Running some numbers: the convolutions around methods and substance of modern-day training data
During the hazy days of primary school, in between the consumption of HB pencil ends and a daily Year 3 World Cup Final, my medium sized comprehensive forced upon us what would become known, comfortably and cathartically, as 'circle time'. After a particularly fatiguing six-hour utensil munch, us snotty seven year olds would congregate on the tiled Triexta in a great plimsolled mass to have ourselves a good purgative gab.
This reminiscence, both vivid and bold in its anamnesis, is, I assure you, in aid of a cycling related topic. For it was during one aforementioned emotional circle jerk that the question of one's favourite scholarly subject arose. You'll be glad to know I have not changed my sesquipedalian tune from that day to this and opted for what was then simplistically referred to as 'Literacy,' citing the limitless possibilities available to its employer on the page. To my shock, and later my utter abhorrence, Maths took that day with a sweeping majority. Given that these children had scarcely yet embarked upon the vicissitudes of quadratic equations, we can grant them some forgiveness. It was not so much the choice but the reasons my hopscotch brethren and teacher (himself a man basking in the glory of a second class Mathematics degree) gave that so puzzled me. They found the definitive nature of Maths; taking X and multiplying it by Y to get Z, somehow soothing. Each of them apparently loved, as our barbigerous pedagogue would nullify it, an endpoint. An answer, unambiguous certainty; the logician's Final Solution to the world's complexity. And our world is no different. Although the cycling elite may weigh less than the kids in period three, they possess the similar umph for numbers, the same crazed concupiscence for finite answers. It is the great head unit that's given us cyclists this crazed concupiscence. Craned necks from strenuous staring, enhanced bifocals and immense upfront displays are the principles of our constitution and are but one LA hothead away from becoming an equally enlightening and frightening reality within the pro peloton.
Eyes on the prize - Zwift's new cycling computer illuminates a rider in his darkest moments. © Zwift.com
So what the hell is going on? How did we veer so violently from our original training schedule of escapism into the floundering foliage of Turingian data infatuation? To find out, I'll be adding up the pros of data within our discombobulating sport, subtracting the cons, and observing either the positive or negative remnants from my calculation. I'll be plotting the points of head units and clicking through the punctilious emanation of other athletic wearables in hope of joining some quantitative dots. Do we take the schoolboy's word for it that numerical verisimilitude; the assurances of fitness metrics and their adjuvant display screens are potent tools for improvement? Or is this rise of highly specialised arithmetic, couched in the pseudo-certitude of a BSc, just a modern soon-to-be shibboleth; a faulty machine spitting out fustian figures?
Before any lambasting or lamenting does take place, I would like to caveat this diatribe against digits with a little asterix of common sense. It would be intellectually dishonest to say that numbers have no material bearing or utility in our lives. Evolutionarily homosapiens, inherently social animals, have neurological advantages that enable them to organise and thus orient themselves in the ferocious aleatoric business of living. If we hadn't been able to count, we wouldn't have formed tribes and I wouldn't be typing this piece now. What I would call our asphyxiation with numbers, that is preoccupation with numbers beyond the primitive aim of survival, dates back to around 520-500 BC, with the Ionian philosopher Pythagoras. Both he and his entourage (the Pythagoreans) were of the belief that if we could only somehow gain mastery of the overbearing equations that dictate how the planet runs, we would be free. I see every contemporary arithmetical paragon like Dan Bigham, Tim Kerrison and Michele Ferrari, as dedicated Pythagoreans seeking circular enclosures around cycling's most metastasising of issues; just without the wispy chins and deep routed advocacy of slavery. Since then it has merely been a matter of when and not if algorithmical rule shall count itself into the ascendency. Cycling, either as a casual Tuesday tootle or a race for a rainbow jersey, can now be fundamentally observed through the prism of figures. How're your numbers? What're you producing? What's the data showing? Will you claw them back in time? all these questions and more passed around the club run, like statistical pornography in a sweaty paper bag.
Never have numbers been greater portrayed as the focal point than at last year's Tour De France. In one of a multitude of pitiful interviews with INEOS' Egan Bernal, he told the gentleman questioning him that, although he'd been dropped like a stone by riders much heavier and far less talented than himself, he felt, in his heart of hearts, that his numbers were good and may eventually see him through. One can't imagine how, in any other sporting context, the reliance on data in the face of utter defeat would suffice as encouraging talk of a fight back. INEOS typified this further with Geraint Thomas' recent collaborative videos with tyre manufacturer Continental. Throughout two videos, the Welshman explains in his usual dulcet tones, the number of; days he's had in yellow at the Tour, stages he's won, kilometres he's travelled, team vehicles he's been supported by and the calories he's burnt doing it all. At the time of writing, the annual three-week festival of fast pedalling will commence in three short days, or in 65 hours, or indeed in 3,900 minutes - to be exact. While the devilish flag flailers and sycophantic pundits will be extolling the virtues of courage, grit and determination needed in a successful Tour campaign. The reality remains of course that a) all likely victors will be tracking with brain-numbing mundanity, carbohydrate intake, muscle glycogen and frequency of form-killing copulations and b) the vivification of these brave and courageous stars will be broadcast on a screen that receives, stores and presents a flickering of binary 0s and 1s.
Courage, grit and determination in their simplest forms. © Shutterstock
You simply can't escape the numbers. I think of the emotional lability involved in my gone by days of serious cycling, undulations of mood coinciding perfectly with a power chart. Even my current lucubrations must dip before the limbo bar of an approximate word count. I feel, in my more solipsistic moments, as if I'm reliving Alex Mason's numerical ordeal in the 2010 Call of Duty Black Ops game.
The numbers Mason! What do the Numbers mean Mason? © Treyarch
Taking the presupposition that this is an issue, we must therefore attack the malignance at its source. The head unit suppliers have grabbed the innocent cyclist by the nose and dragged him, kicking and screaming and later begging for more, down data's dusty single track. The technology has come a long way since Curtis Veeder's late 19th century Cyclometer; a device that transmitted wheel rotations down to an odometer (a reader mounted in the garish and thoroughly unaerodynamic position beside the front hub) which in turn supplied a reference number that would later reveal a rider's distance for the day. A folderolic process whose concomitant apparatus would soon be dispensed with by Cateye, Stages, Garmin, Wahoo and Whoop. The latter pair's marvellously onomatopoeic names, being two world-gurgling gig-economic start-ups that will sap the whooping, wahooing fun from exercise one test at a time, is fine irony. Each respective company's chef d'oeuvre has done away with any such futile physical requirements, swapping out sensors and cables for the ever-inapprehensible employment of GPS and The Cloud. Needing only a simple handlebar mount and £300-£500, these number crunching vehicles are now twist and go, transmigrating a befuddled 4th Cat from the tundra of ignorance, via the steep gradients of metric measurability, to the shaky outpost of informed bewilderment. All said ranked rider then has to do is activate a side button or swipe left or right on his/her mathematical Tinder date, and their performance will be poked, prodded and eventually winnowed into a data file. Upon ride completion, the file is then beamed up to the boffins back at HQ, for the satiety of Garmin Connect, TrainingPeaks, Strava or any other athletised app.
TrainingPeaks' multi-category Col'de Confusion. © TrainingPeak
Is it not insidious that the very systems at play in an Edge 530 or an ElementBolt, those that claim to imbue us with knowledge of our own performance, using endless cycling circumlocutions like NP, VAM, TSS, ATL, CTL, EF, IF and NGP, really just batter us into an informatively relinquished bed? I've held the toes of coaches to the coals before. The very idea that pre, mid and post workout analysis, overseen by some lissom jobsworth posing as a didact; a mathematical Gandalf doubtfully following his nose, the notion that this is in any way revelatory or at least helpful is stupefaction. I'm not against all data exploits. Simple gathering, the type with gentle intervention from honest metrical cornerstones like speed and distance, seems obvious as a mild incentive to ride. But the slippery slope of dependency that rational individuals experience; those who've gone from social data dabblers to hardline addicts, is an all-too-common story. The writer and cultural commentator Will Self says that technology is just something humans do, and that the GPS project, the geographical goblins mingling under your head unit's perspex, offer absolute location without orientation. The same can be said for the numbers pirouetting from 1 to 9 above them. When we see 5.6 W/Kg, 1384ft or a TSS score of 330, we become so utterly enraptured by the numbers that we identify with them. They fuse idealistically with Google's blue dot, blipping from pillar to post, in a zombified tourist's top pocket. It seems funny also, that as my classroom comrades found all those years ago, looking for solace in digitised definitive answers, leaves innumerable sums still to be done.