I used to have a cyclocomputer, a not very fancy one. It told me how slow I was going. It gave me my average lack of speed, my top slowness and the paltry total distance I’d covered. I hated it.
Of course when I first affixed its magnet and wired its sensor, I was excited. So this is what 25mph feels like. So that’s how far it is from my house to the end of my second water bottle. All this new information was fascinating. I used it to formulate boasts to friends about how much further I was riding than they were and how much faster I had climbed this hill or descended that one. I used it to measure my progress from the chilly beginnings of spring to the stiff breezes of leaf strewn autumn. And on some level, I just accepted that this was part of the equipment, part of the way you rode a bike.
Last summer, Wired told me about the boom in personal metrics measurement. Suddenly this trend that cycling has been following for years was spreading and “booming.” People loved and felt inspired by statistics. And with the proliferation of devices from Garmin and others that would quantify your work in dozens of different ways and allow you to make bar charts and graphs and multicolored pie representations of your everyday grind, who could blame them?
Why generate sweat when you can generate stats?
One day, about two years after I’d purchased my first such device, I was struggling into a headwind up a false flat staring down at its digital readout. 14.1 mph. Grunt. Groan. 14.2 mph. Muttered curses. 14.3 mph. Pain. Strain. Incredulity. 14.1 mph. Back and forth like this for a few minutes, all the time with my head down, all the time bouncing between 14.1 and 14.3 mph, in other words, working hard for no real gain with my head down and a growing frustration.
At some point, I had a revelation. I reached down, unplugged the computer and slid it forward out of its bracket, depositing it in a jersey pocket, before lifting my head, seeing both the forest AND the trees and riding off on my merry, if deeply fatigued, way.
I realized in that moment that I had, at some point over the preceding years, ceased to ride my bicycle. I had begun to ride my computer, and, in the end, it had ended up riding me. I had stopped collecting experiences on my bike and resorted only to collecting statistics. Perhaps worst of all, I had stopped seeing where I was going. I was the computer. The computer was me.
Computers don’t ride bicycles. They compute.
It was shocking to me how much more I enjoyed riding once I stopped measuring my rides. I became more aware of my form and position on the bike. I live in a beautiful part of the country, and I began to see it. I got faster, if not in actual digital terms, then certainly in my heart, because I felt faster. I swore then to reaffix my computer only after deep and careful thought about what doing so would get me.
I’m not sure where that thing went. I think it’s in a box in the garage.
Obviously, I understand why professionals use these tools. They earn their living by generating large numbers. They tune their rides by percentage of max heart rate or by speed intervals or by sustaining specific efforts for specific periods of time. And of course, the tools have become more and more sophisticated. The simple measurements I was taking years ago don’t complete the basic functions on today’s most basic units. There are GPS and power meters. There is software to chart progress (or lack thereof) over days/weeks/months/years.
Clearly, racing cyclists of every category who want to get better will want to measure their workouts and most of them do. I can see that even casual cyclists take some great satisfaction from the accumulation of data. I might just live in that odd middle space where I am neither casual in my cycling, nor very much interested in racing. I suppose though, it matters what and whom you are racing.
A zen master once said, “When you are drinking tea, only drink tea,” and, for me, this applies to the bicycle as well. When I am riding my bike, I try only to ride my bike. I don’t concern myself with speed, fitness or progress. Those things are elusive. They come and go. When I ride, I become fit. I progress. I go fast. Except when I ride myself right out of fitness, speed and progress. The form dips and swerves. The consequences of my riding change and shift, but the riding is always there.
For me, measurement started as a curious and entertaining diversion, but ended as an obstacle. Somewhere along the fault line of the pro-hobbyist divide, technology and science have interceded. Those who wish to race, if not professionally, then certainly as the pros do, have followed them down the statistical path. It is, perhaps, a hobby within the hobby, neither bad nor good, but simply another thing you can do with your bicycle.
I’ve left it far behind now. Occasionally I wonder exactly how fast I’m going, but the thought passes. I’m going fast enough.
The funny thing about the Group Ride, about any Group Ride really, is that it almost never goes quite the way you expect it to. You set out on a route you think you know, but then some big bastard you’ve never seen before comes roaring past on the left and your paceline goes to hell and by the time you get to the turn around you’re too tired to choke back an espresso and a fig newton.
And thus it went with this week’s group chat about technology in the pro peloton. For the most part, we ended up talking about TT bikes and deep dish carbon rims at amateur races. This topic wasn’t really on the route, but you know, the beauty of a group ride is that the group finds its own route, and I found it very interesting to hear everyone’s perspective on the non-pro peloton.
Those who did address the pros, tended to focus on race radios. I’ve yet to meet a race fan who supports the use of radios, but that might have more to do with not depending on them to be in the right place in the race at the right time. In other words, of course WE want to see racing get harder. The pros themselves, who are already pushing their bodies and brains to the absolute limit just to stay in a job, tend to appreciate the radios. Maybe we can allow them their race radios, if they’ll agree to give up their TT bikes. Or vice versa. It’s all about compromise, isn’t it?
I’ll tell you the truth, and so far everyone I’ve shared these views with thinks I’m absolutely zipper-down, drooling insane, I’d ban an awful lot from those carbon race machines we see week in and week out. To start with, I want to be rid of cyclocomputers and power meters. I’d ban anything that requires electricity. If you ride 300 training miles per week and don’t know what 45kph feels like, then what are you doing all that time? If you need a small black box to tell you how long you can sustain your current effort then, to me, you’ve not been paying any attention.
It’s “information doping.” See, I can make up silly cycling phrases too!
The larger point is that all of this information dulls the racer and the racing. It allows the peloton to calculate, within a few hundred meters, EXACTLY how hard they need to ride to catch the break at the line. It’s one thing to have a man on a motorbike tell you that there are four riders, two minutes up the road. It’s quite another to be able to look down at a digital dashboard and know that if you ride at precisely 34.6kph for the next twenty minutes you’ll overtake those impertinent bastards before they can put any time into you. That, to me, is not bike racing.
The power meters all but guarantee that a rider doesn’t over exert himself, or, that if he does, he can do it strategically, rather than squandering his beyond max effort in a race he won’t win anyway. Over the course of a three-week race these tools make it possible for riders to conserve their energy in ways that open, less information-rich racing wouldn’t allow. It affects results, and these bits of technology are not the bike. They are accessories, and I don’t think they belong.
Of course, the pros, by and large, love them. Computers and power meters make their jobs easier. You’d have as much luck getting them to give these things up as you would pulling the coffee maker out of the RKP office. It won’t happen.
And I’m probably the only one who thinks these things are even a problem. It’s not that I’m against technology. I have no problem with new frame materials being introduced, though I do like the idea of some uniformity, just so that it’s the riders racing and not the machines. I just think the UCI ought to be very careful about what it allows the riders to use that isn’t a bicycle, in their efforts to win a race.
Whether it’s EPO, a seat tube motor, a radio or a GPS unit, you have to see that it has an effect on the race. I’m in favor of quads and brains deciding the outcome, strategy and teamwork.
Call me old-fashioned.