In praise of the racing bicycle
The sensation of speed is often as much a function of proximity as it is of exposure. The less there is between you and the road below, the more immersive the experience, as any Caterham owner will tell you as he attempts to draw your attention from the rain soaked, hand-tooled moccasins he knew he shouldn’t have worn. But really, if you want to experience speed at its most unadulterated, the racing bicycle stands supreme.
The modern racing bike is a beautifully efficient machine, one built entirely for speed. Nothing is wasted; no component extraneous to the purpose of motion at its purest and most visceral. Built (mostly) from lightweight aluminium or carbon fibre, the modern bicycle frame is a melding of decades-old artistry and cutting-edge technology. The gearset a precision piece of jewel-like engineering; the prime exponents being Campagnolo – (all Italian heritage and exquisite rifle bolt precision), and Shimano – (seamless and near silent; the choice of the pro-peleton).
There are downsides however: Zero weather protection. A decidedly uncomfortable tucked riding position to minimise aerodynamic drag. An utterly unyielding saddle. If the bicycle is frequently a work of art, the rider often isn’t. A decent specification off-the-shelf road-bike is massively overqualified for the abilities of the average recreational rider, who could probably stand to lose a few pounds if we’re honest. Once he’s donned the revealing and mercilessly specific apparel, he resembles a refugee from one of the more specialised fetish conventions, but each item serves a useful and (in some cases) essential purpose. Preparing for a ride has a certain gladiatorial aesthetic that is not without its appeal. Basically, (and I will probably have to include myself in this), men just seem to like kit, in all its myriad forms. But then, doesn’t every activity contain its specific codes and signifiers?
Out on the road, your first and only thought is one of momentum – keeping it, losing it, regaining it again. Everything you do on a bike is measured in effort. Wind direction, gradient, topography; maintaining your average speed is all. The whole time, you’re (literally) reading the road. Anticipating other road users, the surface itself; everything and everyone a potential incident in the making. Throughout, you’re painfully aware of maintaining your hard-earned pace – that all important speed. However fast you’re travelling, you’ll have the most intimate relationship with your immediate surroundings: sights, sounds, smells.
On a long and steep ascent, all distractions are blocked out as you struggle to maintain your cadence. Downhill however, the boot is very much on the other foot. Gravity becomes your friend and as your speed builds, the relationship with the road beneath becomes infinitely more complex and suffused with intimations of mechanical failure and its decidedly unpleasant consequences. I recall the descent of the aptly named Col de l’homme Morte in Provence a few years ago where my bike’s electronic computer recorded a speed of just over 80 km/h – it felt more like 180. I’m still not entirely sure if blind terror outweighed exhilaration or vice-versa.
The pro’s go faster still – legendary professional, Sean Kelly was clocked at 124 km/h on the descent of the Col de Joux Plane near Morzine during the 1984 Tour de France. That takes bravery and just a soupçon of insanity – both qualities Kelly possessed in spades. But such tales are what draw those like myself to the Tour each year, despite the savage disappointments, the scandals and the increasing commercialisation that suffuses the sport. It’s just such an epic event – spread over three weeks across some of the most fearsome topography France has to offer. Having ridden several of the legendary TDF Cols however, I can safely say I’d have bitten the hand off anyone offering even a snifter of EPO. Tough is not the word.
Now, you might suggest that all this sounds a bit like masochism in motion, and in some ways I’d have to say I agree. However, I will say this. I have had some of the most profound, life-affirming, exhilarating moments of my life on the bike. Of course speed is relative isn’t it? Nobody – not even fully doped pro-rider is going to give a (insert your own favourite slowest ever car here) a run for its money across a standing quarter mile. Sometimes 40 km/h is as fast as I need to go.
As to this year’s Tour? I will quite naturally be glued to it.
8 thoughts on “Speed – VELOcity”
Nice piece. I’m still in the office but can’t wait for the ride home as it’s almost always the highlight of a working day (actually the morning ride into work is probably the best of the two).
[While I’m here if you guys need some help with proofreading articles I’d be happy to assist.
I’m a better reader than writer and I’m a stickler for detail]
A chronic lower back means that my cycling days are more or less over though, in any case, they never reached the commitment that you have Eoin. Nevertheless, I share your fascination with the bicycle, truly one of the great inventions that multiplies our abilities severalfold, without leaving any significant scar on the environment. I remember reading a misguided soul on the website of The World’s Best Car Magazine claiming that the Bugatti Veyron reaffirmed his faith in human achievement. A rusty 30 year old Raleigh with a Sturmey Archer 3 speed and a ratty saddle would kick Herr Piech’s baby into a corner for me, let alone your fine looking Bianchi.
I should make one thing clear. While I advocate the aesthetic and poetry of road cycling, there is as much to be enjoyed from a gentle ride on a rattly old clunker as there is to maxing it through the forestry on a mountain bike – or indeed ‘bagging’ a Col. Whatever you enjoy is as valid and as noble.
I would also say in case of any intimations of vainglory, I suffered like a dog on those Alpine ascents and rather doubt I’d have it in me now. However, one of the things I love about the sport of cycling is that anyone can ride in the wheeltracks of the greats – no entry fee required.
Laurent: In a former life I also commuted. My bike rides into and back out of Central London were frequently the highpoints of a rather dreary working life. Frequent run-ins with the eternal notwithstanding. Ride safely out there…
Riding safely but fast wherever possible. My average speed on my 6.75 miles commute is about 16mph – much faster than cars and so much more enjoyable. And I don’t even take the fastest route…
Laurent. I just checked my car and my motorcycle’s trip computers, both used entirely in London the past fortnight. Car = 11 mph average, Motorbike = 16 mph average. The car’s fuel consumption I’m too embarrassed to mention, but I believe a cycle can manage around 17.7 miles per banana. Speaking for the driver’s side I would point out that I do stop both car and motorbike at red traffic lights, a fact that gives some cyclists the edge – though I’m sure not anyone on these pages.
Red lights are mostly abided by – except for safety reasons or when there are no cars or pedestrians around (unlikely at rush hour) and visibility is perfect…
For a happy period I lived 14 km from work; most of those 14 km were along the Rhine. I cycled most days, most weeks, most months. There was not a single trip where I regretted taking the bike over the S-bahn or the car. I admit I quite liked a few of the cool, sunny-morning drives to work, windows open, but mostly the car was a bore and the the best it offered didn´t match the fabulous thrill of sunrise over the river, zooming down the tree-lined paths and finally the 2 km sprint along Industriestrasse. The hardest bike trips were never harder than a traffic jam on a 30 degree day on an autobahn. I liked seeing the seasons change: the leaf litter altered as the months rolled past. I noticed every season has a hint of the season to come and the season just gone.
Oddly, I never once found out an exact timing for the trip. I suppose it all took about 40 minutes. I didn´t know how fast I went but it didn´t matter as the speed was fast enough and, unlike being a commuter, I was never bored. It also meant I could eat like a horse.
These days I cycle maybe 1500 m to work and don´t cycle for fun other than my semi-annual bike trips along German rivers. Again, speed isn´t the main point or purpose though I have reasonable grounds to suspect that 14 km is the average over a day of between 100-120 km. Knocking some clicks off that is the frequency of stops: the view, another view, a Radler or a snack or just to enjoy the atmosphere. If the advantage of biking over motoring is that you are slower on a bike and so can enjoy the scenery more, then surely the biggest thrill of all must be walking. And if I had a lifespan of 150 years, I´d probably walk everywhere, starting with a walk across Europe.
I don´t have a racing bike. Mine is a hybrid thing with a touring frame and moderately chunky tires. It´s rusty too.