‘Hold your line, keep pedalling’ – track cycling coaches have been repeating this phrase after sprints during training sessions for decades. It’s so that the instructions are burned into the brains of riders by the time they come to race – because when exhaustion, lack of oxygen and a pounding heart rate come together, cyclists can do the stupidest of things.
Once 90 per cent of max heart rate is achieved, individuals used to displaying perfectly adequate levels of cognition are reduced to the dribbling mess you’d probably find if you woke them up at 3.30am after a tequila fuelled night on the town; coordination: disintegrated, vision: double or none, powers of observation: nil.
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I’ve committed many a fatigue-fuelled faux pas myself. Forgetting the turning circle on a time trial bike is different to that of a road bike immediately after shouting ‘FORTY-TWO’ at the time keeper resulted in a very embarrassing crash and a nasty scar. Forgetting to shout ‘FORTY-TWO’ and replacing it with something else also beginning with ‘F’ after clocking a course record didn’t go down too well either.
Other examples include dropping the chain at the pivotal moment in a road race, and let’s not forget using a loop of chain hanging from a garage to haul my post-race body onto the rollers – only to wrap my foot up in the dangling contraption and find myself clattering to the ground a fraction of a second later.
I’ve been on the receiving end, too. There was the time I’d finally clawed my way onto the rear wheels of six riders out-front in a road race, having bridged solo from an unresponsive peloton. I thought I was on the limit, but it turned out not as much as the two riders who inexplicably collided with each other moments later – tangling themselves into a pile behind which I had no choice but to come to a dead stop.
Above-threshold efforts yield plenty of examples of exhaustion induced lack of function, but of course endurance riders are far from safe.
Working on the feed desk at a sportive one year, I was approached by a man carrying three burst inner tubes and a weary expression.
“Is there someone who can help with this?” he asked.
The crest-fallen face that came in response to a girl volunteering to fix his puncture wasn’t quite the ‘thank-you’ I’d hoped for, but clearly fatigue had clouded both his ability to pull out a thorn and his manners.
My own most damning tale of post-pedalling mental disturbance came during the comedown of a three-day riding holiday.
I stopped at the airport duty-free shopping area to buy some chocolates to take home – €5 euros a box seemed like a perfect way to use up my remaining cash and treat family at home.
Of course, the observational powers of tired cyclists are limited – so once I’d laboriously picked out individual chocolates, and had them weighed, the patient chocolatier had to explain, in very slow English, how €5 euros per 20 grams added up to a lot of money for the large box of sugary carbohydrates that I’d selected.
We removed individual chocolates one by one, with intermittent weigh-ins. Until I realised that I was basically going to be left with a sad looking collection of about five truffles. Not only that, but in Portugal, they don’t call late boarders to the gate – and cyclists with 350 miles in their legs are not very good at running.