There is a fundamental problem with cycling. No one really talks about it. It’s one of those things that is trivial in the grand scheme of things, but which is a source of more than a little frustration.
If it doesn’t niggle with you, it’s only because you haven’t noticed yet. I shall explain. Then you will notice it every time, and your life will be a little less satisfactory.
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I shall demonstrate with reference to a non-cycling friend of mine. Annabel is an old friend I met at college. In her teens she had been Kent schools’ 100m sprint champion. By the time I knew her she was an ex-sprinter, her sphere of excellence having moved to packing away pints of snakebite and black and dancing on tables.
On Saturday nights Annabel would challenge people, mainly male rugby players from other colleges, to races up the hill outside the bar, invariably for money or drink, and often as not in heels. In three years she was never beaten. She was a proper college celebrity.
Here’s the problem with cycling. No matter how good a bike rider you may be it’s useless for impressing people in pubs. For endurance athletes such as myself, all you can really do is look someone in the eye and say, “I can ride at a moderate-to-brisk pace for really quite a long time. Hours, in fact. It’s really quite something. I often bicycle from home to somewhere roughly 30 miles away and come back again with no significant difficulty. Look, I’ll show you how far it is on a map on my phone.” Even if you brought your bike to the pub, your party piece is going home on it.
Feats of athleticism only sound impressive to the cognoscenti. “I can do 10 miles in less than 20 minutes,” you might say to a non-cyclist, puffing yourself up a bit. “That’s over 30mph!”
“Is that fast?” your interlocutor will ask. “I mean, it doesn’t sound very fast. I’m sure my daughter can go faster than that.”
Even grander, more sweeping statements don’t work. I once proudly announced that I was “an elite racing cyclist”.
“Oh, you mean you’re one of those inconsiderate asses who cycles down Trinity Street at nine o’clock in the morning as fast as they can and yells at pedestrians to get out of the f***ing way?”
“No, I mean I’m an international athlete!”
“And yet you still can’t afford a car?”
That was still better than the usual reply, which is of course (feel free to chant along), “So you must have done the Tour de France, then?” I once heard that Barry Hoban was asked just that question. “Yes,” he said. “Eleven times.” He still didn’t impress anyone.
Glory by association is no better. “You know that Mark Cavendish?” I might say. “Well, you won’t believe this, but I’ve got a bike that’s really quite similar to his.” Or, “You know that Bradley Wiggins? He beat me a couple of years ago.” Yes, that really sets me apart from the common man.
Tricks aren’t a good option either. Most of us can’t do any, and even if you get your bike and pull a couple of wheelies in the car park you’re begging to get shot down by the next 12 year old who passes by on a BMX. It’s hardly going to produce the air of urban cool you were aiming for.
The only time I ever got anywhere was when a woman asked me why I wasn’t dancing. “I’m a racing cyclist,” I said. “So I’ve got very short hamstrings, and dancing gives me tendonitis.”
“Wow! Really?” she said. “That’s amazing.” She immediately wandered off and found someone with working hamstrings to dance with. But on behalf of cyclists everywhere, I felt it was progress.
How to… be coached
There is plenty of advice for those who wish to coach. There is much less guidance made available for their victims.
It’s important to look at things from your coach’s perspective. He’s coaching you. Of course, he’s a bit disappointed with life. It’s only fair to do your best to make him happy. Remember, you may be paying him, but the arrangement is essentially a charitable one.
Most coaching relationships these days are of a distance-coaching nature. Email, phone calls, websites. This makes it easier to lie: “Yes, I did the session, exactly as suggested. It was really hard, but you’d pitched it just right – I could just about do it but no more. This evening I feel tired, but also sort of elated. I’m not only becoming a better rider, but a better person as well.”
You may have a coach who wants to see power meter data. It’s not hard to recalibrate a power meter to produce whatever number you like. Just make sure the progress in your power numbers is gradual, consistent, but stops somewhere short of Peter Sagan territory.
If you have the kind of coach who’s likely to notice the calibration moving, you have two options. One is to get a series of more powerful friends to use your equipment to produce better data. The other is to actually do the training and make all that progress yourself. Most people go for the former.
Remember, all coaches know ‘the secret’. There is a simple and instant way of going faster on a bike, and they know what it is. Make sure you ask about it every time you speak to him.
Acts of cycling stupidity
A bike-shop mechanic writes: I had a guy come into the shop with a cheap old steel frame he’d recently bought. He said he was getting tired of the way the automatic gears changed at random.
I told him that automatic transmission had not yet been invented, and that Shimano Sora gears were certainly not where they were going to be introduced when it happened. He said that they most definitely were automatic – the harder he pedalled, a smaller rear sprocket was selected.
It turned out the right chainstay had broken. The harder he pushed the pedals, the more the back of the frame bent to the right, the more slack was left in the gear cable, the smaller the sprocket the derailleur selected. Kind of brilliant, I thought.
This article originally appeared in the April 4 2013 issue of Cycling Weekly.