It’s that time of the year again, so in honour of Le Tour de France, we reprise this piece in praise of the racing bicycle.
(First published by Eoin Doyle in June 2014)
The sensation of speed is often as much a function of proximity as it is of velocity. 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 away 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 functional 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 twenty-first century 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 he’s honest.
Once he’s donned the highly specific and mercilessly revealing cycling 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 obsessing over kit, in all its myriad forms. But then, every activity contains its specific codes and signifiers.
Once on the road, the rider’s first and only thought is that of momentum – keeping it, losing it, regaining it again. Everything is measured in effort. Wind direction, gradient, topography – maintaining average speed is all. The whole time, he’s (literally) reading the road. Anticipating other road users, the surface itself – everyone a potential incident in the making. Nevertheless, he’s painfully aware of maintaining his hard-earned pace – that all important speed. But however fast he’s travelling, the rider has the most intimate relationship with his immediate surroundings: sights, sounds, smells.
On a long and steep ascent, all distractions fall away as the rider seeks to maintain his cadence. Downhill however, the boot is very much on the other foot. Gravity becomes his friend and as 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 one descent of the Col de l’homme Morte in Provence some 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 abundance. But such tales are what draw those like myself to the Tour each year; despite the savage disappointments, the scandals and the increasing commercialisation of the sport. It’s just such an epic event – spread over three weeks across some of the most beautiful yet 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 le dopage. 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 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 once again be glued to it.