One of my three subscribers sent me a link to a piece written by Eben Weiss proclaiming the death of road cycling. That’s about par for his course; as far as I can tell he has never actually been a road rider, so it makes sense that he’d write its epitaph. This uncritical puff piece by the normally sharp Peter Flax reveals, vaguely, that Weiss did some “crit racing” at some undefined time for some undetermined length as Cat 3 pack fodder. He was like, totally immersed in it, dude.
Man, how many times have I heard “I used to race back in the 80’s/90’s/early 2000’s?” I bet it’s also only your finger, it won’t hurt a bit, and the check’s in the mail.
Perhaps Weiss was just being honest when he described what he means by road riding, that is, crits and the preparation therefor in NYC. But if we’re going to call that road riding we might as well call fishing off the pier “whaling.”
Like a lot of the fluff Weiss generates, this piece was nothing more than a symptom of the unspeakable curse, the curse of having to write something but having nothing to say. So … is road riding dead?
What the hell is road riding anyway?
I am going to take you back in time, to 1983, when I first began to realize that all the bicycle riding I was doing on my Nishiki International had applications to something other than getting to school and back without sitting on a bus. Weiss claims that “more people are coming to cycling from commuting,” which is about as nonsensical as it gets. Commuting IS cycling, and so are BMX, crit racing, track racing, and carrying your shit in a cargo bike home from the store.
Weiss’s supposedly 21st Century phenomenon of commuters getting into “cycling” ignores generations of road riders. Commuting was exactly how, indeed it was almost the only way, that pre-Strava people used to get into road riding. They rode their bikes on the road to get around. Then they rode a little faster. Then they started hanging out with the meatheads. Then they were roadies.
Weiss’s fiction is that people start commuting, then they go ride off-road. It’s a nice theory, and a nice opinion. But is it a fact? Or do we now live in a post-Trumtopia where cycling bloggers get to create facts by fiat? “Eben Weiss says commuters become gravel riders not roadies,” therefore, well, ergo, QED, etc.
But back to 1983, when the mountain bike hadn’t been properly invented and a gravel grinder meant a road frame with knobby tires and cantilever brakes, a/k/a yer ‘cross bike, itself a true niche within a subset within a microcosm within a microfissure, there was something pretty cool going on. As the name Laurent Fignon became part of my vocabulary, along with Bernard Hinault, Renault, Giuseppe Saronni, Jan Raas, Eddy Planckaert, Sean Kelly, and Greg Lemond, I started paying attention to professional road racing.
And here’s what I saw.
It’s not suffering if you choose to do it
I was never especially taken in by the PR-speak of “suffering,” “convicts of the road,” and “hard men.” All that shit was shit they endured because it was part of a profession they chose. You want to talk suffering? Talk about my wife’s grandmother, who escaped China in 1945 in an open cattle car with two children and a suckling babe as every man jack from Manchuria to her boat in Shanghai was thirsting for revenge against the fallen and fleeing Imperial Japanese army.
Talk about the people in Syria, or the children being ripped from the arms of their mothers at our own nation’s borders and herded into concentration camps.
Nonetheless, what used to happen in a professional road race was something special, and you could tell from the look on the faces of the participants. I didn’t realize it until a couple of days ago when one of my other three subscribers sent me this link to Lemond’s first world road win, and the powerful comment about how in those days cyclists looked like athletes, not concentration camp survivors. The glory radiating on Lemond’s face was, we believed, what road racing was all about.
Check this photo out, and gaze for a moment at their faces. And I’m going to ask you to do the same for these as well: Hinault at Liege-Bastogne Liege, Hampsten on the Gavia, Coppi in the Alps, Anquetil on Superbagneres, Kelly at Roubaix, Bartali at the Giro, Merckx at San Remo, Raas at Flanders, and the incomparable de Vlaeminck feeding the meatgrinder on the cobbles to Roubaix.
What do you see there?
Let’s do the time warp again
Speed up a few decades and everything has changed. The only thing that remains the same is that the competitors are still on something called “bicycles,” but even those have little in common with the iron horses of the past.
What’s the difference? It’s certainly not drugs. Cyclists have been doping for as long as there has been cycling. Part of it may be the length of the events, which are shorter now, and faster. Maybe the riders are fresher, no longer subject to race calendars that run from March to December.
But it seems to me that the faces of the old racers reflect the fear of defeat, the anxiety of not knowing the outcome, and the incredible elation that comes from, against all odds, hitting the mark you aimed at when the outcome was anything but sure. Anyone who rode in the pre-data years can relate to the anxiety, the terror, the fear of not knowing. You didn’t always know the route, you didn’t have heart rate or power to measure your efforts, there was no way to measure distance or speed, and you certainly didn’t have Strava to gauge yourself against the competition or to get a handy course profile.
We used to prepare for rides the night before with paper maps. Need I say more?
A hard road ride, the kind of hard road rides I cut my teeth on, were remarkably similar to the toughest one-day races on the pro calendar, at least in these ways: You didn’t know if you would make the split, you didn’t know how you’d respond when the attacks came, you were out there for hours, it was hot/cold/raining/scorching, and the outcome was binary. You either got shelled and were left alone, feeling like a complete failure, bonked and out of water, or you made the split. As I got better I was even the one who did the meatgrinding.
This was road riding, an analogue to professional racing minus the speed, talent, skills, drugs, (fame?), and brutal calendar of 100+ road races a year. We knew we weren’t ever going to be professional or even elite amateurs, but a hard 120 miles with Scott and Randy Dickson, Jeff Fields, Marco Vermey, Joel Rierson, Kevin Callaway, and Jerry Markee was going to be a day seared in your memory.
We weren’t on drugs, but we, like the pros we emulated, were completely doped on fear.
Regression to the boring
On the pro, amateur, hacker, sub-hacker, and masters levels, most of the fear has been taken away. The fear was the result of not knowing, and it has been replaced by data. It is a commonplace to criticize bike racing as robotic, but that’s what it is. Sprint stages in the grand tours are calculated, instructions are given through earpieces, and before the riders ever throw a leg over they have incredibly detailed knowledge of what is going to happen, and when, and likely by whom.
Racing still isn’t completely predictable, but it’s predictable enough for the racers for them to not be consumed with doubt. And it shows on their faces. They aren’t relaxed, but they aren’t deep in the hole and wondering when, or if, they will ever get out. The epitome of this emotional collapse was captured in a movie I once saw about the 1973 Giro, when a rider quit on the steeps of one of the climbs and broke down in tears.
In the same vein, every local hacker has much of the mission critical data available when she goes for a ride that Chris Froome does. My wife now checks Strava before she has even mounted the stairs; she’s not been cycling for a year yet and she knows more about her physiological performance than I do about mine. I have friends whose mastery of aerodynamics is on a par with someone competing for a professional world TT title.
All that data is great for some things, but it is poison for road riding, if by road riding you mean a war on bikes with people that goes on for hours in all kinds of weather and results in an uncertain outcome not known until late in the game, and in which you stand a great chance of getting shelled despite giving it everything you humanly have to hang on.
Fight the machine
Last year I organized a jaunt up to Santa Barbara with eleven other riders. The total distance was about 240 miles, and in the middle we had the 9-mile, 5,000-foot Gibraltar climb to master before heading back home.
This year it’s on the calendar again with 19 riders instead of 12, and a pretty hard selection of accomplished roadies. The point isn’t that we’re doing a long ride, but that we’re doing it the old way: We stay together for half the ride, and then race the 120 miles home. No pity, no friendship, nothing but giving it everything you’ve got until you either finish or dial Uber.
Yesterday we did a practice ride to Ventura, 160 miles round-trip, and with about 70 to go Frexit, Alx Bns, and Ivan the Terrible punched it and dropped the group. I was stuck in back, where I’d been for 90 miles, husbanding my meager resources and riding as is my wont, without a computer, power meter, heart rate strap, or anything that might spell out in numbers what would probably happen anyway.
I came around the tatters and closed the windy gap just as they amped up the pace. Each rider took huge pulls, and all I could do was sit, reminding myself that a 54-year-old #faker was lucky to even be there. Shortly after the Rock at Pt. Mugu Alx, and then Frexit began attacking. Each gap would open, and then close, each effort draining what little I had left.
The entire ride had been building up to this point, the anxiety of getting shelled, the uncertainty about when and where the attacks would commence, and finally nothing but the blind fixation on the wheel in front, mashing with everything you have just to hang on for a few more pedal strokes. We hit the first roller at Neptune’s Net and I barely made it over. We hit the second roller at Mulholland and I flipped out the back, blown with fifty miles to go.
A few miles later both legs cramped. I got off and shuddered until they went away, remounted, and slogged it home, alone.
With no apologies at all to Eben Weiss, this is road riding, or at least the kind that the generations before Strava came to love. The people doing it with me on Sunday were in their 20’s and 30’s. And it isn’t dead yet, not by a long shot.
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