When I tell you I have a graduate degree in English, I’m not so much stating a fact as a failing. An MFA in poetry suggests that the diplomate can string together a grammatically sensible sentence, true, but more importantly, it lets you know his or her math skills are as hard to find as sea lion unafraid of Great White Sharks.
When I say my math skills are basic, I mean they are as useful as basic cable. My abilities don’t include any of the useful or interesting stuff. As a result, I have to practice. A lot.
I use group rides to work through common problems I encounter at the bank, grocery store and in billing publishers for work I completed weeks or even months ago—in truth, I’m usually not too sure.
Believe it or not, there are lots of essential math problems I’ve brushed up on while sitting in the peloton. Let’s take odd numbers, for example. If I’m in a double-rotating, double paceline and after my pull I go to the back, an even number of riders will ensure that I’ve got company to chat with. An odd number means I’m riding along with ample silence to work through other math problems.
If a group is shrinking, then subtraction is at work. The key here is to assess how I feel. If I feel good, then my number is not likely to come after the minus sign. And if I feel good, then the smart move is to let someone else do the work of shedding the dead wood.
I use logarithms any time I want to do long, slow distance. I’ve learned that for each person who joins an easy ride, the odds that the ride will go faster than Zone 2 increases ten-fold. Two riders plus me means I’m 100 times more likely to go too hard than if I ride by myself.
The associative and distributive properties both taught me that it doesn’t matter who is actually at the front of the ride. The speed of the ride is determined by the fitness of the fastest riders present. They don’t even need to be at the front to make a ride faster. This point is most easily illustrated by having a pro show up for your local training ride. Said pro can sit at the back of the field and enjoy a rest day. Nonetheless, every Cat. 4 present will do the entire ride in Zone 5.
Understanding how to perform a squared function is handy, if depressing. While I can pedal on flat ground for a period of time at 28 mph, my ability to lift my pace to 29 mph depends not on how well I can do math, but on my body’s ability to increase wattage at an exponential rate. It’s like the difference in volume between a car horn and a Who concert. You may think the boat horn in that Hummer is loud, but just wait until the opening power chord of Baba O’Riley. I may be able to sustain 28 for minutes while managing 30 for only seconds. Knowing my exponents can help me keep a leash on my ego; it may roam, but not far.
The most important property I apply to cycling in general, and group rides in specific, comes from fractions. It is the property of the least common denominator. Socially, it gets used to explain all sorts of social ills, like what draws boys to gangs. It’s Darwin for the 21st century.
In my experience, the LCD is a measure of the amount of work the weakest rider will have to muster (kilojoules) to stay with a group. Unlike in societies, the weakest rider does not automatically slow a group down. While some groups may choose to slow to keep everyone together, the fastest groups prefer just to get smaller—the herd is safer if it sheds a member or two periodically.
During those fastest rides I find myself looking around, assessing the look of other riders present. I do a careful calculus (yes, more math!) weighing how that rider has performed in the last three weeks versus how they actually look at that moment. What I want to know is that minimum kilojoule number. It’s like buying a car; the sticker might say $36,000, but if you only need to spend $32,000, why would you spend more?
And ultimately, what I want is a difference, a delta. I want to know that my number is bigger than that other number. So long as I’m strong enough to stay with the lead group, I don’t really need anything more these days. Racing is part of my past; I just want to see the big move go and get home with something left. Whatever keeps the needle from pointing to ‘E’ is called the remainder.
And we know all the terms for what happens when the tank is empty. Bankers don’t understand the term ‘bonk,’ but they know all about overdrawn. I’ve made plenty of entries in training diaries that would have been more accurately described by a number in parentheses. And just as with a bad check, what I spent I owed someone else.