The cycling space-race
An attempt to get Tri-bars, Man Vs Snake, TUEs and Rocky Balboa all in one blog.
Professional cyclists have long enjoyed heavily-tailored, scientific performance plans. Training zones, VO2 levels, hematocrit scores and measures of residual exhaustion. Peaking and recovering – anaerobic, aerobic – and lactate thresholds.
These seems a world away from the trundling commuters I follow down the Bristol-Bath cycle-path to work. Rather than aero-fit, lightweight mesh-suits, they wear bobble hats, ski gloves and work-boots. They ride ill-fitted mountain bikes with slow flat tyres; packed lunch rucksacks; rattling, heavy D-locks; and fading & muddy rear lights.
The cycling lunch club I’ve tried to kick start this year has been a bit hit and miss. Sometimes I’ve been the only attendee; other days there have been 8 of us chaffing at the bit in the sun.
One of my friends has turned up a few times on his off-the-shelf bike (read sporty-looking, but built to be robust, rather than fast). He’s happy to carry the unimposing air of a desk-working commuter, donning a flapping windproof – out for a social chat for his lunch hour. I enjoy his company. And, although a strong cyclist, he gets slightly left behind on some of the steeper hills.
This summer he also set a new club record for a team 30 mile time trial.
Photos of his rides reveal a scarcely recognisable bike, and man. His gleaming carbon race bike, the black frame unbroken by neither decal nor logo, fairly drips with speed; his wheels’ spokes have been replaced by expensive looking solid discs; and the forward pointing, horizontal handlebars look about a foot too low to be comfortable. Even his water-bottle is a strange, streamlined shape, tucked neatly away to avoid ruining his ‘lines’.
His all-in-one skin-suit looks like a tattoo (eyes up, ladies), and his shoes look as though have been wrapped in bright cling-film to better slip through the air. His helmet looks life molten plastic dripped onto his head as he’s entered a wind tunnel. Even his gloves look as though they’ve been painted on.
He knows what all racing cyclists know. That lunch clubs are not there to race. Overtakes on the Bristol Cyclepath en route to work shouldn’t be a cause of satisfaction.
If you want to race, train to race…. then race.
But to race at this level (/his level) doesn’t come cheap. Nor, of course, do these levels of fitness and power come easy.
Consider, though, how any quest for self-improvement blurs the two:
The fairest, truest times are against yourself – same bike, same conditions, from a week before. Or a month ago. Or from last year or the year before – seeing if you can get your body to evolve to the demands you make of it.
For my part, I’ve spent many weeks entering time-trials ridden around Chew Valley Lake – trying to chisel down a faster time, whilst acknowledging the variances in wind speeds and direction, isobars, humidity and so on (et cetera et cetera ad infinitum).
I was enjoying the challenge – and was shaving down my time by handfuls of seconds.
Then I bought some (cheap) clip-on “tri-bars” (these hold you, the cyclist, in a more unbroken aero-position), and my PB dropped by over a minute (out of ~23 total) overnight.
I should have felt delighted… but, strangely, this was the point that my interest in time-trialling began to dwindle.
Progress began to feel like a factor of how much money I was willing to spend.
Last week I watched a documentary called “Man Vs Snake”: one man’s journey to set a computer high-score, not just his own PB, or the best ever score on his computer, but the best score ever. In the whole world. Out of everyone that had ever played the game. And, I suppose, this is the crux of these quests for self-improvement: at some point, you wonder how your “self-improvement” compares to everyone else’s. For these are the arenas where glories are won – in bird’s nest stadiums, public leaderboards and trophy rooms, not within mental notes-to-self regards week-to-week differences between social TTs. And the problem with these public arenas is that this is where ‘others’ can spend their money on all the lighter-weight tri-bars; solid disc wheels; and molten-plastic-dripped helmets.
And in a professional cycling world, willingness to spend that money becomes willingness to add all those other marginal gains. I echo the above: to race at this level doesn’t come cheap. Nor, of course, do these levels of fitness and power come easy. Pros have to tick-off the latter, so that they’re being efficient with the former. Neither this blog (nor it seems the whole internet) is big enough to nail down the moral rights and wrongs of Bradley Wiggins’ TUE steroidal asthmatic injections – but if the “kit” isn’t the same, if the “base lines” aren’t aligned, how can efforts at self-improvement be fairly compared? How can I be expected to keep up with that guy riding a carbon space-ship?
Last winter, amongst my cycling friends in Bristol, a new device was in town.
As the roads freeze over and the rains come down, there has always been a retreat to indoor spin classes and garage-based turbo trainers.
But this year the craze seemed to explode. Indoor bikes can now been linked up to laptops and the internet, and riders can “race” friends, avatars and other assorted pixelated AI-creations around any famous course or climb you could mention.
My friends did so, and my friends got fast.
They could assess the threshold levels, heart rate zones and suffer scores that were once the preserve of the pros.
And it worked.
Meanwhile, I slowly rode my commuting bike with its knobbly tyres, in the rain. With my pins and needles.
For my part though, when the winter skies were clear, I got to see Orion’s Belt in the early morning darkness.
Some of the scenes from Rocky II still stick with me from my child-hood. (Paraphrasing from imdb.com) Rocky’s boxing-foe, Drago, scientifically uses high-tech lab equipment, steroid enhancement and has a team of trainers and doctors monitoring his every movement. Rocky, on the other hand, throws heavy logs, chops down trees, pulls an overloaded snow sleigh, jogs in heavy snow and treacherous icy conditions and climbs a mountain.
The film leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the romance of the two approaches.
But maybe, amidst all the other suspensions of disbelief you’re asked to hold for their final fight, the fact that Rocky ultimately actually triumphs despite the above is perhaps the least believable. But the viewer knows that it is Rocky that holds the soul. Not the science.
Back to CyclingWithMS.
It has become cycling when I can.
When I can, I cycle fast.
When I can’t, I am relieved I can still ride my bike.
I race myself on hills where I know my PBs.
I fight my MS when it tells me I’m weak.
And when I race new found friends at lunch-club as they don their heavy commuting shoes, billowing wind-sheets and cyclo-cross bikes, I don’t forget who my real race is against.
Winning is being there, on my bike, for another day.
When, like now, I’m off my bike, I do need to acknowledge that there are bigger things at play, but I can’t escape the feeling that I’m getting spat out the back – and life is so much easier when you’re cruising at the same speed as the pelaton surround.