Hemingway’s grimpeurs (EH part 1)

Ernest Hemingway was a great fan of sports, most notably bull fighting and fishing. He also followed cycling, particularly the 1920s six-day races in Paris, which – along with horse racing – were among his pastimes chronicled in A Movable Feast.

Hemingway was well known for his obsessions with different sports and other activities, learning them quickly and wanting to become a master in all aspects. He learnt about bull fighting in Spain in the 1920s, but not big-game fishing until the 1930s in Quay West, but became an expert in both. Boxing was a life-long pursuit, as well as shooting and hunting.

It is perhaps no surprise that in his ‘sporting life’, Hemingway developed a detailed knowledge of cycling during his European years.

“Hem knew all the statistics and the names and lives of the riders,” friend and author John Dos Passos once said.
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An epistemology of speed

In Karl Popper’s magisterial book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosopher warns about extrapolating the future from the present; given that we are unable to adequately describe the present, even the future will be elusive to us. “It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature,” he wrote. “In fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.”

Popper was talking about the great sweep of human history and criticizing the idea that there are laws of development in history and that these laws are evolving towards some sort of ideal end point. But even on a smaller scale, Popper was wary about relying on certain ‘truths’. In his epistemology, we accumulate knowledge of the world through the process of deduction. We put forward hypotheses and test these with appropriate observations. The rules or laws that we discover are at all times subject to falsification through further testing. Some laws withstand a substantial amount of testing, and are therefore more robust than others, but are – in a philosophical sense at least – still falsifiable. Overall, we must always be critical. “For if we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want,” Popper said. “We shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”

This post will look at the question of speed on a bicycle, and how we achieve it, with these two approaches in mind: the difficulty of accurately describing the present situation, and hence the difficulty of predicting the future; and a critical approach to established theories of going faster. As such, I argue for a much less obvious epistemology of speed.

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Climb like a badger

In the bucolic British children’s fable, ‘Wind in the Willows’, the character of Mr. Badger is a rather gruff fellow, a no-nonsense practical type, rather solitary in the winter off-season and sticks close to home, but generous – if not somewhat paternal – to his friends, but sometimes prone to outburst. “Now the very next time this happens,” he scolds. “I shall be exceedingly angry.”

In the somewhat more recent French version the Badger, le blaireau, is not an entirely different character.

“I’ll be the badger forever,” Bernard Hinault wrote after his retirement. “It doesn’t bother me.” Hinault was at a loss to explain the nickname and suggested that it was a commonly-used nickname that seemed to suit him and stuck to him somewhere around 1977.

“Very little is known about badgers,” he said. “And that suits me.”

What people did seem to know about badgers, however, was their ferocity. “As long as I live and breathe, I attack” was Hinault’s most famous quote.

Hinault 1
Le blaireau proved to be an apt nickname

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The ride better project (Or: A rambling manifesto)

I.

“We think in generalities, but we live in details.” – Alfred North Whitehead

It is a staple of cycling media that the main purpose of cycling is to go faster (the mainstream cycling media that caters to the road cycling amateur racer or enthusiast). How-to articles are a regular occurrence, equipment reviews focus on weight (reduced weight apparently helping you to go faster), and bike reviews always make a comment on how ‘fast’ a bike is (the rough equivalent of testing a car without reference to what engine it has, but never mind). Reviews have reached a kind of pseudoscience degree of ridiculousness – effectively advertorial (true quote: “I honestly felt like this shoe made me faster”; this raises some interesting cognitive biases and interesting questions of epistemology) – that won’t be discussed here and is best left to the more capable (and perhaps more cynical).

If you were a roadie a few decades ago, your main interest probably was in going faster. You were likely a young aspiring racer in what was a mostly fringe pursuit. Your interest was in progression up through the category classes in road racing. (If you, dear reader, are one of these riders right now, stop reading here. And best of luck.) There were no fondos or other general events and anybody who was bike riding for fun was probably on a mountain bike.

This idea of progression remains the main thinking of the industry, despite there being a large number of riders who are not interested in moving up as amateur racers. And now it is much more consumer driven. As you progress (i.e. get faster) you graduate onto (supposedly) better bikes and equipment. Bike reviews regularly note whether a road bike is a beginner version, or for an enthusiast, or an aspiring racer. This is despite the marginal difference between bikes in these different classes – at least in terms of performance – and that trickle-down has meant that groupsets and wheelsets and other components, even at the lower end, are more than adequate in most cases and the potential performance gains of more expensive equipment entirely minuscule.

As well, we are currently in the age of the ‘details’ about our riding. We are now able to measure and record a huge number of parameters that even a few years ago were out of reach. Once, in the age of the basic bike computer, only distance and speed could be recorded – perhaps HR if lucky. There was no real way to compare performances with others, except for the stop sign sprint or to front up to race day and to see how you placed, which would be a factor of who else was there on the day.

Now, with varying degrees of investment, we can record power output, possibly VO2 max, not to mention various permutations of speed, distance and cadence, as well as our location and our ride stats compared to others on a variety of courses through apps such as Strava. There is very little that is left undocumented and unrecorded.

The purpose of this technology is more speed. A print ad for the Garmin Vector power meter pedals reads: “Without power, I never sniffed the podium – even at Cat 4. Now I’m a Cat 2.” Technology and information leads to more speed, and progression. As do other improvements, such as Specialized’s #aeroiseverything campaign: the goal, again, is to go faster. Not too far away, surely, are drag coefficients printed on product packaging, alongside numbers for weight.

Combined with the ubiquitous training plan, we are in thrall of the numbers and bending them to our service with the goal of speed. This is how we progress – more miles, higher FTP, more KOMs and trophies – all validating what we are doing and the effort we are putting in. What is effort without reward? And that reward is more speed, and perhaps progression onto a new (faster, of course) bike and a set of carbon aero wheels.

Strava is the prime example of being in the thrall of numbers. A ride is measured in terms of distance and metres climbed – the basis for earning trophies – as well as achievements of PBs and KOMs. There is a ranking system, among all Strava users but also in the clubs that you can form with fellow riders. The higher the numbers, the higher the ranking. Thus, the value of a ride is in generating higher numbers, and the purpose of a ride – according to Strava – is to Prove It: go faster, higher, stronger, and longer, and achieve more. Then share it. After all, if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen.

But does this matter? A confession: I like trying to ride fast at times, and I enjoy pushing myself and seeing the results (such as they are) on Strava. Competition can be good, and training harder has some other value (exercise needs some intensity from time to time to maximize its health benefits). But in the pursuit of speed is something else being lost? In the book ‘The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In A World of Constant Connection’ the author, Michael Harris, explores to effect of internet technology, social media and constant connection to our lives and how it affects us in various ways. [1] But to lament what we have lost means establishing a moral value to various activities. Is reading a book in quiet contemplation better than noodling away on Twitter?

I want to do two things for the remainder of this piece. Firstly, to argue that the pursuit of more speed is ultimately going to end in disappointment and more frustration than satisfaction. This is because there is an upper limit to performance and, as well, over time, you will actually get slower. Secondly, to argue that there are other goals for riding that will give greater satisfaction than just the pursuit of speed (and the sharing of it on social media). Ultimately, despite wanting to avoid a moral judgement, I suggest that the mental and social/community aspects have more enduring value than being able to record a new personal best. Although it was not its intention, the overall argument might be seen in the context of ideas of alienation: a mindset focused on a narrow definition of cycling, aided and abetted by (often but not always) commercial interests, prevents individual enjoyment – even flourishing – of all the aspects of cycling. If riding a bike is about freedom, then the pursuit of speed will keep you in a kind of bondage.

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