Dr. Hutch: cycling prowess, it’s all about distance

When it comes to the size of your cycling prowess, Dr. Hutch recommends speaking the language of distance — while steering well clear of accuracy, duration and speed

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The weekend before last, the deputy editor of this magazine rode round Majorca. Afterwards, he tweeted a celebratory photo of his GPS with ‘309km’ proudly displayed, congratulating himself on his completion of the 312km challenge.

When challenged over the 3km discrepancy, he explained that, when it came to the distance he’d covered, he preferred to believe the organisers of the ride. To be fair, who among us hasn’t weighed up the competing claims to accuracy of the US military’s flagship satellite technology and a chain-smoking Spanish press officer, and gone with the latter?

Distance matters to cyclists. For kids, I accept, everything is about speed. But the stature of a grown-up rider is measured by length. Ride fast, die quickly; ride long, die slowly. The difference between 18mph and 22mph is trivial; the difference between 90 miles and 110 miles is profound.

The thing is that distance is relative. “Relative to what?” you might ask. Relative to everything. Twenty-five miles in quiet lanes on a sunny afternoon is but a twinkle of delight. Twenty-five miles on a sunny afternoon when you’ve just realised you’ve forgotten to bring any means whatsoever of repairing a puncture is a torturous test of mental endurance over gravel-strewn tracks that the council ought to be ashamed of.

Proximal lengthening
More importantly, distance is relative to time. The length of a ride increases as it draws near. When you sign up for a 200km Etape nine months before it’s going to happen, you’re dealing with a substantial chunk of distance but nothing you can’t handle. Your normal Sunday ride, plus a bit — a bit that you can disregard already because of how fit you’re going to be in nine months’ time.

Standing at the start after nine months of procrastination, 200km will have become the sort of distance that would cause NASA to take a sharp breath and look for somewhere to bolt on a few extra rockets. After you’ve finished, of course, 200km recedes to being a mere trifle.

Or rather it does until you come to tell the tale. Distance is also relative to the reference point of whomever you are telling about it. Non-cycling work colleagues? For them, there are only three units of distance anyone can cover on a bike: one mile, five miles, and, “Holy crap, really? That’s amazing”.

You will be so far beyond even the latter that said colleague will genuinely have no meaningful way to distinguish between you and Geraint Thomas.

Your spouse will be a different matter. He or she has a hundred ways to differentiate you from Geraint Thomas. Over-egg things even slightly, and with one penetrating stare your attempt to dress up 200km of middle-aged wheezing as the Tour de France will crumple. You’ll be lucky if it still sounds any further than the-newsagents-and-back by the time they’ve finished with it.

Distance also depends on the weather. One hundred kilometres into a headwind is at least twice the length of 100km with a tailwind. Curiously, though, 100km of headwind followed by 100km of tailwind is still double the distance. You never get any credit for this.

Non-cyclists will contend that winds ‘even out’ over the course of a ride. Do they hell.
The final instance of distance relativity is a simple one. You round-up your own distances, and round-down everyone else’s. For me, anything over 150km is “about 200km”. But if the deputy editor thinks I’m going to forget his cavalier attempt to claim credit for 3km that he clearly didn’t do, he’s very wrong.

Acts of cycling stupidity
I came across an acquaintance last week, standing on the roadside 25 miles or so from home. He had punctured while on his time trial bike, and he had the back disc-wheel in his hands, with a pump attached to the valve. But his expression was perplexed.

His problem was this: the hole cut into the disc for access to the valve was a bit too small for the pump. He’d waggled the pump head on by pushing the valve up into the tyre, and then pumped it up. But now the pump was wedged comprehensively in the hole. He could neither remove it, nor let the tyre down to waggle it off the way he’d waggled it on.

When I stopped laughing, I lent him my phone to call his wife. Last I heard he was still waiting for the tyre to get soft enough to get his pump back.