Lately, (the last couple months) I’ve stumbled across any number of blog posts, chat list discussions, mag articles, and even 'real time interactions' (aka conversations) about bicycles and speed.
It is interesting that as the riding season passes it’s perfect ripeness and decays into the drooping, flaccid fruit of winter rain rides, mind numbing hours of trainer sessions, and spin classes, we now turn to this topic; speed on the bike.
Is it because we are at the entrance to that long dark tunnel with the tiny dot of light that suggests an end somewhere down the way that we call ‘winter’, a time in which some of us do more talking (writing?) about riding than actually riding? Something else? Excess unused fitness melting into spare tires, giving us reserves to fuel an unreasoned anger that can only manifest itself as righteous talk about going fast?
Whatever the reason, I’ve got my own two euros worth to contribute. This may strike you as comically ironic or even perhaps ridiculously irrelevant given my habitual, distant relationship to ‘fast on a bike’. Those who know me (or have sipped the milk and honey here) know that I am anything but fast on a bike. I used to be a righteous descender of hills. Hills (at least down hills) actually are the fat mans friend. But I’m not even fast on descents now. My respect for those ridiculously extended injury recovery periods that attend advancing age have superseded any interest in that fleeting rush that comes with riding at a speed that far out runs your ability to stop. I am reminded of a brief period during my high school days when I had a Harley Davidson. Remind me to recount my “descending on Madison from Pill Hill at 2:00am” story sometime.
So I’m seeing all these righteous arguments about how having the right, lightweight bike is the key to finishing a fast brevet, which also implies that finishing fast is the right ‘goal’. In other circles I see folks dumping on a training tome because it categorizes any miles ridden at some intermediate pace not prescribed in the book as ‘junk miles’. Wait a minute here. It is the training manual, written for racers and racer wannbes (a MUCH bigger group than racers), but really for anyone who wants to get faster. Of course it’s going to describe JRA (just riding around) miles as junk miles. Don’t drop your chain here! That’s a lot like entering a French cycling event and then complaining because there are too many rules. Hey, bureaucracy is a French word. If you know you’re not going to like what you see, … don’t look! I will agree that labeling miles ridden for the shear joy they bring as ‘junk miles’ is rude, but again, it’s all in the eye of the writer. And as far as getting faster, the old adage “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” does apply.
As for the notion that an uber (under?) light weight bike with ridiculously low spoke count wheels, and a seat pack with a credit card and packet of freeze dried water is the key to a fast grand Brevet? Well, here is what the boat anchor at the back of the pack thinks:
I’m sure that a light weight bike will usually result in a faster brevet than a heavier bike all other things being equal. But this consideration only kicks in when you have achieved a certain level of fitness. I am a strong believer that, unless you are one of those human humming birds in the pro peloton with less than 5 percent body fat, the greatest performance improvements are to be gained working on the motor, not the bike. Put another way, I’m confident that the fit rider on the heavy bike will finish before the Pilsbury Doughboy on the Orbea. What makes me an expert on this subject that is so often out there, hours in front of me?
Well first of all I’ll say it is not only experience at the front that is instructional. I’ve flirted with fitness in my time and every time I was fitter I was faster. On the other side of the discussion, I’ve had lots of different bikes but I can’t say that the same correlation (speed and bike weight) leapt off the page. More telling by far is not my experience, but what I have seen in others. I know riders who have undertaken dramatic fitness improvements and in every case they have seen significant and in some cases tremendous improvements in their times.
So back to the title, ‘why fast’? In the world of long distance riding fast is not just about finishing at the front. Fast is all and only about options. The option to do things you might want to, or things you were not planning to do. It can mean a fast time, but it can also mean time for sleep, time to sit in a café eating chocolate croissants, fixing mechanicals, or nursing injuries. In a sport so fraught with uncertainty, having options dramatically improves a rider’s chance of success. Whether you think of success as finishing first or just having a blast on the bike, having options just increases your chances.