The Golden Age Blues

TOUR de FRANCE 1967Roger Pingeon and Raymond Poulidor

This morning, as I climbed up the gentle gradient to Scott’s Valley from Santa Cruz, one sentence resonated in my head:

“Krabbé’s 20 was clean as a whistle.”

It is a line from Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, which a friend lent me the week before and I subsequently devoured. The book is without question one of the most iconic narratives about riding bikes ever produced. You feel the torment he’s going through on each climb. You relate to the shortcomings in his own riding, and you experience each of his emotions as he takes you from Km 1 to Km 150. You put it down knowing at least a little of what it meant to race in Europe at the amateur level in the mid 1970s. A time when nutrition equaled fruit, hydration equaled water, and gear selection occurred cog by cog.

So when Krabbé referred to his 20, he meant the teeth in his gear ratio. As in 43/20. But he wasn’t even in his 20, he was climbing in his 43/19. Probably on a gradient of at least 6%. At race pace. He was truly suffering.

I thought about my own gear ratio on the easy, 3% ascent out of town. 34/24 probably. I wasn’t in my 28, but I was sure before the road ended it would get used. I was not suffering. Truly.

And it hit me that cycling today is infinitely easier than it used to be. And that probably sounds like the understatement of the century to some riders out there. A better way to put it is this: cycling used to be prohibitively difficult. Cassettes maybe went up to 23, compacts weren’t even a twinkle in Campagnolo’s eye, and wheel technology has come a long, long, (long) way. Because of these facts and more, riding bikes used to be inescapably agonizing.

Even if I weren’t a woman, it’s safe to say that it would have been impossible for me to enjoy the sport even 30 years ago. I’m simply not that strong on my own. To get that strong would have taken hours and hours of punishment to a degree I simply can’t bear. I love to cycle, yes, but what initially turned me on to riding? The fact that I initially was pretty good right off the bat sans pain. Modern technology, as compared to what Krabbé rode, allowed me to be pretty good right off the bat sans pain. In his day, that was nonsense. Nobody was good right off the bat sans pain, because it was an impossibility.

Upon finishing The Rider, I finally understood what the Golden Age of cycling represented: an age when every man was a hardman, and the level of passion required to even be a recreational cyclist pinnacled anything that’s needed today. The suffering of riding bikes couldn’t be separated from the act itself, so if you did ride bikes, you had to whole heartedly love said suffering. I mean, love it with every pore of your body. If you didn’t love it, you didn’t ride bikes.

Today, we cheat. We have super light bikes and super easy gearing, allowing virtually anyone to get on a bike one day and climb a mountain the next. You don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to experience discomfort in order to participate in the sport. Modern technology has given us a choice which wasn’t available in the Golden Age.  You can sort of like to ride bikes and still ride them. You can take it seriously, or not seriously, as the spirit moves you.


Do I believe that my love of cycling is in some way tarnished because I side stepped that particular learning curve? Hell no. I plan my Saturdays around long rides and can’t imagine going a week without swinging my leg over the top tube. I whole heartedly love to ride my bike with every inch of my body. It’s not less than Krabbé’s love, it’s just different.

To those who feel sad about the passing of the Golden Age, I say that’s OK. Romanticizing the past is a universal human tendency. But to those who believe cycling has diminished since the Golden Age, I say open your eyes. Take a look at the wonderful diversity of the cyclists in your community. I promise you, every single person who rides has a unique story describing how and why they fell in love with the bike, full of just as much nuance as yours or Krabbé’s.  Many of them have stories like mine, where cycling took away suffering instead of inflicted it. Ultimately, the power of the bicycle to relieve inner turmoil, or calm a frenzied mind, or soothe a broken heart, trumps any power it has to deliver physical pain.

And I think even Krabbé would agree.


Image: John Pierce, Photosport International



  1. Peter lin

    Even though we have super light bikes and wall climbing gears, I don’t think climbing is necessarily “suffer-free”. Especially if the hill is a CAT 1 or 2 climb. The suffering is less, but there’s still enough to put someone in the pain cave.

  2. Ransom

    I guess there’s something to it, but it seems to me that the suffering is always bounded by the appetite for it. E.g. pre-popularized-triples, that meant avoiding hills beyond your fitness.

    Though it’s about lighter, faster bikes and deeper gears rather than elevated fitness, I think LeMond’s quote is still applicable: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

  3. kurti_sc

    @ Ransom
    Bullseye. Thanks for the LeMond quote. I’ll qualify it a bit further for myself by saying, ‘It never gets easier, I just get a teensy-weensy bit faster, on occasion.’
    Last night’s TNR was one such occasion. yeah! Next week’s TNR? Probably not.

  4. Jonathan

    ” I whole heartedly love to ride my bike with every inch of my body. It’s not less than Krabbé’s love, it’s just different.”
    And anyway, the riders of the 70s were a bunch of softies compared to their forebears who were riding with suicide-shift derailleurs, rod-actuated brakes and wooden rims. Or before that, 40 pound fixed-gear bikes…

  5. Scott G.

    Just checked my 1939 British Cyclo catalog.
    “Rosa” chain shifting device, page 29. Quote “any 2 or speeds can be conveniently converted to 4 or 6 speeds by fitting a “Rosa” double chainwheel”
    Rosa chainwheels, 52 to 36 big rings, with small rings between 42 down to 24.

    Rear cogs 13 to 28 available, you select cogs individually.

  6. LesB

    Another way of looking at it, is we go farther now with our technology, we go steeper now.

    Unless I’m on a lay-back ride or a recovery, I pedal to the extent that my body will take me with X amount of glorious suffering.

    With ’70s technology, that amount of suffering would take me on something less than my current rides. Maybe I’d bail from Mulholland at Kanan instead of Deer Creek. I wouldn’t attack the same DD grades without gears, lots of gears.

    I wasn’t so much in to cycling back in the ’70s, but as I remember, the road bikes then felt more like cast iron than steel.

  7. Michael

    I did ride back in the ’70’s, and up the same road Irene is talking about, and my bike DID feel more like cast iron than steel. Then I bought a Ron Cooper and it was SO fast, faster than I was sometimes. But it had a smallest gear of 42/21. I was young and light and knew no better and rode very road in the SC mountains. I realized the other day, as I was riding my steel coupler bike I have for traveling and for winter and wet rides, that this new bike, with big tires and couplers and a fork crown you could kill someone with (it probably weighs a pound itself) weighs about what my incredibly light and fast Ron Cooper weighed. it descends better than my Cooper and is at least its equal on ascents. And I have a 36/28 low gear on it. So yes, bikes have changed. I agree with Irene that the fun is all still there and with others that we can all just seek out our suffering in our own ways and our own doses. And welcome, Irene!

  8. Resty

    Never enjoyed cycling as much as when I started using mountain triples (from 46/36/24 now to 44/32/22 with either a big 23 or 25 in back) on my road bike. Living in a mountainous area.

  9. Nick

    “Many of them have stories like mine, where cycling took away suffering instead of inflicted it.”

    The more life I live the more I think that we don’t ever suffer on the bike. We push ourselves on the bike, hurt ourselves, and test our capacity to go beyond what we thought was physically possible. That brings pain. Lots of pain. I’ve bonked with 40 miles to go and had to take breaks between pedal strokes to get home. I’ve cracked to the point that I couldn’t understand speech and was shivering on the side of the road. I’ve ridden so hard that I had to vomit. And none of that was suffering; as Irene says, it took away suffering. Suffering is not knowing if you’re newborn will live; ask Padraig. Suffering is living with constant, chronic pain; ask anybody undergoing chemo. Suffering is surviving the tragic, confusing death of somebody you deeply loved; ask plenty of suicide survivors.

    We can make cycling painful, and we can make cycling hurt, but cycling will remain beautiful because it takes away our suffering instead of inflicting it.

  10. jorgensen

    Way back in the 70’s if you had a lower gear than a 42×21 it was on your training wheels. If you rode a 6 block, you had a 13. The attitude was if you required a lower gear than a 21, then you were off the back anyway.

    There were few exceptions, Bouquet Canyon, or the Agoura Road Race would get you thinking about a 23.

  11. Bone

    Yeah. 30 years ago, the bicycles were heavier. But, lighter than they had been previous. And the gearing higher, but a wider range than before. The wheels had smoother bearings and better rubber than their fore.

    30 years ago, it was hard to climb the local berg as fast as your heart compelled .

    30 years on, 30 years ago was a whole lot easier. This body does not bound as lightly. And it does feel the effort. Lungs not as elastic. Heart more restricted. Joints, well just plain creaky.

    And riding 30 years ago, the mind didn’t do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride. Now, it just wants to clamor on about everything.

    Don’t misunderstand. I savor the ride as much as I can. But, I see the countdown and feel the weight of the dwindling light.

    I’ll take that heavy bicycle. If I can have the lightness that my soul enjoyed when I was struggling up that hill in my better days.

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