2008, July - How to Cycle

That’s Fausto Coppi. He was the youngest winner of the Giro D’Italia at 20 years of age. This record still stands. Interestingly enough, Coppi was renowned for having brittle bones which he acquired during his early years of malnutrition. During his lifetime he suffered over twenty serious bone fractures including collar bones, pelvis, femur and a displaced vertebrae. He was also privy to a sensitive stomach and picked up numerous illnesses during his career. And yet he became, and still is, one of the all time greatest cyclists that has ever ridden.


The thing that interests me about cyclists from the last century is that they didn’t have any of the roads, equipment, support, nutritional advice or financing of our cyclists of today. Maybe, there’s a bit of nostalgia mixed in with that, but I’m willing to bet that anyone who was born prior to World War II will agree, today’s athletes have it easy. And that’s exactly what my dad told me while watching this week’s Tour on TV.

Economists out there who enjoyed Freakonomics may be able to come up with thousands of reasons why men of yesteryear were true Spartans, whereas today’s athletes are spoilt brats. The toughness dilution could be, amongst other things, a reflection of Democracy, increased entertainment, greater GDP, Henry Ford, repercussions of war and the urbanisation of the population. One could go on.

My thoughts are that television, consumerism and women’s emancipation from the marital home are usually the key factors that explain why most people today prefer the couch than the mountains. It is the inevitable evolution from caveman to couchman the more comfortable Man’s immediate surroundings.

Let’s have a look at the figures below which set out the decades of the Tour De France from 1903, the first year of the Tour, to 2003 with each year’s distances, number of stages and the longest stage. For ease of reference I’ve included this year’s race figures for comparison.

Year/Distance (km)/Number of Stages/Longest Stage (km)
1943 - No Tour. World War II.

It’s important to note that in the early part of the 20th century the bicycle was the preferred mode of transport – instead of walking – of the working classes. It was the liberator of the working man who could, for the first time, venture outside of the city limits and explore the countryside. Such a large decrease, however, of the Tour’s overall distance and longest stage, points to the undeniable fact that the tour organisers are getting soft. I’ll accept that increased television ratings and the fact that cyclists today have a larger number of races throughout the year may allude to the Tour’s relaxed odometer readings. But, and I’m certain that men of war would agree, such a visible reduction in what is required of men to complete in the world’s most famous and arguably toughest tour is a clear indication of Twenty First Century Man’s flaccidity.

Let’s bear in mind that just under a hundred years ago, riders covered almost 2,000 more kilometres in six less stages!

Now that you know that your forefathers would crush you in a bike race, it is good to know that you are still living and able to ride a bike. But how does one train? There isn’t much out there in the World Wide Web about cycling training or How to Become a World Champion in Six Easy Steps™. The reason is because it’d be boring for the masses to hear about one man who rode for a year, every single day, in all kinds of weather, through all kinds of terrain, no matter what. Aside from the inclusion of a bit of downtime in between all the cycling to recharge the batteries and get the bike serviced, there is no big secret. Find a mountain. Ride over it. Repeat. Until it gets dark, or until you fall off your bike.

Nonetheless, in this day and age of Easy Riders, it’s helpful to know that your fellow man may be more interested in spending a week attaching and calibrating a Powermeter to their new Kuota Kueen K than actually going on a five hour bike ride in the dark rain without a GPS. Too many comforts will inevitably slow you down, so it’s time to ditch your bad habits and go retro. Here are a few ideas:

1. Find the largest hill/mountain in your neighbourhood. Make sure you climb that more times than anyone else you know.
2. Be self sufficient. If you get a puncture fix it. There is no cavalry.
3. Cycle across the country. It’s been done before. Don’t even try think you are the first. No stress if you get lost, there’s more road for you to cycle.
4. Get a job where you are only required to work 30 hours a week.
5. Get rid of your TV.
6. Sell your car and commute by bike.
7. Enter a staged bike race. Learn how to race on trashed legs.

That might be slightly gung ho for the majority of domesticated folk, but there is much to learn in achieving even one of the listed tasks. We are born in a world with Health and Safety shackles tied to our wrists and it is only in testing our boundaries that we can escape those manacles and truly be free – could I have an Amen?

I’ll finish this piece with a Zen Proverb that may not shine a light on the path to success but – for the lucky few - may lead to Enlightenment. ‘A Zen teacher saw five of his students returning from the market, riding their bicycles. When they arrived at the monastery and had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!” The teacher praised the first student. “You are a smart boy! When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over like I do.”

The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path!” The teacher commended the second student, “Your eyes are open, and you see the world.”

The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant nam myoho renge kyo.” The teacher gave his praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel.”

The fourth student replied, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all sentient beings.” The teacher was pleased and said to the fourth student, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.” The teacher sat at the feet of the fifth student and said, “I am your student.”’ Zen proverb

There is no such thing as cold, bad elements or excuses.
Only weakness.

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