This column is often accused of taking “a sideways look at cycling”. People mean well, I know it’s intended as a compliment, but that doesn’t mean I really like it all that much. I prefer to think of it as a defective view of cycling. One where mere truth is thrown to the winds in the service of the sort of insight that only recycled jokes can provide. Think of it as analogous to a British political speech.
This week, however, I thought, “Right. If it’s a sideways view they want, a sideways view they shall have.” It’s going to be less revolutionary than you think, because everyone in cycling looks at it sideways already.
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Don’t believe me? What’s the first thing you do when you want to see what a day in the saddle is going to be like? That’s right, you look at the ride profile. The side-on view. The truth is that the only people with a more resolutely sideways perspective on the world than cyclists are train passengers in Lincolnshire.
You can tell so much. How steep, how hard. How dangerous, how fast. Who might win, and how they might do it. I can’t reliably find Alpe d’Huez or the Ventoux on a map — as colleagues who’ve let me navigate will attest — but show me those sweet mountain profiles, and I can show you all the places that I’ve been reduced to tears on the way up and to hastily shouted religious awakenings on the way down.
There are all the different sorts of profile. The ruler (yawn). The saw (better). The thing that looks like a child’s drawing of a traffic cone, and means you’re going to freeze to death on the descent.
Personally the one I hate the most is the one that looks like a torn edge of paper. The sort of ride that is relentless in its unpredictability, where it’s impossible to find any sort of rhythm and where the roads are always heavy. You look at it and know that by sundown you’ll be knackered, but not really be able to point to any great achievements.
On the other hand, my favourites are the ones that look like a coven of witches silhouetted against the sky. Proper climbs, proper descents. Perhaps even better are the ones that just go up from left to right — I’d rather go up than down any day of the week.
The success of a profile depends on its vertical scale. It has to be just right — not too big, and certainly not too small. If you’ve ever tried drawing a profile with the same scale for up and down as side to side you’ll already know what a measly incline one-in-10 really is. It’s less than six degrees. A one-in-five climb — about the limit for most of us — is 11 degrees. Draw a profile ‘accurately’, and however bad a climber you think you already are, you’ll instantly be even worse.
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But get the scale exaggerated just right on the profile, and you get just the right mix of heroic and believable.
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After the ride, when you download a GPS, and overlay the profile with heart rate, speed, and anything else you fancy, you have everything you need to relive the magic. I’m not sure if there’s any other sport where you can be so vividly transported back to the action by a few wavy lines. And it would simply not be the same if you used a conventional map.
Left and right? North, south, east or west? Who cares? The joy of cycling is in up and down. And you can only see that if you look at it sideways.