Eddy Merckx loved to fiddle. In the dark of the early hours, if he couldn’t sleep, he used to go down to his workshop and tinker with his bikes. In the middle of races, he sometimes got off to adjust his saddle height or angle — he carried the relevant tools in a jersey pocket at all times.
In this regard (if in no other) he has common ground with my other favourite barrel-chested bikie, my friend Bernard. He acquired a new bike recently, and every ride with him now consists of stopping and waiting and stopping again while he tweaks, un-tweaks, re-tweaks, and searches for dropped Allen keys in long grass verges.
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“Why don’t you just set it up the same as your other bikes?” I asked.
“Because every bike is different,” he said. “You have to find the saddle height that works with each one. You can’t just use the same saddle height and reach on all of them. It depends on frame compliance, tube profiles, fork rake. The optimum is different for every frame, wheel, tyre… I’m not a barbarian.”
“Just wait till I get this set up right. Then you’ll be in trouble.”
Adjust a bit more…
Bernard’s love of fiddling extends far beyond his bike-fit. He constantly adjusts everything: training, diet, riding position, chain lube composition, bar tape wrapping pattern, you name it.
He is convinced that every change is going to be the big one. Anyone else would assess the effectiveness of the innovations with some sort of medium-term performance monitoring, like how fast they can get up a local hill, or a time trial PB. Bernard does not do it this way.
“This is going to be brilliant,” he once announced, as he emerged from the toilet just before a race.
“If I don’t set a PB today I never will: my pee was so red I had to reassure the guy at the next urinal that I wasn’t dying.”
This was in the midst of his beetroot-juice-as-an-aid-to-performance infatuation, and he was convinced that if the side effects were that vivid, the supposed speed-increasing effects were going to be astonishing.
They weren’t, although he was so busy basking in his scarlet urine that I don’t think he noticed.
He is the same with training. Every alteration will be the difference between him and Chris Froome. “I’ve increased the recovery time by 10 per cent and added another two efforts to the set,” he’ll announce.
This will be followed by the inevitable report: “I was sick twice and couldn’t walk properly for two hours afterwards. Great session.”
Again, the side effects are the main attraction. I think Bernard’s conviction is that if a training protocol is unpleasant enough, or a diet fad inconvenient enough, or a supplement disgusting enough, then that on its own is more than enough evidence that it works.
He tried a supplement called beta-alanine a couple of years ago, which made him itch all over. He adored it. When I asked him if he thought it had increased his threshold power, he looked momentarily baffled, before saying he didn’t really know. He abandoned it when he discovered a weird body-building supplement that made his ears go red.
I almost envy him. The whole thing gives him an optimism that is denied to those of us who long ago realised that there wasn’t really an easy way. I know that to get fit I need to do a lot of riding, and that at least some of it is likely to be pretty dull.
Bernie, on the other hand, has faith that there is a magic shortcut, and that to find it all he has to do is go out and do a whole lot of training.