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.
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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 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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