So…you want to cycle faster?

Einstein said E=MC2      But if he’d got out on his road bike instead of explaining the universe, he might have said faster pace = more suffering.

I was recently browsing for some new wheels. Looking through websites of wheel builders I came across a site which discussed wheel building products. This was followed by a bizarre section called Wheel Rant. Here’s a flavour of it…

‘Let’s be very clear about something. Rims for racing bikes, such as the Mavic Open Pro and Velocity Aerohead, are made for people who use bicycles in races. That’s why they’re called racing bikes; because people actually race with them! To be a competitive road racer, you will not want to weigh much more than about 160 lbs. Even at that weight, you’ll find yourself at a significant disadvantage in many road races, at least those with any hills…If you’re not racing, what the heck are you doing with a racing bike?’

But I own several road bikes and having read this I have no intention of rushing into my garage to photograph them for immediate sale on Ebay. I don’t race but I ride open pros and I weigh 86 Kilos (I’d need a gastric band and a hunger strike to get down to 72). 

I’ve cycled with lots of roadies and not one of them has ever said, ‘you shouldn’t be on a road bike…’ And I’m confident they’ve never thought it either. Nothing of the kind has ever crossed my mind about myself or those I ride with. So I can’t say I really agree with the elitist comments of the wheel rant. Cycling isn’t an exclusive club, it’s more of a fraternity!

Yet this wheel builder’s comments do beg the question – why do I cycle on race bikes if I don’t race? On the one hand there’s a simple answer – because I want to but at the same time this question is pretty complex. It was something that happened to me. It was something that gradually became a big part of my life. More than that there’s a great benefit in terms of fitness from cycling. It involves discipline and routine which appeals to me. There is also a tremendous social aspect to cycling.

However even though I don’t race it doesn’t mean that I don’t find myself in race situations. This happens frequently on club runs some of which turn into draining wars of attrition. But the hardest form of non-racing, race situation is variously known as ‘the eyeball run’ or ‘the speed night’ and these are pretty hard for a clubman like myself.

Forget any banter – that’s not going to happen for 20 miles – the only noises you’re going to hear are the sounds of nose blowing and spitting which after about 10 miles deepens into sputum being evacuated. You’ll hear the clunk of gears and the odd, gaspy shout of ‘clear’ when a guy moves through the line.

And that route you usually spin round before the club run suddenly becomes less scenic and more like the primrose path to hell. The gentle roads have transformed themselves into false flats and lactic inducing lumps when rode at 22-3 mph average.

Of course once you get yourself into the train and get your breathing right there’s the guy who is pulling in front of you to consider. If it’s a cyclist who’s feeling good, you’re going to have to dig that little bit deeper just to stay in contact with his wheel. Why is it he looks perfectly composed on his bike when you’re wobbling all over yours like a jelly, only split seconds from physical and mental collapse?

Equally problematic is the guy in front of you who has given everything and his batteries go flat. He’s probably known for a while that he’s struggling but it’s not as if he’s going to announce it on the six o’ clock news. Where does that leave you? Well most likely one maybe two bike lengths off the pace at the precise moment the in-form guy is taking it up at the front. You want to scream at the dead battery guy but it’s your own fault for staring at his cassette as if it were a sign from God – cue more lactic pouring into the legs as you struggle to bridge the gap!

If you think you’ll feel good seeing guys drop off the train then think again – it’s irrelevant. This isn’t about glory, it’s about survival and besides you’re only ever seconds from the same fate yourself. If you stick with cycling long enough you’ll see everybody has a bad day. Nobody is keeping count. You turned up to get a large dose of suffering, that’s the point.

I have many things in my saddlebag but a mirror is not one of them. So I don’t know what my face is like at the end of an eyeball run. All I need to do though is look at the faces of my fellow cyclists to see my own reflection. Apart from little patches of red on the skin, they look like they’ve seen a ghost or some form of atrocity. The eyeballs are small bloodshot things, shrunken into the skull and their frame is still heaving with oxygen renewal. But it doesn’t take long for these trembling shadows to become normal again.

The speed run is over and whether you survived or got a kicking you’re glad you suffered because that suffering has gone into your legs along with the fitness which comes from it. Once everybody has their breath back, the banter returns, ‘…you popped me on that wee rise…I didn’t see you at the front all night…’

I have to say that despite the increase in pain levels, eyeball sessions are not without their funny side.

I remember one night three staggered groups had set off and about 20 of us all came together with approximately 3 miles left to ride. There was a tremendous pull at the front then an equally noticeable easing off. This seems too easy I thought looking up from the guy in front’s cassette. A horse and cart had pulled out in front of us and not wanting to scare the animal we sat in behind. Yes the only time in my cycling that I was led out by a horse at 15 mph!

‘Mark Renshaw? Don’t make me laugh, mate!’

 Another night I was feeling in my limit and tried to spit. It was strange, more like bright white, carbonated foam which then clung to my sleeve. I was so desperate to hang on I couldn’t even muster proper spit. I tried to brush it off but it was hanging onto me like an ameba. The guy in front peeled over from his turn and I just followed him weaving across the road swiping at this spit monster. The guy behind me (probably enjoying a little respite) had to take my turn. He might have cursed. I never said anything at the end. Imagine having to explain missing your turn due to some weird spit.

I’ll hopefully get some new wheels later this year. As many cyclists say – ‘I’ll treat myself…’ Open pros with dura ace hubs would be good for me. I’ll not go to that wheel builder. He can rant all he likes. I don’t race but I can suffer like the rest of them.

(Thanks to Alex Barclay and Andrew Taylor for the cycle pics)


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