The great empty

May 1, 2015 § 35 Comments

The verdict is in on power meters, Strava, and computerized ride data. They make you faster.

A professionally designed power-based training plan, scrupulously followed, and including adaptations for the times when you are sick, injured, or beset by the things otherwise known as life, will turn you into someone who turns the pedals faster.




What it will also do — and the verdict is in on this as well — is make you unhappier.

If you are a professional, that is a meaningless consequence. Your sponsors don’t give you money to ensure your happiness, they do it to ensure your success, which theoretically leads to better sales. But what about YOU?

I have three case studies, not including my own, that I’ve followed over the last six years. Here they are. Judge for yourself.

Case Study #1: The happy racer

This guy got into cycling from marathoning and “high risk” action sports. When he came onto the scene he fit the profile we’ve all seen, zooming from freddie to feared hammer in a single season. We’ll call him Tom. Tom rode his bicycle with abandon and zest, and saw nothing wrong with Mile 1 breakaways on the Saturday Donut Ride, breakaways that sometimes succeeded but that always inflicted carnage on those left behind, not to mention those who foolishly tried to follow his wheel.

He rode instinctively, and though his instincts were often wrong, occasionally they were right and they put him on the podium. More importantly, the act of riding was an act of irrepressible joy. Win or lose he embodied the same pleasure that you can find in any little kid zooming full speed down the local hill. Not that little kids are allowed to do that anymore, of course.

As part of his “progression,” Tom’s engineering mind made technology-based training a natural area of investigation. He “computered up,” and over a few seasons mastered the fundamentals of power-based training. His natural ability, an already sharpened knife, became a razor. His grasp of training and innate desire to share made him a lightning rod for new riders in his club, with whom he gladly shared training information, workout plans, and swapped training data.

After about three years, Tom no longer took risks on group rides by attacking early. He became calculating and efficient. If the pace exceeded his training targets, he sat up. If it wasn’t hard enough, he went off and did something by himself. Tom became a slave to his data. It made him faster, but it also turned the freedom of cycling into the prison of golf, where you are constantly reminded that there are absolute numbers beyond which you can never progress. Tom’s beauty, which had always been the bright light in his eyes, had dimmed.

Enslaved to the numbers, when Tom had a really bad year with some significant medical problems that ruined his carefully regulated train-by-the-numbers approach, instead of digging into the mental bucket, bucking up and rallying, he began doing something he’d never done before: throwing in the towel, DNF-ing, quitting. The thing that had always sustained him, his mental attitude and his enjoyment of the sport, had been replaced with numbers and data that had no real strength to carry him through the rough spots other than their unflinching message of inadequacy and defeat. The last time we rode together he was still struggling.

Case Study #2: Escape from New York

I’ll call this guy Snake Pliskin. He was whatever type is more aggro than Type A … Type A positive? He also came from a running background and migrated to cycling when his knees gave out. Mentally tough and physically gifted, for Snake the act of riding a bike was the act of riding away from the stresses of work.

Snake had a grind-em-up attitude to riding. He didn’t race but he approached every ride as a competition. And though he was often put to the sword on long climbs, when placed in his element of flat or undulating road, preferably with a stiff crosswind, he could put paid to all but the very best of the best. Snake finished his rides spent and satisfied, regardless of whether he was the last man standing. The act of full commitment and giving it his all recharged him for the real battles that remained to be fought in his workaday world.

For him, cycling was the beautiful escape.

Somewhere along the way he became a complete Strava addict. Multiple devices to record rides, pages and pages of KOM’s, and a ferocious response on the bike to those who took his trophies. Yet the more he buried himself in the world of Strava, the more he opened himself up to attack, as countless riders took shots — many of which were successful — at his virtual winnings. This of course drove him to ride more, ride harder, create more segments, and further extend his pages of KOM’s.

Along the way cycling mutated from a refuge into a prison. With everything measured and quantified, with every foot of roadway a possible place to take a KOM or lose one, he spiraled from the incredible pressures of his job to the equally crushing pressures of riding his bicycle.

As with Tom, Snake’s numbers told him that however good he was, on some segment, on some day, someone else was better. The awfulness was reflected in the fact that not only had Snake’s escape become a wearying burden, but it was now on full public display. Unlike the real world, where your buddy kicks your ass, rubs your nose in it, and you remind him of the drubbing you gave him the week before, Snake was locked in Strava kudo hell, where anonymous people with strange nicknames have the same right to comment as your closest buddies who suffered stroke for stroke all the way up the climb, and where the interaction is a binary “kudos” or an “uh-oh.”

The humanity of friends trading jokes and trading pulls, laughing at the funny shit that happens on a ride, commiserating about life, sharing triumphs, and making fun of each other’s foibles had been reduced to a fake interface of 0’s and 1’s artfully designed to imitate real people, real relationships, real lives. The escape was now the cage and it wasn’t even gilded.

The last time I rode with Snake he crushed everyone, grimly.

Case Study #3: The old school

I will call her Harriet. She had been around forever and was still dominating the local women’s race scene into her late 40’s, outsmarting and intimidating women half her age. She eschewed data and Strava and wattage-based training plans. Harriet’s MO was simple: ride and train with the fast men. She couldn’t beat them, but she could hang on and it made her strong enough to beat her peers, even when they were young enough to be her daughters.

She paid no attention to technology and refused to join Strava. She’d ridden as a pro and knew three things: how to train, how to win, and how to have fun.

And in her own way, her pleasure in riding a bicycle remained as vibrant and undiminished as it ever was. The last time I rode with her she gapped me out, shouted at me for running a red light, and dusted me in the sprint. Then she pedaled gaily off to work, ready to start the day.

This great empty is hardly confined to cycling. It repeats itself in myriad ways for modern Americans whether they ride bikes or not. When people think about the rise of the machines they imagine cyborgs and androids and sci-fi creations, but those aren’t the machines that rule us. The machines are pieces of software that are piped to us by phones, Garmins, desktops, and laptops, they are algorithms that have reduced the complexity of life and human interaction into 0’s and 1’s.

And they dominate us because at its most basic form, life is that simple. But who wants that level of simplicity? Isn’t life better with messiness, with the nonlinear slop and jostle of emotions and feelings and real human contact?

Of course it is, and that’s the big lie that the great empty has to spend billions to paper over. When your emotions are tugged by the 0’s and 1’s that show the precious pug or the newborn of your best friend or the KOM on that 200-yard bike path segment (tailwind, natch), something deep inside is left empty and unfulfilled, the zipless fuck of the digital age. How do I know? Because after the little jolt you have to hit refresh or like or kudo or scroll eternally and in desperation down the feed.

Answers I don’t have, but this I know — when you ride a bicycle untethered to 0’s and 1’s, you may not become any faster. But you will, over time, become happier and more at peace with the ragged, raging, sloppy and jostling world that, despite the best PR efforts of Facebag, Google, SRM, and Strava, hasn’t yet learned that reality is denser and more complex than two simple numbers.



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§ 35 Responses to The great empty

  • A-Trav says:

    I’d use Strava but keep forgetting to turn it on. Maybe my subconscious mind is trying to tell me something.

  • Sandy says:

    And then to go with your wise words:

    “The Seikilos epitaph’s survival in one piece, as it were, no doubt owes something to its shortness. The Greeks could carve the entire thing onto the surface of a tombstone, exactly the medium on which the modern world rediscovered it in 1885 near Aidin, Turkey. Its lyrics, liberally brought into English, exhort us as follows:

    While you live, shine

    have no grief at all

    life exists only for a short while

    and time demands its toll.”

    So, let’s ride for joy!

    • fsethd says:

      I will have a hard time outdoing something that has withstood literary criticism of the millenia.

      I think it doesn’t matter what you ride for, but it seems pretty certain that the more you measure the less you get.

      Thanks for sharing the liberal English translation! “Time demands its toll.” Amazing.

  • Joe C. says:

    Addictive personality gonna addict. Bikes, electronics, beer.

    • fsethd says:

      The trifecta.

      • Joe C. says:

        And ” turned the freedom of cycling into the prison of golf, where you are constantly reminded that there are absolute numbers beyond which you can never progress” is one of the greatest statements ever.

        • fsethd says:

          “You should take up golf to relax and alleviate the stress in your life,” said no doctor, ever.

  • Geoffrey says:

    My goal in the BWR was to have fun, help others have fun, and finish. My goal in group rides is the same. Sometimes that fun results in charging after ridiculous KOMs (King of the Morons?), and then being self-mocking about it (like yesterday).

    I looked at my BWR pictures. I am grinning in all of them. I also saw the picture of another rider a few miles before I found him cramping and gave him salt tablets. He was not grinning. However, he approached me with a huge grin after the event. Is anyone going to care if I finished in 300th or 350th or 400th? Did that rider care that I gave him salt tablets?

    Yes, I use Strava. Having had cancer twice, it allows me to see if I’m actually slowing down, or am merely tired. Thankfully, it’s always been merely tired so far.

    I fear enStravament, which is probably a healthy thing.

  • Deb says:

    Then there are those of us who are anal retentive engineers who just like knowing the total numbers – miles ridden or run that week. I have no way of gaining any little trophies or see any point in power ratings or the like, but I do like seeing where I’ve been on the little heat map thingie and seeing how many miles I’ve put in wandering about. It’s not all bad, keeping data. But then I don’t race. I just ride to ride.

  • devin says:

    Just turn on Strava’s Serenity yoga app while cycling. Now I have numerous KOS to prove how happy I am.

    • fsethd says:

      Uh-oh! Someone just took away your serenity! Better get out there and show them who’s more serene!

  • jowdog says:

    Case #5: NJ Pedalbeater. This guy’s intensity and unabashed enthusiasm for going hard is contagious. He trains for mileage and Hard Man points without a PM or even a HR monitor. He knows one speed and that speed is likely to reduce you to a sniveling puddle. He’s open to criticism and instruction but beware…he will use it as a hammer upon your melon in his next attack. A like-able sod, he embodies the “ride hard and have fun” philosophy.

  • Dave says:

    What I learned from Strava. 1850 people (plus those who don’t use Strava) climb from the ocean to the domes in less time than I. Does this make me sad? No. If it did I would shoot myself.

  • LesB says:


    I actually ride with two bike computers. Being the hopeless geek I am, just love the tech.

    Like you allude, their problem is that they get the master/slave paradigm backwards.

    What they don’t realize is that these gadgets are cool in their own right and you don’t need to let them rule your life or your ride, because that way you miss the whole point of tech gadgets. They’re only gadgets, cool as they are.

    Realize, their sales hype is only that.

    Of course this is a small part of how the 1’s and 0’s tech is spoiling the party of life. Take my favorite example (excuse my French) MP3, with its compression algorithms that pass through homogenized notes while squeezing out the depth and soul of the music.

    It’s now the young people now who are eschewing the digital music tech for vinyl discs.

    So there’s a glimmering hope that the young generations, born of the age of mass technification who will keep the digital tech appropriately confined.

    • fsethd says:

      You’re the first person so far to touch on the big picture I was referring to. It’s not cycling, it’s the 0’s and 1’s everywhere — including cycling — masquerading as life and therefore robbing us of it.

  • dangerstu says:

    Hmm, I completely get your point but I’m an introvert, most of the time I ride on my own because I enjoy it that way, not having to deal with other people. Don’t get me wrong I love being in group ride and all it involves, but it’s just not my typical schedule.

    So that leaves me with a problem, like every other Cyclist whether they race or not I’m competitive. Before last year’s BWR I got serious about training (for me) and was super happy to finish firmly mid pack. This year I spent longer training and I find I like doing it. This year I got two flats early on and lost about 25 minutes, but my pace was about 1 mile an hour faster than last year and I had an even better time than last year. So for me the whole gizmo, thing really works, I have two KOMs, one the climb on my single loaded Street and yes I find it very funny that people have ridden up my street to obviously try and take it from me.

    • fsethd says:

      This is about bicycling, but about the big picture as well. I’m not commenting on social preferences of introvert/extrovert but rather on making choices based on digital commands rather than on real interactions. Digital commands include power data, integrated ride data, and “interactions” with other “people” that are nothing more than algorithm-driven, digital renderings — very approximate renderings — of real human interactions.

      Most people prefer the comfort of being ordered around by 0’s and 1’s. My opinion is that this is inferior to being ordered around by decisions based on “real” interactions, thought processes, and experiences.

  • channel_zero says:

    human interaction
    Not facebag
    Not twiterring
    Not texting
    Not even the group rides sometimes

    I would argue, connected people can be more alone (great empty) and can mistake the “social media” interactions as social.

    Old story, but I thought the secondary discussion of imagined fears somehow fits with the “great empty” idea.

    Has the procession of newly recovering addicts replacing exercise with their drug of choice let up at all?

    Keep up the good work.

    • fsethd says:

      Thanks, and thank you for pinpointing what I was trying to say, not so much about cycling but about submission to algorithms masquerading as people.

  • dangerstu says:

    I’ve been thinking about this, I’m at work and so have nothing better to do… As a member of what is supposedly currently the most intelligent species on the planet, one of the attractions of Cycling is that I’m out in my natural environment, I don’t listen to music while I ride for the same reason. As a species we have not long been living in shelters of our own creation. Being resistant to change and the fear that technology will some how dehumanize us is nothing new. It certainly changes what it means to be human, I don’t know if it makes it any better or worse just different. In the case you describe it certainly changed the whole Cycling experience for the people involved for the worst, but I think with a little digging there are examples of people who continued Cycling because of the renewed experiences have brought to the table

  • marc causo says:

    Strava is weird. I joined strava to check out other peoples routes to find new ways to get places. but I noticed many people go out of their way to reach places. I totally forgot my strava password. I have never uploaded any rides to it. But Apparently people are following me on strava. According to a recent email I got. I wonder if these people are 1’s or 0’s this post was great. by the way.keep up the excellent work. or Maybe they are just laughing men in a virtual world.

  • um. says:

    I’m a slave to the device known as a weight scale. I train in fattie fear. What is strava? Will it help me burn more calories?

    • fsethd says:

      That’s the other elephant in the room. There are many, and it’s a tiny room to start with.

      Performance on a bike begins with weight control. And, after getting a handle on CdA, generally that’s also where it ends.

      So all of the stuff happening outside the sphere of your bathroom scale and wind resistance (except perhaps for PED’s) is something else.

      What is that something? Does it drive happiness, satisfaction, or pleasure? Or does it drive unhappiness, dissatisfaction, displeasure?

      • um. says:

        Good questions. I can tell you what my spouse would say and it ain’t purdy. Something about obsession. Sometimes grouchy obsession. Just a little more serotonin and life would be bliss no matter what. Until then it’s the bike, the scale, and lots of miles. No need to add strava or fb or any other 1010011*** to the mix. Do enjoy your blog though.

        • fsethd says:

          On a different note, the connection between serotonin and mood is spurious.

  • Jeff Cozad says:

    Life is analog

  • George says:

    Thanks for this. Former distance runner turned cyclist. Never elite level, but also never achieved my best due to training too hard which I understand today is a form of insecurity.

    Secure athletes follow the program, know when to hurt and when to jog. These bad habits seem to have stayed with me in cycling.

    When I ran, I typically raced against myself as I was never going to win the event. I was never competitive with others, didn’t really care if someone ran better than me. So, you could say I was not a pure racer, and I’m still not. I race against myself.

    I don’t race bikes, just not a good enough bike handler to risk it. I try to do well in Fondos and the like.

    I use Strava but really more to test myself, and don’t really care that much about what others do. Strava kind of empowers me as opposed to imprison me, if that makes sense.

    I have a major disease along with nasty asthma, so every ride, every day is a joy. I do like to see where I stand in the 55-64 category, especially on climbs which is not my natural terrain and made even more challenging with the Exercise Induced Asthma.

    So, a long way of saying that a tool is what you make of it, or what it makes of you.

    Oh, and yesterday, I demolished a bunch of youngsters on a mid-point of a ride where the pace gets crazy 😉

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