Literally: suppleness, softness, flexibility, adaptability, fluidity. On the bike: smoothness, a one-ness with the machine. Think of a climber dancing away on that steep section that leaves everyone else pushing squares and threatening to rip their handlebars off.

Cadel Evans is not much with the souplesse. Also, Denis Menchov is a no. Alberto Contador on the other hand is a striking, modern example. Miguel Indurain.

Fausto Coppi’s souplesse was legendary, a pedal stroke as smooth as the back of a spoon. Coppi was dubbed “il Airone,” the heron, for his beak-like nose, and long, gangly legs, but just as the shore bird, Coppi seemed to move in slow motion, all the time floating away from his opponents.

As we get older, and top end speed ebbs away, souplesse becomes a new pleasure and a way to distinguish ourselves. How steady a line do we hold? How neatly do we skirt obstacles? How still are our hips? How easy our grip? Do we mash, or do we stroke?

I like to think this smoothness has a place off the bike as well. Faced with life’s natural conflicts, between rider and motorist for example, how easily do we slip by, let go of the conflict before it turns ugly. How solid remains our roll? Family affairs can be a messy collaboration, even at the best of times. Souplesse is that quality by which we refuse to engage pettiness with a brother or a parent. We set examples rather than boundaries. We act more than we talk. Souplesse contains within it humility, strength and patience.

Think of a simple, forged crank. Think of the curving sweep of an Italian saddle. Think of a true wheel. The medium is, perhaps, the message.

Souplesse connotes style, but it also hints at a deep-lying efficiency, an elimination of non-essential movement. Much has been made in recent years of incremental improvements, the sorts of time gains made in wind tunnels and in customized nutrition plans. Souplesse has that same incremental value, except that it comes from within the athlete.

My friend Francisco lives in Mendoza, Argentina. In the summer, his club rides from Mendoza, up over the Andes, down into Santiago, Chile and back. Francisco is my age and still full of piss and vinegar. This annual ride is a searing sufferfest for him. His stories of it are interesting, not for the hyperbolic descriptions of hypoxic climbing exploits, but rather for the character sketches of these ultra-lean old Argentine men who ride alongside him as he struggles for breath, whispering exhortations in his ear as they spin effortlessly over the high peaks. Souplesse.

This is a thing you can’t get from a pill, a shake or a properly stored bag of blood. Souplesse is the immeasurable measure of class. It’s charm is in its elusiveness. Form, as the old saying goes, is fleeting, while class is permanent.

We should all hope to be faster tomorrow than we were today. Fast is fun. Just know that there is something beyond speed, something beyond fun.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International






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  1. James

    Oh…I wish! Whatever the term for the opposite of souplesse, that’s me! Perhaps the term is Gruntiere?! If not it should be…

  2. Matt

    Oh man! This is one of your “pillar” type posts – the kind of subject and style that sets you apart from the mass of blogs out there – the reason we subscribe & keep coming back. RKP = Souplesse. Thanks for the post

  3. Jim

    Souplesse in pedaling, I find, is worth about 10 – 20 watts (about 3-6% of threshold power) while riding smoothly. I can fake while riding at an aerobic or tempo pace. Alas, it disappears at threshold, when pushing very hard, and studies of pro pedal strokes have shown that even most of the smooth guys become violent mashers when it’s time to go hard. Those few riders who look to be pedaling smoothly in the last 15 minutes of a race, or jamming up a 23% grade in the Giro, have real souplesse. You either have it or you don’t, and if you really do have it, then it’s miraculous. A friend of mine, a guy I race CX and MTB with (with me in much lower, slower classes), is very, very fast, and always looks like he’s spinning, even when he’s on the boot & go plan in a race. He’s the King of Smooth. I’ve learned more about bike handling by following his smooth rolling wheels than from any other single source – and who knew it, but souplesse isn’t just about pedal stroke, it helps keep the bike stable. Unlike many, The King of Smooth knows exactly what he is doing and can articulate it, he dispenses Zen koans about riding better. Example: “when you are sliding, don’t worry. Keep loose, keep pedaling, keep spinning not mashing. The bike will find a line and stick to it.” This gem works in fast off road corners, on snow and mud, in sand, and even on a slimy wet road corner early on Saturday mornings. He rides smooth even on sheets of ice, on days when I can’t stand upright on the sidewalk. He’s gracious off the bike too. *That* is what I think of when I think of souplesse.

  4. michael

    best post on this site in months. I noted some content fatigue/forced writing for the last while and found myself wandering away from the site – you have now successfully sucked me back in 🙂

  5. Chris

    Fantastic post, seriously that is phenomenal. Amongst other topics you touch upon I especially like your mention of souplesse in relation to conflicts with cars, I’ll keep your words as a calming, chi-like force, when the inevitable occurs.

  6. Author

    @All – Thanks for kind words. To borrow a phrase, even a rusty robot finds a can of oil every now and then.

    1. Padraig

      John has purchased other photographers’ archives when they have retired. The opportunity doesn’t come up too often, but it’s a great way to keep good work available.

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