The ride better project (or: A rambling manifesto)


“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. Continue reading The ride better project (or: A rambling manifesto)

The dangerous summer (revisited, yet again)


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.” Continue reading The dangerous summer (revisited, yet again)

Three paras: Cavendish, heroes, Millar

One must confess, dear reader, to being confused as to the motivation behind Mark Cavendish’s book ‘At Speed: My Life in the Fast Lane’ (a big thanks to VeloPress for the review copy). It is a compelling read – as far as cycling autobiographies go – that moves along as swiftly as its author, but still with an engaging narrative (perhaps helped in this department by the ghost writer, the excellent Daniel Friebe). It is not Cavendish’s flouting of tradition where the autobiography comes after retirement, to shine a light behind the scenes of the author’s career (see Charlie Wegelius, for example), or to offer a counter narrative for someone returning to the sport (see David Millar, for example), or to build an epic mythology for blatant self-aggrandizement (see Lance Armstrong, for example). No, there’s nothing wrong with writing the story as it unfolds; and Cavendish is a man in a hurry. What gives rise to confusion is the level of intimacy he’s prepared to share, his own emotional ups-and-downs for starters, but also his unvarnished views of everyone else in the sport. Perhaps it is testament to his talent that he does not need to ‘make nice’ with everyone in cycling while he is still active in the sport. It is hard not to read the book accompanied by the smoke from bridges being burned. We fans are not deserving of such intimate revelations, so why make them? It is possible that Cavendish wishes to control the narrative of his career right here and now, while he has the opportunity. But whether he actually needs to do so, or to do so in this way (even if we as readers get to enjoy all the details), is another question indeed. Continue reading Three paras: Cavendish, heroes, Millar

On the big ring and carbon clinchers

Reader feedback is always satisfying to receive. A recent email posed two questions: how to put into practice the advice put down here to use the big ring at least once on every climb; and your author’s view on carbon clinchers for climbing. Firstly, then, the big ring. Climbing in the big ring is more of a state of mind. As noted here, your author recently swapped in new cassettes with a taller range to allow more big ring climbing (30-12 previously and now a 28-12). This was largely a redundant move as similar ratios to, say, a 50×25 combo can be achieved by staying in the small ring and clicking down the cassette. But there is something satisfying about being able to tackle a climb in the big ring; if you start the climb in a big gear it forces you to do something a bit more interesting on the climb than just sitting and spinning. You might even find yourself at the top of the climb still in the big ring, having even dropped it farther down the cassette. Continue reading On the big ring and carbon clinchers

Armstrong 3.0 – part 3 (in 3 paras)


Imagine if you will, dear reader, that Armstrong stepped off his bike early in 1998, having successfully recovered from his cancer and returned to pro bike racing, and announced his retirement. Mission accomplished. No Vuelta that year, and certainly no Tour wins from 1999 to 2005. Imagine that he instead turned to establishing his cancer foundation, which did not become the ubiquitous yellow-armband wielding entity it became with his Tour fame but a smaller, no less dedicated, institution focusing on men’s health. Perhaps he returned to triathlon, competing successfully and winning several high-profile events. As a result, the profile of triathlons was boosted and Trek abandoned its road bike line (keeping LeMond on instead) to focus on the growth of the sport. Road cycling remained a strictly continental endeavour, still a mystery to most North Americans, and with doping scandal after doping scandal involving dodgy Spanish and Italian doctors, and mysterious Austrian clinics, it stayed as a fringe sport for Euro wannabees. For those not buying into triathlons, cyclocross started to emerge from the remnants of mountain biking and frustrated hipster roadies who wanted a new sport they could make their own. That one single individual could have such a dramatic impact on the direction of sport in North America does not seem an entirely absurd proposition. Continue reading Armstrong 3.0 – part 3 (in 3 paras)

Armstrong 3.0 – part 2

“They don’t like me saying that in 2009 I was clean but these things are the truth. But I also understand the people who say they don’t believe me… What I’m saying is that the day there’s a test of a transfusion I’ll be the first guy to put that sample [from after the Mont Ventoux stage in 2009] on the line. And I’ll bet everything on that.” – Lance Armstrong.

I’ll bet everything on that. Continue reading Armstrong 3.0 – part 2

Armstrong 3.0 – part 1

Comeback 2.0 is a curious addition to one’s cycling book collection. Gorgeously presented, in the spirit of Rouleur, the book is “Lance Armstrong’s first-person photo journal of his 2009 comeback season with the goal of taking the Livestrong message around the world.” With sumptuous cycling photography, as well as intimate portraits of Armstrong and his family, the book – probably more intended for a general rather than a hardcore cycling audience – is a seemingly rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the whole endeavour. RadioShack, Armstrong’s team sponsor for 2010, was also involved, and $10 from each book sale was donated to Livestrong “to inspire and empower those affected by cancer.” The Special Collector’s Edition (only $5 secondhand – they don’t hold much value these days) features a removable dust jacket with “keepsake poster” and 16 additional pages of photos. Continue reading Armstrong 3.0 – part 1

Meanings revisted

I like the bike for the usual reasons – exploration, freedom, camaraderie, the rush of endorphins – but also the possibility it holds out, when I can admit to feeling more competitive than I like to think, that an exploit of some sort, ill-conceived and irrational, based on the flimsiest of training base, might be undertaken and, with luck, fortitude and a dose of the unforeseen, possibly yield bragging rights for a limited time despite, in the greater context of exploits and achievements, making a rather minute impression on those with greater reserves of power and endurance, of which there are many. I like that possibility.

One must confess to a certain skepticism of professional team sports, particularly the dangerous aspects of mass hysteria, rivalry and nationalism, but pro cycling is different as its fan support is more a celebration of the spectacle – beautiful, brutal – than the competitive aspect, or a celebration of an ideal: even if that ideal, glory through suffering, might be more a construct of the myth makers than a genuine value worth supporting (especially as ideals are often either promulgated by the powerful in their own interests or mask the agendas of others seeking to seize that power for their own ends), which shouldn’t prevent us, however, from sympathizing with those – the riders – who flog themselves for their own rewards, such as they are, and for our own entertainment. Which I like, too.

Thévenet's secret? Gallic tenacity and very stylish kit (L'Equipe)
The mountains await… (L’Equipe)

Three paragraphs on LeMond and winter training

Greg LeMond says that without doping Lance Armstrong would have been top 30 at best in the Tour and certainly not top 5. LeMond knows more about the physiology required to win the Tour than most, but is he correct? Maybe. One could argue, though, that we just don’t have enough information to reach a solid conclusion. Aside from VO2 maxes and wattages and weights, what about dedicated team support, focused training, motivation and luck? There have been some transformations in recent history to win the Tour – Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins. Even Carlos Sastre seems an ‘unlikely’ winner. Why not Armstrong? There was never a level playing field to make comparisons; when Armstrong rode the Tour in the 90s, doping was rampant so his performances then are not much of guide. A clean rider has not been competitive until very recently. Armstrong swears he was not doping in 2009, while doping blood profile experts say he was, so whether he was third in a ‘clean’ Tour in 2009 is highly contentious. Overall, LeMond’s opinion should be highly respected, but he may not be right. Some claim Armstrong would have won seven Tours anyway, in a clean peloton, but that’s a counter-factual position as well. One suspects that Armstrong’s true abilities are overrated by some and underrated by others (LeMond included). But we will never know for sure. And does it matter? As philosopher Isiah Berlin said, “There is no… reason for believing that the truth, when it is discovered, will necessarily prove interesting.”

Your author’s copy of ‘Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling’ is tattered and worn. It’s a secondhand copy, another copy having been given away to a friend who didn’t return it, or perhaps it was the author who moved away. Difficult to say. Some passages have been highlighted in this one: “Do the more intense workout before the less intense workout.”; “For every week you take off you should train three weeks.”; “Much more important than how many miles you’ve done is duration, how many hours you’ve done.” Whoever did the highlighting had some specific training in mind. Perhaps they, too, were considering how to approach their winter riding time? Elsewhere, the book – first published in 1988 – looks impossibly dated. LeMond warns against the 7-speed ‘freewheel’ as requiring a special chain and a re-dishing of the rear wheel. “The best compromise, and a common choice, is the six-speed unit.” Now a 10-speed cassette is standard, with perhaps 11-speed the exotic choice requiring special modification. On the front, LeMond advises that he usually uses a 53-42 combination. The final line of the book reads, “And I think the next chapter of cycling’s history should belong to America.” LeMond won the Tour two more times, just before Armstrong burst onto the scene. The next chapter did indeed belong to America, but not quite in the way LeMond would have expected.

LeMond overturns the myth of gear size, and that winter training should be limited to spinning. He discusses the importance of managing intensity in training. Elsewhere, the general advice is that winter is a good time for strength building, on and off the bike, which is particularly important for more ‘mature’ riders who naturally suffer from a decline in strength over time even though endurance can still be maintained. Your author has mentioned previously his new Contador-inspired approach to climbing (pas de boeuf). Winter seems the ideal time to keep focusing on the big ring, on strength development when rides must of necessity be short duration. Whether this will translate into appreciable gains for 2014 remains to be seen. And whether two rides a week maximum in the off season actually constitutes ‘training’ is another question indeed. “As a young rider,” LeMond writes, “it’s relatively easy to put off training and whip yourself into shape in a few weeks. But as an older rider that’s nearly impossible. You need to train consistently to stay in good condition, especially through the winter. You simply can’t put off training as you could as a youngster.” Bugger.

A slightly goofy expression is a prerequisite for winning the Tour.
A slightly goofy expression is a prerequisite for winning the Tour.

[Here’s an interesting interview that Bill McGann did with LeMond that you may not have seen with some discussion of VO2 maxes and wattages and climbing…]

On meaning

Cycling is a beautiful sport. At its most artistic it is captivating and breathtaking. There is something about the juxtaposition of the machine, the suffering of the rider, and the backdrop of the outdoor stadiums that so utterly captivates us. Like any good entertainment, it appeals to us on a basic, emotional level. We allow ourselves to be swept along by the sheer visceral emotion of the experience – uplifting as well as tragic. Why, then, do we attempt to give pro cycle racing (and sport in general) a wider meaning, a moral significance?

What is life but a search for meaning: how did we get here, where are we going, what does it all mean? “The characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things,” said philosopher John Dewey. We want things to be more than emotive experiences; we want them to have a context and a weight in human affairs. This is where ‘myth making’ comes in, which, according to Roland Barthes, is a particularly “bourgeois affliction”. All sports go through this process and the myths are usually genuine attempts to give gravitas to human endeavour. More often, though, they are cynical attempts at marketing. The Tour de France is replete with examples. In 1910, Henri Desgrange co-opted the local vernacular of “circle of death” for the inclusion of the Pyrenees and played up the reports of bears and wild animals that would make the stage an “epic” one. Never mind that, as Graham Robb argues in ‘The Discovery of France’, cyclo-tourists, and likely a bunch of locals, had been crossing the peaks for years. The Tour ride was epic as it was documented in black and white – how little times have changed. Continue reading On meaning

Three paras on Contador

One must admit, dear reader, to now finding Alberto Contador an all-together more interesting rider now that he has shown some fragility and humility. Just one victory this year and 4th in the Tour – a race that he previously looked untouchable in with three victories on the road (one subsequently stripped). With his two Giro wins (one subsequently stripped) and two Vuelta wins as well, he remains the best grand tour rider of his generation. But seeing him struggle this year has made him seem, well, more real. Seemingly gone are the unstoppable attacks on the climbs and a cynic (or a realist?) might say that he is now operating under the same constraints as most of the peloton; this year he complained of “errors” in his race programme and different “sensations” in his legs for the Tour, the sorts of issues that can’t be smoothed out by other interventions. Contador has always been an elegant rider, and showed real fortitude in his 2009 Tour win, but there were always ‘doubts’ about his performances. Seemingly no longer.

One must admit, dear reader, to having a couple of degrees less separation from Contador than what might be expected. Once, through a local friend, your author had lunch at the home of one Bjarne Riis’ soigneurs in Denmark, and while said individual was out of town (at the Vuelta), there was apparently nothing but praise for Contador’s physiology. One mentions this not to claim insider or special knowledge, but simply that there can often be small coincidences (the purpose of the visit was not cycling) when certain events intersect. Based on such a coincidence, it is hard not to have more than just a passing interest in the subject.

One must admit, dear reader, to having been inspired by Contador’s equipment setup at this year’s Tour. Contador ran a mid-cage SRAM ‘WiFLi’ derailleur to enable him to use larger cogs (reported as a max of 28, although short-cage derailleurs are supposed to be able to support this size so presumably he did go larger at some point) on the rear so he could climb for longer in the big ring. He used this setup at the Vuelta last year as well. Having recently discovered the risks and rewards of big ring climbing – in a 50t, admittedly, not a 53t – your author now has a similar setup with a 30-12 (30, 27, 24, 21…) on the rear. The 30 is a bit redundant (although a nice 36×30 spin up some very steep climbs can be nice) and is not practical in the big ring except with some front derailleur tinkering and ill-advised cross chaining. But the second cog, the 27, is pretty versatile and 50×27 covers a lot of possibilities. And the 50×24 combo is a serious contender for short, steep-ish efforts. A 28-12 (28, 25, 23, 21…) might be the sweet-spot compromise. Mid-cage derailleurs certainly were not a PRO item in recent times, but perhaps they are now.

Winning times at the Vuelta in 2012. One must admit that the 'pistolero' salute might have been getting a bit old (SRAM pic)
Winning times at the Vuelta in 2012. One must admit that the ‘pistolero’ salute might have been getting a bit old (SRAM pic).

Etre en forme

I don’t know the climb well enough to quote its exact length and grade, but I do know it well enough to recall how the road first pitches up on a right-hand bend before a 90-degree left where it really starts to get steep, past the stand of rust red mail boxes set against the trees, before a brief respite and the pothole that is always seen too late, then the final cruel rise through the open fields where I once saw a coyote.

By all accounts it’s a climb that begs for the small chain ring and a sensible cadence. Instead, I shift into the 50×23 and turn my gaze down as the road starts to rise.

On passion

As Daniel Kahneman has argued, success equals talent plus luck. In his view, we give too little credence to the latter in assessing outcomes related to success. If we break it down further, though, we might argue that ‘talent’ can be subdivided into innate talent and then its application through practice and training. Indeed, there is an interesting debate going on about talent and its application, most recently seen in the book ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein (see a review and outline here).

The intricacies of that debate will not delay us here. But what about another factor under talent, that of passion?. Charly Wegelius’ autobiography ‘Domestique’ is a stark reminder of the sacrifices required to be successful as a professional cyclist. Wegelius has talent by the bidon full. But, crucially, he has an almost maniacal drive to make it as a professional cyclist. He devotes himself to this cause with monastic zeal, and is prepared to endure the tough racing and training, the privations, the isolation and solitude, the competition from all the other aspiring young pros, as well as shady team owners, mercurial sponsors, and over-zealous directors, and all for (at least initially) minimal reward in terms of remuneration and recognition. Late in his career, though, this raw passion for being a pro has taken its toll:

I hated cycling because of the gaping disparity between the way the sport looked on the outside, and what I knew to be the truth of it on the inside. I hated it because I had given my youth to it – so much of myself – and the payment was so meagre and fleeting, especially compared to those who took big risks and ignored the consequences. I hated it because I was so tired all the time, so tired that, from the age of 18 onwards, I couldn’t tell when I was sad or just exhausted. And I hated it because I wasn’t sure of I could really live without it.

Wegelius’ passion brought him success, but it was also an all consuming passion. “Me and my bike still needed each other,” he writes. Two sides to passion, therefore: the drive to take one farther than what just talent and its application can achieve, but also with a cost involved. Dedication brings its own rewards, but there is also a potential downside. Single mindedness is useful, although it can be at the expense of other parts of one’s life.

In anything we do, being passionate about the endeavour makes it easier to overcome barriers and hurdles and to stick with it when the going gets tough. Few of us are fortunate enough to make it to the lofty heights of world class professional success. Wegelius’ book reminds us of the sacrifices required to get there (if one also has the talent and the luck).

Not a fairy tale (pic from cyclingweekly)
Not a fairy tale (pic from cyclingweekly)

Tipples and tonics revisited

The seasons of tipples and tonics – fall and winter (maybe spring) – are fast approaching and while we may be focusing our attentions on a set of winter wheels with appropriate tyre-age, or that elusive yet perfect softshell jacket, do not forget to take care of your insides with a seasonally appropriate tipple or tonic on your ride.

Over at his site, Bill Strickland has a charming vignette about La Bomba, along with a very useful modern recipe (three ingredients, not four). Even if you can’t get the authentic version like Bill, a stainless steel hip flask will still fit in your jersey pocket and also add a nice touch of savoir-faire to your ride, not to mention a good conversation starter at your group ride cafe stop (before you rip their legs off on the way home in a caffeine, sugar and booze-induced haze).

If you prefer a shot of something a bit more wholesome to get you started, try this (courtesy of popular women’s magazine Self): combine 2 tbsp fresh orange juice, 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar (good for weight loss, apparently), one-eighth tsp powdered ginger, and a pinch each of turmeric and cayenne pepper. Perhaps this one is the best choice when heading out the door, with the flask in reserve for when the weather really turns nasty and you have to start digging deep into the suitcase of motivation.

The la bomba flask (from
The la bomba flask (from

Demystifying speed

“Of all the equipment on your bike, your legs are the most critical component… The bike typically makes up 30 percent of your total aerodynamic resistance, less than 15 percent of your total bike/rider mass, and 0 percent of the power generation.”

The above quotes are from aerospace engineer Jim Gourley’s book ‘Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed’, which crunches the numbers and adds a thick scientific veneer to many of the themes advanced (by a non-scientist) on this blog. According to his calculations, a 1 pound weight reduction is worth just 2.5 seconds on a 1-mile climb at a 7% gradient (the useful rule of thumb in the book is that a 10 watt ‘savings’ in power is worth just 40-60 seconds over a 25 mile distance). That carbon seatpost is just not going to do it.

Still, a 10+ pound weight reduction in the rider starts to add up to appreciable gains, especially on steeper climbs where gravity exerts a greater force. Wafer-thin climbing whippets have a distinct advantage. Which is why power to weight ratios have become all important for pro racers in grand tours. No longer can power be dramatically increased through doping. Weight has to come down. Which is why Chris Froome looked like he was suffering from an eating disorder rather than a course of EPO.

Crunching the numbers says that dramatic weight loss is the way to go for faster climbing, but don’t try it at home. Gourley recommends a power meter as a training tool and a way of measuring (and improving) efforts on the bike. “Given the choice between a new set of wheels and a power meter, skip the cosmetics and work on the engine. Get the most speed for your dollar. Remember the difference between a fast-looking bike and a bike that actually goes fast.” Build up the power of that engine first.

'An x-ray on top of a pair of thighs' (picture from The Guardian)
‘An x-ray on top of a pair of thighs’ (picture from The Guardian)