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