Pillow babies

February 4, 2019 § 7 Comments

Before going for a ride yesterday I was treated to a lively Facebag discussion of cupcakes, riding in the rain, hardmen, and pillow babies. The gist of it was that people aren’t as tough as they used to be, proven by the fact that so few people are willing to race in the rain anymore.

Photos were posted of manly men and womenly women from the historical era of Back in the Day as they rode heroically through massive drops of rain. Grizzled Facebook cycling veterans typed contemptuously about the softness of those who learned to ride in the historical era of These Days, and baby-faced youth defended their online bravery, and much was made or not made of the pillow babies who would rather hammer on #socmed than tough it out in the elements. No one, it should be noted, was actually out riding.

I giggled at the silliness and rolled out, enjoying three hours of somewhat rainy weather while the pillow babies and their detractors enjoyed visions of toughness, all warm and dry beneath the safety of their downy coverlets.

Why aren’t cyclists tough anymore?

This is the refrain, and it’s tiresome. The argument goes like this: Back in the Day, real cyclists and especially real racers suited up and ground out the miles no matter the weather. “The weather doesn’t tell you when to ride, it tells you what to wear,” or “There is no bad riding weather, only bad clothing choices.”

People cite to the changed nature of Europe’s spring classics, where global warming has all but eliminated the frigid, muddy, rain-soaked spring races of yore, and point to the fact that on the rare occasions when it gets downright nasty, serious cyclists throw their bikes on a plane and train in Mallorca. In addition, the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol now has rules that allow promoters to cancel or shorten races when terrible weather warrants. The days of Andy Hampsten soldiering to victory over a frozen Gavia, or Bernard Hinault suffering lifelong nerve damage to his hands from frostbite during a snowy eight-hour ride to victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege … those days are done.

On a local level, promoter Jeff Prinz aroused the scorn of the SoCal hardmen, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, when he canceled his Sunday parking lot crit due to fear of rain. Canceling a four-corner crit due to rain? WTF? Since when did the pillow baby contagion infect race promoters?

And everyone piled on …

The genesis of the pillow baby

Sadly for admirers of that epic historical era of Back in the Day, pro cyclists didn’t used to ride in horrible weather because they heroically wanted to. They did it because there were no other options other than the indoor trainer or indoor rollers, themselves inventions of the 1950’s. No rider could sit on rollers for 5-7 hours, six days a week, so they rode out of doors, where, in northern Europe at least, it was cold and wet in winter.

They raced on horrible roads not because racing on horrible roads covered with muddy slime was fun, but because for decades that’s how roads in Europe were–a mixture of some asphalt, some cobbles, and in the mountains, dirt paths. People were not “tough” because they had some kind of nutty commitment to suffering. They voluntarily chose to cycle as a job or as an avocation, and hence they had to ride in whatever conditions and on whatever roads were available.

There was no Zwift. There were no spin classes. There was your bike and the out of doors, and you got to take your pick: Ride or not ride.

Of course the same applies to racing. Races were held rain or shine because equipment was cheap and more importantly, riders were cheap. At the beginning of a season in the 1970’s, a mid-level Tour rider’s equipment consisted of one bike and five kits. Both were expected to last the full racing season, and if you fell and got hurt and couldn’t race, there was no end of hungry younger riders waiting to take your slot. Everything was cheap, especially the human labor that powered the bikes.

Today no serious team owner considers risking the health of its marquee rider in a single race. The Sagan or Froome-level racer costs millions to retain and to train. The equipment, support staff, and logistical costs are incredibly expensive. Losing all of that capital, and with it any hope of financial return in a sport noted for its poverty, simply to finish or do well in some middling race in Belgium makes no sense at all. And although riders are as disposable as they ever were, they are more vocal about being fed into the maw of truly deadly racing conditions.

In addition to the increased value of the rider, the sport is highly specialized. There are riders who simply do not ride the classics, period. There are riders who simply do not stage race. And no one races 200 days a year. Riders are more selective, teams are more selective, and it means that fewer and fewer professionals have to ever prepare for the gnarly conditions of a rainy Sunday in Hell.

In short, the whole idea that racers were once heroic and manly is a silly myth. They did what they did because they were forced to. When you have 200 race days on your calendar and are expected to attend them all, you are gonna be riding your bike on some pretty crappy days.

The amateur pillow baby

If Back in the Day the heroes were simply doing as they were told, I can say with certainty that for the profamateur bike racer, there was never a time when hardman training and racing were the norm. A handful of riders might soldier through the winter a la Scott Dickson, who averaged a hundred miles a day for over thirty-five years despite living most of those winters in Iowa, but virtually everyone else followed the time-honored ritual of off season training:

  1. Hang up the cleats in winter.
  2. Get fat.
  3. Start riding again when the weather improved.

Of course there were races held in the rain, usually poorly attended unless they were elite, major races, but for the most part recreational bicyclists have never hopped out of bed at five, put on their rain gear, and danced out into a deluge for four hours.

Why? Because people ride for fun, and being wet and cold for most people isn’t fun. This is what used to be known as “Duh.” Moreover, when you compare the fun of a frozen bike ride with the fun of a warm pillow, 99.999999% of the human race judges it no contest and rolls back over.

The modern era has a new twist that keeps the pillow babies snuggly in their beds: Their bikes are just as expensive as the pros they emulate, and although Sagan might get another $15k bike if he washes out and takes a tumble, the rest of us are forced to choose between replacing the bike and being served with a petition for marital dissolution.

You’re really going to risk all that bike and all that pretty clothing for the glory of posting a #socmed photo of your ride on a wet day? Especially in SoCal, when the winter never lasts more than a week and the “frigid” temps aren’t even low enough to kill subtropical palm trees? Really?

This isn’t a new development, it’s how it has always been and always will be. If anything, having Zwift and spin class has radically expanded the number of people who will at least get some exercise on days when out of doors riding is miserable, dangerous, unendurable, or all three. Sciencey people tell us that if you get 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week you will live to be a thousand. So what if you are a pillow baby who spins at the crack of noon? You are still #winning.

So why all the fuss?

A friend asked me last night why I ride in miserable weather.

“Because there is nothing better than being soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone, then coming home to a warm house and a warm meal.”

“Kind of like people who enjoy pain because it feels so good when they stop?”

“No,” I said. “Kind of like having fun.”



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