Purposeful Pedalling: An Inquiry as to Why We Ride
Why do we do it? It's a question I'm sure we've all posed to ourselves. In whatever guise we purport to be; cyclist, bike rider, kerb hugger, roadie, bicycler (if an odd Google description is to be adopted) or perhaps even the rather visionary ad hominem used by mechanics nationwide - chicken chaser. No matter what we'd click in the biography sections of Linkedin or Tinder, we've all wondered at some stage, as to why we do what we do. For clarity, in the following article I will be referring to those who've spent upwards of £1,000 on a drop handlebar 'racer' and with that, interminable time on local tarmac, as it is these 'MAMMILs' that captivate the corner of a tabloid newspaper whenever they tumble under the force of a German bonnet, or flout the highway code in the hunt for Strava glory. Those are the niche groupuscules to whom I speak when I ask why. Owners of Bromptons, Pendletons, Carreras or any other quality steed available for purchase in popular stores, are more often than not mere commuters or weekend bimblers, and should therefore be deemed fundamental utilitarians of two-wheeled transport.
We can leave recumbent commuters and other locomotive oddities out of it. © New Atlas
I've been reflecting on the teleological issues surrounding moderate to serious road cycling of late. Next month will mark a year since I departed from the sport, my COVID-induced disembarkation from cycling's relentless train. And though I might never have blessed the fields of Flanders with pedal-powered brilliance, I did once upon a time house mediocre domestic professional ambitions. In September I will go to university, and now have goals of broadsheet journalism. Alas one year on, far from regretting my call to divert back to civilian life, I do often find Saturdays, Sundays and midweek evenings a tad vacuous behind a laptop screen or the vellum pages of a victorian novel. So there must be something in this. Am I perhaps shell-shocked from lactate trauma, or do I secretly miss the clunk of a jockey wheel or the screech of Continental's BlackChilli compound on hot tarmac?
What with the advent of a new season and my recent abdication from 'serious' riding, I've had plenty of time to ponder. I shouldn't be blamed for thinking in such an antagonistic fashion either. Our sport (using the inclusive pronoun with understandable caution) is both to an outsider looking in and, indeed, an insider looking out, a rather peculiar hobby. Whether we're three quarters of the way up a gruelling climb and the 8% gradient starts to gnaw at our already meager FTP, or we're going for it, mouth agape, at an embuggeringly low 60 or 70 RPM into a mid-winter snow storm, there are those moments when the whole facade of athletic endeavour dissipates in the face of a Mars Bar or a twenty minute roadside lie down. Days whereby the legs seem an entirely separate entity to the upper body; levers screwed into the pelvis as your partner concocts a mid-ride bidon full of electrolytes and energy before seeing you off for the day. Four, five, even six hours out in the wilderness is, for any budding pro or banker with aspirations of weekend warriorship, just a yomp outside that may take some time.
Then we come to road cycling's inordinate expense. Having worked in a bike shop full time over the course of the last 12 months, I see on a daily basis the astounding prices placed on the most quotidian of items. Bikes and wheels are the usual suspects, and their extortionate tags are rightly harangued. £1500 for something decent. £3000 for something really decent. But it's the garments, widgets and maintenance miscellany- the practising cyclist's baggage- that eats into your pecuniary gap the hardest. £200 top and bottom to stay warm throughout the colder months, £400 floor pumps bolstered by stainless steel and Italian authenticity. £500 to receive power data in real time on a £350 head unit and £100 annually to have your aerobic shortfallings detailed to you via handy axiomatic graphs. And that's not to mention the intellectual dark web of pseudo-scientific performance coaching, where charlatans with an inferiority complex and a few letters after their surname charge a low end monthly rent to boost some poor tractible sucker's strength and adaptability. Don't get me wrong, I'm not approaching this 'why' proposition from a touchy feely, Karl Marxey, classist perspective. If you have the financial avoirdupois at your behest, then go for it. My thrust would be that surely, after considering these pitfalls, that out there somewhere lies a cheaper way to dish out the hurt to yourself and others.
"How much d'ya pay for that?" © Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
This brings us to the next point of order. We've cornered some issues surrounding training, bunny hopped over cycling's obvious economical negatives; it's high time to discuss the main event - competition. In this area, the rule is relatively simple, time=success. Whilst this rubrik has altered since the 1970's, a decade which saw headcases such as Eddy Merckx ride the ludicrous distance of Ghent to the Ardennes and back again in a single day, by and large the aim of the game has remained constant. This raison d'etre becomes ever more self-defeating when nutrition is thrown into the pot. Again, the rule is simple; less, to an extent, is more. No matter how chronologically and alimentatively profligate this may seem on paper, and how pugnacious contemporary nutritionists are in the assertion of their own ethical methods, the major runners and riders of any UCI event still cloister to the good old fashioned programme of training hard on not much grub at all. In my experience, contesting mostly Regional A and B races, and occasional dabbles in the national scene (not to much avail I must admit), it would never have occurred to my younger self that pounding around a go kart track or the extramural limits of a city, eyeballs on stalks, in deep calorific debt, was either dangerous or futile. I may be starting to come across as somewhat of a malcontent, however the universal truth is that, just like the lads in Reeboks and polyester shorts down at the local park, only an infinitesimal number of emaciated youths will make it. And even if a youngster realises his childhood dream of becoming a full time rider, unless he/she happens to possess horrendous genetic proficiencies and the training plan adherence of an ecclesiastic, they're destined to spend the years preceding middle age as a worker bee, leading out a sparrow-legged Ubermensch and collapsing into a Andorran single star with a shattered clavicle and 1800 TSS score dangling from their neck.
Even for the best, cycling is a sufferfest. © Graham Watson
I get the good parts. Ok. I really do. Do not be too easily persuaded to hang up your wheels by some acrimonious contrarian. I recognise the mental health benefits, the serotonin coursing through the system after russian steps, 40/20s or a hill climb. It's true that I have also inhaled the physiological perks of a twenty odd hour training week, by way of mirror gazing, or successfully trying on a cotton shirt that fit me aged three. I can also come to terms with the sociological positives; the camaraderie produced from a 200K day in the hills or a handicap race where scratch finally make the catch. Cycling gets a drubbing for it's aridity as a spectator sport, but I find the Grand Tours and especially the Classics, from my metaphorical and physical armchair position, utterly stimulating. And for those who, like Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar, are blessed with outrageous hereditary accoutrements, the people who can, with embittering svelteness and insouciance, rip across a 60 second gap at 500 watts in the blink of an eye, I wish - pardoning the pun - all power to them. My criticism would be that, for a pastime so enwrapped in cork tradition, so entrenched in gentleman's honour and unwritten rules, there must be some other method, some alternative to institutionalised self harming, another way of looking good in your tighty whities.