This is my friend Bernard’s least favourite time of year. It’s the midst of the racing season. That means two things to Bernard. The first is that one of his training companions – me – is at his fittest and most difficult to keep up with, requiring a level of effort Bernard describes as ‘moderate’ and which I describe as ‘flirting with a cardiac episode’.
The second is that by going racing most weekends, he’s placed face to face with the fact that it’s not just me. Everyone can go faster than he can. And he can’t even give up racing, because as he points out, if his nightly prayers are answered and he gets Wiggo’s legs for a day, he won’t know, and will end up using them to fetch cheap lager from the fridge while he’s watching The Antiques Roadshow.
We were climbing a local hill together last week, when he suddenly exclaimed, ‘This is bloody unfair! This is just genetics, you know. You, descended from a long line of gazelles…’ he looked over at me. ‘Or at any rate some variety of short, fat gazelles, and me, apparently descended from a line of homo sapiens who were just sitting out the millennia waiting for the invention of Netflix.’
There is a pattern to Bernard’s interest in matters genetic. When I first met Bernard, he was a fairly useful bike rider. In those days, he used to do a bit of training. I mean proper training, getting out every day, with a structure to the week’s riding, an easy day on Saturday, and normally a race on Sunday. His success in those days was down to hard work, of which he was justly proud, and always willing (perhaps a little too willing) to provide details of. I remember him entertaining us in the pub one night by taking his heart rate monitor off his wrist and showing us a second-by-second real-time replay of his pulse during a recent interval session. If we’d had power meters in those days, doubtless we’d all have brought our laptops to the pub and had fully five times the fun.
As things started to slide, and the training quietly ceased, well then genetics kicked in. So I formulated a rule for him. Success is the result of hard work. Failure is the result of defective genetics. Otherwise known as, ‘They f*ck you up, your mum and dad’. The converse, from Bernard’s point of view, is that my successes are the result of genetics, my failures the result of laziness.
On this occasion, the familiar conversation took an unexpected turn. ‘Just you wait till genetic engineering gets to the point where I can have myself genetically modified,’ he said.
‘You’d get trampled to death by angry people in vegan sandals,’ I said. ‘That’s what happens to things that get genetically modified. Like wheat. And they won’t let you stand about in the canned vegetable aisle in Tesco anymore. Oh, and according to a recent survey, nine out of ten of people in the UK will want you labeled.’
Splice of life
Bernard assured me he was, in a relative way, quite serious. ‘The technology already exists to splice a new gene in, one that would instantly give me the aerobic system of a horse. It’s just ethics that stops it from happening.’
‘Everyone could have their parents’ genetics tested, and then we could all be carefully equalised,’ I suggested. ‘Then, since we all started from a level playing-field, it would always boil down to whoever worked the hardest.’
‘I don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of this,’ said Bernard. ‘I’m pretty certain I’d like this best if it’s just me. In fact, forget we ever talked about it.’
Bad things that happen to good cyclists – Breaking things
Most of the components on a bike are capable of breaking. In fact, it’s not at all unusual to break something that it had never occurred to you it was even possible to break. A friend of mine installed some new brake blocks a couple of years ago, only for both of them to mysteriously disintegrate into a substance he described as ‘not unlike a blueberry muffin’.
Things break for one of four reasons. First, defective manufacture. This happens rather more rarely than the kind of people who arrive back at the bike shop to make a warranty claim on a bike that’s clearly been reversed over by a car, even to the point of having tyre tracks on it, would have you believe.
Second, there is poor maintenance. Neither I, nor any of my friends, have ever recorded an instance of this occurring. But I include it as a theoretical possibility.
Thirdly, there is the strain that any bike is placed under if an unexpectedly heavy weight is plonked on the saddle. There are no recorded instances of this actually happening, and again, I include this only for purposes of completeness.
Fourth, there is the application of massive amounts of power, and specifically torque, to equipment that is designed with normal mortals in mind, rather than riders like you and me. Any bike rider will tell you this is by far the most common explanation for cracked frames, bent cranks, bent pedals, broken bottle cages, grubby bar-tape, sagging saddles, stiff chain-links and chipped paint.
Acts of cycling stupidity
An anonymous emailer wrote to tell me of a recent job interview:
I arrived at the interview with a folding bike, which is how I get round town. As always this is a bit of a talking point with non-cyclists. One of the interview panel asked me if I ever got knocked off. I said that, funny she should ask, I’d been side-swiped onto the floor by a taxi that very morning. ‘In fact,’ I said, ‘if I took off my trousers right now, you’d be absolutely appalled by the mess.’ There was a horrified silence. ‘I mean, I’ve lost half the skin on my right thigh,’ I said.
But I fear I’d already planted a whole other image in their minds. I didn’t get the job.