Dr. Hutch: It’s getting harder to suffer on a bike

Recalling simple pre-power meter training, the Doc laments that suffering isn’t as easy as it used to be

Long, long ago, in a world before the power meter, there was the pulse monitor. I know, it’s hard to believe we once worshipped anything so primitive.

Much like the cyclist’s current touchstone, there were many varieties, to suit all budgets. If you were rich, you bought one handcrafted out of marble by a Florentine master. If you were less rich, you had to settle for one made out of wrought iron by a Scottish blacksmith.

>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<

It told you your heart rate, and that was all. These days almost anything you stick on your handlebars does this. So we’ve lost our appreciation of the beautiful simplicity of that one number. It simply tells you how hard you’re trying. It doesn’t undermine your self-esteem with absolutes — telling you how fit you really are and how much more useless a rider you are than Fabian Cancellara.

Like the best kind of grandparent, a pulse monitor gives you full credit for effort and it doesn’t care how useless you may really be compared to other children. It doesn’t actually give you a Chocolate Homewheat and a glass of squash, but you know that if it could, it would.

Sweet, simple suffering

The one doubt I have is that, though I know that your pulse naturally slows down a little as you get older, I find it hard to shake off the feeling that what the smaller numbers are really telling me is that I am trying less hard than I used to. According to the lovely simple number, my ability to suffer is dwindling.

I made the mistake of explaining this to my friend Bernard when we were out on a ride. He didn’t reply at first. When I glanced across, there was a contented smile on his face.

“I can still hit 212 beats per minute,” he said. “That makes me 22 better-at-suffering-on-a-bike than you.”

“First,” I said, “I don’t think it’s quite that simple, and second you’d have a coronary long before you saw the number 212 on your computer.”

>>> Dr. Hutch: Lance Armstrong’s literal and metaphorical car crash

I accept that only the second part of this statement was true.

He twisted his computer off its mount, and invited me to verify it had been newly zeroed. I did so, and thought about how I would explain what was about to happen to a judge. Bernard snicked the computer back, clicked to a smaller sprocket, and started to wind himself up to full throttle. I tucked in behind, full to the brim with morbid curiosity.

I could hear great rasps of breath, and had to dodge giant sheets of snot that flew through his slipstream as if someone was firing pizza-dough out of a cricket bowling-machine. Finally, collapsed over his handlebars, he passed me his computer. “Max bpm 212” it unequivocally said.

Heart rate monitor

Recalling those simple days of strapping a piece of elastic and plastic to your chest

Beat it, Bernard

In some ways, this probably explains a lot about my friend’s athletic inadequacies. He clearly has a heart the size of a hummingbird’s, and that works like one of those tiny model trains that is all whirring pistons and I-think-I-can-I-know-I-can.

“You see?” he said between breaths.

Not only that, I reflected, but given the short distance he had to cover, and the relatively slow speed he topped out at (I was right behind him the whole way, remember) he could produce more suffering from much less actual effort than I’d have believed possible. In terms of sheer (in)efficiency, it was awe-inspiring. He’d taken the energy content of nothing more than a cream cracker, and used it to, well, cream cracker himself.

“Chapeau, Bernie,” I thought — but obviously I didn’t actually say it.