It was either luge or skeleton I was watching. I forget. Run after run, these guys would come down the ice track, bumping and chattering, the Swiss timing flashing away at the bottom of the screen. The final winning margin was .02 seconds.
Think about that for a second. Think about devoting large chunks of your life to sport-specific training over a period of months or years, and then either winning or losing by .02. How do you quantify what you did or didn’t do wrong?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the limits of human performance. As sports have grown and grown in popularity over the last 150 years, we’ve seen a steady increase in performance. Times in timed events have gone down. Distances covered have increased. With nutrition and healthcare progress, humans have gotten bigger and stronger. But there must be an end, or a dramatic decrease in the pace of improvement, right? The four-minute mile can’t really ever be the two-minute mile, can it?
I can imagine that it’s extremely frustrating, on an almost ontological level, to lose a race by .02 seconds, or even by two minutes over the space of 21 days. I can imagine that, having honed your body and craft and nutrition and psychology, it must be shattering to contemplate the idea that you have no way left to improve, that you may, in fact, be at your performance limit.
And so what do you do? Change coaches? Go vegan? Try pilates? Get more aero?
You and I will probably never be confronted with this particular problem, so that’s nice. It’s easy to ride when there is always upside, but what about when it’s your living?
This doesn’t want to be a Group Ride (the 300th, did you notice?) about doping. Doping is one of the answers to the question, what do you do next? There are a lot of other good and viable answers as well, ones that aren’t morally suspect.
This week’s Group Ride asks if now is the time to confront our human limits, in cycling, and in sporting performance in general? Unlike Roger Bannister, straining for the tape in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, we are not seeing milestones fall. We have stood on the shoulders of giants, and what is left is incremental gain, flukey feats that shave milliseconds from past efforts.
I believe that on some level, resorting to chemical or mechanical cheating, is a response to this untenable situation where we are paid to strive for a limit that can’t actually be reached. But the question is, what do we do next? Can we accept our limits and compete against each other within them? Or is there another age of achievement in front of us, some great physical breakthrough that will take the human body to levels we aren’t even imagining today? In some ways, the question is what if we don’t dope?