My legs and lungs and heart are the baseline. Their unreliable interactions with available time, motivation and passable weather are the great arbiters of my form. My form! Like that’s even a thing. My form is formless. My shape is two-dimensional, an X and a Y that describe nothing.
I spend my days, and large portions of my evenings, working away at non-baseline functionality. I think about oversized head tubes. I consider gear ratios. I think about tire width and pressure. All of these elements, plotted on the graph with my baseline X and Y, still mostly amount to nothing. A pair of 175 gram pedals do very little to amplify the force being applied thereto, when the baseline values are so low.
It is nice that there are wind tunnels to help bikes slip through the still, summer air like the ice cream truck with a packing of chasing, yowling kids in its wake. My personal wind tunnel testing has yet to identify the superfluous bits of my own physiognomy, though I can point to some I’d be willing to give up.
What is performance really, and why should I chase it? When I have it, what will I do? Likely squander it in an extra vainglorious minute on the front of a group ride to nowhere. This is the cycling equivalent of putting every dime you win on blackjack into the cheap slot machine by the door on your way out of the casino. Speed is not a thing for me really.
I could be cynical about it, but speed is over-rated. In fact, I would wager that most of us are measuring the wrong parts of our performance.
Pardon me while I switch metaphors here, but at some point between the bicycle shop and the runway the Wright Brothers took flight. The continuous pursuit of those last percentage points of performance can yield results no matter how unlikely, and we all want to fly. I justify a lot of time and money spent under the banner of performance optimization, when the baseline numbers don’t suggest a conventional lift off is possible.
Speed isn’t really what we’re after. What we want is lift, to get that freedom we all crave. When we’re on the bike, we want to forget about everything else. We want to be one with the machine, to share jokes with friends, to discover new places. When we’re off the bike, we want to escape into the minutiae of cycling. We want to read about the compelling benefits of a stiffer bottom bracket. We want to pretend we know things about material science and about proper training and nutrition.
This is all lift. My legs and lungs and heart don’t suggest much is possible for me, but I have not stopped trying to get free of the ground. Sometimes, it seems you only need to let go of the things, like a yearning for speed, that might hold you down.
Image: Matt O’Keefe