, the fans. But to those taking part, it is not an ‘escape’, it is their everyday life, their job and their profession. If your own work does not encapsulate the best of human nature, why should their job be any different? Surely we are not naive enough to think that professional sports, or even Olympic sports, is a pure endeavour instead of one intimately bound up a multitude of forces. As one commentator said, somewhat cynically, of the Olympics: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multi-national capital.” Sport is not some separate arena from the rest of society, but a part of it; we don’t escape, we participate.

Money might be part of the problem, and every professional sport that has grown too fast has had to deal with this issue. As Ken Dryden laments, “money is a threat, not in the stresses it puts on sports’ structures (though that is significant), but what it can do to those who have it,” with over-paid participants increasingly cut off from the public and the fans that sustain them. Still, players (and riders) have to make a living, and determining appropriate remuneration is a fraught process. Are top cyclists really earning too much for their hard, hard sport?

In moving forward, Whittle puts the onus on us: “Ultimately, what happens next is our responsibility.” With respect, not entirely. Amid cries that we need to do more, or that riders need to speak out and change their sport, we have to remember that the power lies with the organizers, the administrators, the owners and the overlords. There is much we can do (witness the Paul Kimmage defence fund, for example), but we should recognize the limit of our power. As well, we should not expect the riders to join in. Their positions are always tenuous and they operate in a top-down management structure where they are employed by a team and that team is ultimately responsible to those further up the chain, particularly those who administer the rules of the sport and organize the races. It is from the top that change must come, and where public pressure should be applied – if it can be. It is the managers of cycling that have put us in this predicament and they should be the ones to get us out. If they will not do so, then the sport will not change. For riders such as David Millar, they were working under the conditions given to them. In this sense, perhaps the interesting debate is not over the details of Lance Armstrong’s (apparently now well proven) doping but whether he was a victim of the system or one of the architects that prolonged its existence. If societies set their own morals, rather than through reference to an external system, and pro cycling is a societal microcosm, then was Armstrong just following the ‘rules’ or was he also shaping them?

Which brings us to the golden age, a lament that ‘back in the day’ things were better and different. Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the professional level in Europe, when you strip away the self-serving myth making, it has been a curious, insular world for much of its existence. “There was never a golden age of fair play in cycling’s history,” Whittle writes. “Cheating has always been characteristic of the sport…” Which is perhaps no surprise. Riders have constantly been struggling, labouring under a structure that is ultimately exploitative and places on them intense physical demands for often limited returns (again the subject of a future post). A team sport, it still celebrates and rewards individual excellence and winning is paramount. Yet, despite its quirks, there is still something about its beauty, grandeur and captivating nature that draws in participants and observers – pros are still joining its ranks and we still want to watch them. A curious paradox, indeed.

“Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports’, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood,” writes Ken Dryden. Indeed, it is when we are young – still with our enthusiasm intact and not yet cynical – that our indelible memories are formed. This is the time we want to return to, even though we cannot and the times were not as good as we remember them to be. On this, we will give the last word to Hemingway: “The old days were supposed to have been simpler but they were not; they were only rougher.” For pro cycling, maybe those rougher days are now indeed behind us, and it is the future that holds the golden age, a time for childhoods again.

Capa’s picture of Hemingway and son Gregory in Idaho in 1941. Unfortunately, the rougher times for both were still to come (International Center of Photography)

First published October 2, 2012

The dangerous summer (EH part 2)

In 1959, Ernest Hemingway returned to Spain to cover the summer bullfighting season for Life magazine. The extend account of his trip was later published as the book The Dangerous Summer. For Hemingway, the 1950s were a period of nostalgia. After the acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was somewhat adrift with his writing and would return to old themes and haunts. There was time spent in Paris on research as well as an African safari, which resulted in A Moveable Feast and True At First Light, both published after his death in 1961.

This period started with Spain in 1953, Hemingway’s first visit to the country since the Civil War (perhaps a low point for his personal conduct but a high point for his writing as it was the genesis of For Whom the Bell Tolls). He introduced his wife Mary to everything to do with bullfighting and met the talented young matador, Antonio Ordoñez, the son of Niño de la Palma who was the inspiration for Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Then it was on to Africa for their safari. The trip ended in disaster with two plane crashes and a fire that saw Hemingway badly injured with external and internal injuries. Rehabilitation would be long and slow and his physical and writing powers suffered as a result. Continue reading “The dangerous summer (EH part 2)”