Wheelsuckery

June 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

We were all leaning on our bikes in the Flog parking lot, having just completed a breathless loop around the golf course when Goggle said, “Wanky, you’re the biggest wheelsucker in the South Bay.”

This really hurt my feelings. On Lap 1 I had only sucked wheel the whole way until I got dropped.

On Lap 2 I had only sucked the lead-out goat’s wheel, then sucked Goggle’s wheel, then sucked Medium Banana’s wheel, and just as I was about to win the sprunt Ol’ Father Time, who had been sucking my wheel the whole way, dusted me like a mop. I thought there was honor among thieves, er, wheelsucks, but I guess not.

On Lap 3 I sucked Goggle’s wheel until he faded and then sat on Medium Banana the whole way and sneaked around him for the win, only being in the wind for those last few seconds. Except for that I had hardly done any wheelsucking.

The remaining three laps I sat in a lot more and sucked Goggle’s wheel all the way to about 1/4 of the way up La Cuesta, when he shed me pretty good, like a snake leaving behind its worthless old skin. Aside from all that, I hadn’t sucked wheel at all.

Back in the day

“Before I was old I didn’t used to suck wheel hardly at all,” I told Goggle.

“Like, what mythical era was this?”

“Back when I was, you know, 50 or 51. I never sucked wheel then.”

Goggle rolled his eyes. “I rode with you then. You were an inveterate wheelsucker. Less finesse than now, but I sure never saw you from the behind. You’d be stuck to whoever was in front of you like a piece of toilet paper on a lady’s high heel walking out of the shitter.”

“Maybe I did suck wheel once or twice, but when I was in my 40’s I was always on the front.”

Goggle hadn’t started riding a bike back then because he was only four, so he didn’t say anything but he looked pretty skeptical, and with good cause. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. I was a pretty awful wheelsuck, and always had been. The only times I ever found the front were either by mistake or because I made the wrong move at the wrong time or I had quit or flatted or all of the above.

Wheelsucking for fun and profit

Of course my proclivity to hide has never correlated with success, but there aren’t any riders who’ve ever done well in the sport at the elite level who haven’t mastered the art of hiding for as long as possible. The strongest rider never wins, it’s always the smartest strong rider, or the strongest smart rider, and “smart” almost always means hiding until you absolutely can’t any more.

As G3 once told me after he had dropped me going up to the Domes, “This, Wanky, is a sport of conservation.” Apparently I hadn’t properly conserved.

The more I thought about it, the really good riders suck wheel all the suckin’ time. Destroyer is a fuggin’ ninja wheelsuck, until he isn’t and you are by yourself, going backwards as he vanishes on the horizon. Strava Jr. sucks wheel like a baby on a bottle until it’s Go Time, and then he’s usually alone. Same for G$. Even Daniel Holloway generally hides and hides and hides so that you forget he’s there, then suddenly he crosses the line first. Whazzup with thaaaat?

Eddy Merckx? He had a whole team of disposables who he would burn through until the time was ripe to hit the jets. Salbutafroome? A veritable wheel leech except for those last few kilometers, which, I’m told, are when it matters. Lance Drugstrong? Never hit the wind if he didn’t have to, and he made sure he hardly ever had to.

And please don’t tell me about Jacky Durand or those other epic conquerors who soloed from Kilometer 1. They’re the exception that proves the effectiveness of good pharmaceuticals, and they are outliers. Most of the time if you want to survive among your peers you had better scurry like a rat to the fattest, widest wheel you can find.

Oh, the shame of it all

Yet, it is shameful to cower and hide, abusing the person in front of you for his or her girth and superior wattage, only to dump him later or simply to tag along like a tick stuck in a damp, awkward crack, free riding the whole dang way. There is something noble about being the dumb loser who pushes the wind endlessly only to get swarmed at the end, the tough rider who shoulders the load while others make themselves tiny at the back.

“Go to the front!” we used to say in the South Bay, something that we said a lot more often than we did, except perhaps for Head Down James.

In fact, Destroyer once told me I was ruining an entire generation of racers by telling them to go to the front. “If you want to win, pounding the front is the last place you should be,” he said. “Towards the front, for sure, but grinding on the front? Dude, that’s how you lose races.”

“Yeah,” I’d say, “but we aren’t racing.”

“Wanky,” he said with a fatherly smile even though he was ten years younger, “you race like you train.”

END

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The three pieces of the performance pie

November 6, 2015 § 12 Comments

I decided to write down everything I know about performance cycling.

There. That sure was quick.

Then I decided to write down the things that, although inappropriate for others or unorthodox, have helped me achieve competitive success on the bike.

Okay, done.

So that leaves me with my observations, and the problem with those is that they’re filtered through a brain that is politely described as “eccentric” and clinically described as “in need of strong medication.” But I regress.

The performance cycling pie has three equally sized slices. Well, they should be equally sized but they aren’t.

I. The training slice.

This is the one that in most pies covers  90% of the plate. I won’t tell you about training because you already know everything there is to know about it, which is why you won Paris-Roubaix last year. But I will tell you about my training slice for 2016 because it meets the only two criteria for a training plan that matter: It’s simple and I can do it.

  1. Don’t tire myself out. For decades I slogged and flogged, never passing up a long ride, never refusing an offer to take an interminable, stupid pull, never hesitating to follow up one hard workout with another, and then after that, another. But no mas. My new rule? If my legs feel flat I’m not riding. Why? Because I am old and wear out quickly, and if you’re over 40, so do you. You know how steel will wear out eventually? We’re not steel.
  2. Two hard efforts a week. Or less.
  3. Avoid any training regimen that involves data, or worse, social media, or worst, data and social media.
  4. Keep my weight at 150.
  5. Study Chinese more.
  6. Continue to finish each day with several tall, cold glasses of un-drunk beer. Recently I’ve been super enjoying not drinking Racer 6 IPA.

II. The aero slice.

This is the piece that some people focus on, but typically only as it concerns equipment.  The current battle for “Most Aero” is being viciously fought between Strava Jr. and Sausage. The one ground down his carbon stem (full carbon, that is) so that the bolts no longer protrude. The other booked a room in the Specialized wind tunnel for his tenth wedding anniversary.

Fully 1/3 of your performance pie should be devoted to aerodynamics. The easy part is buying shit and loading up on 100% carbon components that are full carbon and taking your wife to the wind tunnel. The hard part is riding aero (and ever getting laid again).

Riding aero differs from buying aero, and as an inveterate cheapskate I’ve failed at both. In addition to a lifetime devoted to poor training habits, I’ve also developed bad positioning into an art form. The idiot out on the edge of the peloton, catching all the wind? Me.

The dolt riding three bike lengths behind the last rider? Me.

The clod who’s always on the wrong side of the echelon? Me again.

Unsurprisingly, stupid training and bad positioning go together. The bulk of your aero efforts should be comprised of wheelsucking, something that most cyclists gravitate towards naturally, and selective drafting, something that few riders excel at. None, it should be noted, surpass Vinny D.

Selective drafting is like having to sample fifteen wines before you pick one to drink. You don’t guzzle the whole tasting glass, just like you don’t commit to Twitch Thudpucker’s wheel for half the race. You put a little in your mouth, swish it around, then spit it out. Same with drafting. The wheel you suck should itself be well positioned. It should be ridden by someone who typically makes the split. And it should feature a big old ass, one that is wide and with overtones of blackberry, perhaps even including a tart yet buttery finish that goes well with fish. The rear panel should not be beyond its expiration date a-la-Brad House. And if Kjar isn’t around, you must learn to never follow riders who are smaller than you.

This can be a challenge, because little people are often the best racers. No matter. Spit them out and ride behind the bigger butt.

One difficulty I have always had in wheel selection is the delusion that I am small. Because I sometimes end up with the climbers, I mistakenly assume that I’m like them. I’m not. They are tiny and delicate and cute and you want to cuddle them and hook them up to a cheeseburger I.V. bag. But I am not. I am long and stretched out and a kind of elongated wind sail. So sitting behind tiny people doesn’t work for me, and henceforth I will not sit behind them. You shouldn’t either. What you will find, however, is that tiny people are constantly sitting on YOU. Use this to your advantage by throwing back your rear wheel, veering unpredictably, or stopping for no reason. Think PREZ.

The final piece of aero riding is navigating within the pack. This isn’t that hard (I’m told), but it is terrifying. The lugs who occupy the middle of the pack are using 78.3% less energy than I am as I slog over on the side in the wind, but they are scary because they have head tattoos, pierced teeth, facial scars, jangling ear dangles made of brass that play jingle bells against their top tubes, and they don’t cry when their bars bump. If you can develop the steel nerves to sit in this viper’s den of angry killers, you will arrive at the finish fresh and rested. Good luck with that.

III. The strategy slice.

For a very few riders, this is 90% of the pie, and they always win a few races a year. Do you know Gibby Hatton? He shows up to races with no teammates, not very fit, and always wins a few. Why? Because he has perfected aero pack riding and because he knows exactly when to pedal hard–once, in the last 200 meters, sitting fourth or fifth wheel in the last turn.

The rest of us had strategiotomies at an early age and are more or less profoundly stupid and incapable of thinking during a race. That’s too bad (for us, not Gibby) because it means that at no time in the race do we actually try to answer this question: “How am I going to win today?” [Note: “Go from the gun and solo the whole race” is not a strategy, just like “Be president of the United States” is not a career plan.]

Why are we so stupid? Because strategy involves constantly evaluating your “plan to win” against what’s happening on the ground. It’s a great idea to attack on the final climb unless there’s already a break three minutes up the road. It’s a great idea to come around Charon at the finish but 30 other people have the exact same plan and most of them believe in open carry. It’s a great idea to splat on your face in the last ten meters but Prez already has that sewn up. Plus, it’s not really a good idea.

Although dynamically strategic thinking is impossible for me, it is possible to pick one concept and stick to it. For example, “Don’t be the strongest one in the break.” Or “Don’t lead out the sprunt.” Or “Pay off the best rider.” That last one generally works very well.

So that’s it. Go forth and win. And remember who taught you how.

END

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