Everything changes, all the time. Intellectually, I know this about competitive cycling, even if I don’t exactly accept it. Like other dinosaurs, I’m bound up in a specific time and place, irrevocably tied to the mores and technologies of those wondrous years when I toiled away in search of that elusive goal of one day, just maybe, climbing the Alps with Hinault, Fignon, or Joop. Like others, I’ve watched in dismay as planned obsolescence began to drive component manufacturer’s product cycles. I was shocked when the first European professionals ended decades of tradition, bowing to sponsor demands, began to race stock sized frames instead of the perfectly tuned, handbuilt machines tailored down to the millimeter for their forefathers. But I think the biggest change I’ve witnessed over the past twenty years or so has more to do with the conventional wisdom about what it means to be a bike racer, and how one goes about adopting such an identity.
Surely there has been all sorts of brilliant sports science which has revolutionized the way the very top athletes train and prepare for elite events. And along with this comes top-flight nutrition, analytical tools, and physiological training regimens. Interestingly, although the average punter might not be able to hang out with Coggan or Lim every day, it’s possible to train as if you do. Training has become very granular and structured, and it’s easier than ever before to rapidly quantify an athletes capacity, and develop a plan to achieve the highest levels, given genetic constraints. And a lot of folks really dig this, I guess. Fewer racers smoke. They eat more protein. They rest.
I dunno though. My first coach was a straight up Belgian disciplinarian who led with an iron fist and a pre-war (that’s WWII for the youngsters) mentality. He even thought Eddie B. was soft and too modern. I smoked, was put on an almost protein-free diet, and learned not to sleep. Coming up in this way then, I felt old even when I was young, so I’m really not sure what to think of today’s conventional wisdom about training and racing. To some extent, the competitive environment is so different that it’s impossible to compare. Amateur racing today is by and large a bourgeois pursuit that has supplanted golf, softball, tennis, or bowling. It’s become a participatory sport where category 4 racers receive “payouts” and there are national masters champions named in five year increments. That there is less blood, greater diversity, and oodles of space age equipment involved isn’t so much depressing as it is intriguing.
It’s around this time of the year, especially here in the Midwest, where folks start to think and talk about the off season. As a youngster, I didn’t know that such a thing existed. Sure, cross would end in January, and we’d hang up our geared bikes for ten weeks or so, but these were just seasonal changes. It was common sense that you’d ride fixed in the winter. It was common sense that you’d ride rollers in the shop basement. And it was common sense that you’d ride fixed on rollers in the basement and practice like hell until you could do everything the older guys could: hands-free, one legged, standing sprints. Because it was hard. And because it was rad. And because (insofar as we knew) this was exactly what every other wannabe pro teenager in France or Denmark or Spain was doing. And it’s what Merckx and Coppi and even Nakano did to get where they were.
I sure hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Andy Schleck would break his clavicle trying to reach for a water bottle on rollers. And I know that time spent on a Computrainer is probably more efficient than on rollers or doing a Christmas century on a fixie. I used to argue these points with folks: that the concentration and balance imbued by long rollers workouts translates well to technical crit racing, or that four hour rides spent at 126rpm will pay off in the form of a “beautiful” spin. But not any more. I do know that I’d personally rather be a Coppi than a Schleck though. That really goes without saying.