Biking Behaviour (part 20) – The Super-Commuter

Cycling to work has, at least here in the UK, achieved new heights of respectability. 

There are the health benefits, the money saving aspect, the chance to avoid sitting angrily in traffic with steam coming out of your ears, and the fact that many work places run a cycle to work scheme, which allows you to buy a brand spanking new bike whilst paying no tax on it whatsoever; if the number of people who claimed the cycle-to-work tax benefits actually cycled to work, trust me, our roads would now be clogged up with bikes, not cars. 

But that’s another subject entirely.

(Image: Wikimedia CC)

(Image: Wikimedia CC)

Either way, you cannot deny that the cycling commuter is on the rise, and in true Darwinian fashion there is one who has risen above the crowds and carved out their own niche in the cycling habitat, whose biking behaviour on a twice daily basis singles them out as a rider of rare commitment; I am talking about the super-commuter.

I’m a walker to work not a cycler, for the simple reason that my commute by foot is approximately 8 minutes door-to-door: barely enough time to get my bike out of the shed. But as I stroll around the corner at the end of my street, my local super-commuter swings into view, predictably and timely, like one of Jim Carrey’s neighbours in the Truman Show. Judging by the direction he’s heading, his impressively wiry physique, and the fact that I know a man who knows him, I’m led to believe that he rides around 20-25 miles per commute (one way); even with my limited maths I can tell you that’s 40 or 50 miles a day, giving him a weekly commute total of 200-250 miles.

Wow. Impressive. 

Add that to any mileage he racks up over the weekend for fun and we are talking one serious mile-muncher.

Hour after hour of riding has whittled him into a perfect union of man and bike, surely ill-equipped to deal with the everyday, mundane, non-bike-related tasks required when working for a living, but perfectly suited to negotiating the morning rush hour with minimal fuss. Locked in and machine like, it’s difficult to imagine him performing any task that doesn’t involve pedalling. 

Can he even walk? 

You wouldn't catch a super-commute riding a Boris Bike! (Image: Wikimedia CC)

You wouldn’t catch a super-commuter riding a Boris Bike!
(Image: Wikimedia CC)

He rides with a fixed impassive expression, serene, in his element, and unflustered whether riding through sun, wind or rain. He’s small, wiry and weather beaten in a healthy ‘Norwegian fisherman’ kind of way, calf muscles lean and rippling, body fat minimal. He has the look of a man who’s never complained, moaned or whinged in his life.

If he has a cold or a dose of the dreaded man-flu, I suspect he simply leaves home 15 minutes early to mitigate any potential poor performance on the bike. If you asked him how many miles he rode last week he’d say, ‘well, I went on the club run on Sunday morning, that’s all’. 

Apparently not counting the 200 odd miles he rode Monday to Friday; to the super-commuter this is just the daily commute, and hardly worth a mention.

On the bike, life is reduced to black and white, but I like to think that once our man reaches his place of work he is left floundering and incompetent as he attempts to negotiate the myriad grey areas to be found in the average work place. Away from the pure simplicity of the bike he is out of his element and clumsy. His colleagues have learnt that the super-commuter’s serotonin levels will drop as the day passes, rendering him grumpy and irritable, until by late afternoon he is rendered uncooperative and incomprehensible by his drug like need for vigorous aerobic exercise.

Once released from the constrictions of a day at work he is back on the bike and emitting the calm demeanour of a Zen Buddhist, busily righting the imbalance brought on by a desk job in a stuffy office, and a dozen colleagues who think that a reduction in the price of a litre of petrol is the solution to the stress of the morning commute.

The super-commuter knows differently.

 

 

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Strava: top 10, or top 10 percent?

So it seems most of us are on Strava these days.

All good fun, of course, as long as you don’t get sucked too far in and become a Strava casualty!

Back in the halcyon days of 2011, or ‘the early years’ as I like to call them, in the days when many of us were yet to switch our cycling from analogue to digital, I used to aim for a top 10 slot on many of the local climbs here in Lancashire. Not only that, I could always count on having a handful of KOM’s to my name (the less well known ones, admittedly, but they were still mine).

I was no hotshot, but in the sparsely populated world of Strava I might just have popped up on the radar of the cycling community.

But no more, alas.

Now that every cyclist and his dog (to coin a slightly clunky phrase) are logging their achievements for the world to see, I find myself lost on the leader-boards – 73rd position out of 846, for example – vaguely respectable perhaps but still very much swallowed up by the mediocrity.

Where once I aimed for top 10, now I’ll settle for top 10%; a result of not only the sheer number of cyclists who pedal up and down these fantastic northern lanes that I’m endlessly banging on about, but also because, the fact is, we have an awful lot of very good cyclists in these parts; elite riders in whose slipstream it is no shame to find yourself.

If 1000 men, women and children have ridden a climb and I find myself in 100th position, I suppose I’ll settle for that; though hopefully I’m beating most of the children.

Hopefully.

A favourite route of mine takes me out of Lancaster, through Burton-in-Kendal, and on through the village of Holme. As I was riding out that way recently I picked up a tailwind on the rolling road between Burton and Holme, which quickly turned my thoughts to all things Strava.

I have long since stopped basing my training on Strava leader-boards, one of the main reasons for this being that, especially in the sort of coastal area that I live, all the top-tens are wind assisted. I’m not sure what you do about that, and it’s just a bit of fun after all, but when the direction of the wind has such an influence on the time you can post, the KOM’s lose their value somewhat.

Nevertheless, on this evening I’d picked up a tailwind and I thought I’d better use it!

So, as I concentrated on maintaining my form and effort on this particular stretch to Holme I thought to myself, “surely this stretch of road on Strava should be called ‘Holme Run’, it practically names itself”.

And so I returned home, downloaded my ride data, and lo and behold there it is: “Holme Run”.

This got me thinking about the names given to Strava segments; those sections of road over which your performance is recorded and ranked on a leader-board for comparison against everyone else who’s ridden it.

When I first started using Strava (we’re talking about ‘the early years’ again, when normal practice was to jot down the vital statistics of every ride in a little dog-eared notebook. Quaint!) the names of segments in these parts tended to be descriptive and functional: “Quernmore Road Climb”, “Cockerham to the Stork”, or “Barnacre Hill”. As time has gone by the cyclists of Lancaster, and everywhere else for that matter, have got creative.

So now we have names like:

“Jonny’s lead out” – I’m not sure who Jonny is but I’m guessing he doesn’t strictly speaking have a lead out, and his mates are the butt of the joke here.

“Ride like they’re shooting at you” – which, predictably, takes you past the local shooting range and, believe me, the irrational feeling that a bullet might whistle past your ear at any moment is a more effective motivational aid than than just about anything else I know.

“Dogging dash” – I’m not sure what the phrase ‘dogging’ means in other parts of the world, but round here, that’s a worrying one.

“That little hill after the Redwell that sucks” – which I know well, and it does.

And finally, to prove my point:

“With the wind behind you” – because the wind is a reasonable predictable southwesterly in these parts, and so on this stretch it often is.

What also makes me chuckle is the narratives people add to their rides, along the lines of “3o miles into a headwind”, or, “blowing a gale couldn’t get any rhythm going”, which, loosely translated, means:

“To those of you poring over my ride data, please be aware that my times were severely adversely affected by these strong winds we’ve been experiencing. I am much quicker than I seem. Thank you.”

Interestingly, when they nail a King of the Mountain slot, there is no caveat to be found explaining the monumental tailwind that swept them up and propelled them to the top spot.

Funny that.

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Enforcing ‘The Rules’

I won’t hear a bad word about my local bike shop.

Of course, some of the things they sell can be found much cheaper online, but they give good advice, they clearly love bikes and anything bike related, and they don’t give you the hard sell.

They also give me 10% off, which clinches it.

Having said all this, I have uncovered evidence recently that they seem to have a rogue staff member who is stealthily enforcing ‘The Rules’.

(For the record, I just think ‘The ‘Rules’ are a bit of fun. Nothing more. I know some get a bit hot and bothered about them. Not me. No-one is actually trying to dictate how you should behave. They’re just for fun).

photo

A friend of mine went in there recently to buy handlebar tape, and in a moment of excitement decided it was time to live a little, move on from his standard black, and wrap his bars in pristine white. A perfectly acceptable decision; slick, stylish, prone to getting mucky perhaps – particularly if you’re one of those who seems to spend every ride with a coating of chain grease all over his mitts – but a bold choice.

As he was paying for the tape, the young lad behind the counter asked conspiratorially, ‘what colour is your seat?’

Any fans of ‘The Rules’ might now be thinking, ‘ahhh, Rule #8: Saddles, bars and tyres shall be carefully matched’.

My friend, without missing a beat, said ‘white’ (despite the fact that a truthful answer would have been…’black’), and the young lad smiled and nodded, as if to say, ‘fair enough, on your way’.

This got me wondering: does this young lad have a simple if slightly obsessive fetish about matching bar tape and seat, or does he fastidiously enforce as many rules as he can get away with whilst parting cyclist from cash.

Is he going to criticise my tan lines as I try on a new item of summer kit? (Rule #7: Tan lines should be cultivated and kept razor sharp).

Will he forbid me from buying a European posterior man satchel if he knows his manager isn’t watching? (Rule #29: No European posterior man-satchels).

Would he dare to suggest I need a healthy dose of ‘Rule #5’ as I try and purchase thick winter gloves and full-length tights in autumn? (Rule #5: Harden the f**k up).

Actually, as long as I get my 10% I’m not too bothered.

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Promoting a Picturesque Peloton

Professional cycling is a tough sport, of that there is no doubt, but it’s also very pretty. 

Think of the Tour de France, with some of the worlds fittest athletes dancing gracefully on the pedals; beautiful mountainous backdrops; fields full of sunflowers; cutting edge bikes; and the colour and movement of the peloton as it glides through some impossibly picturesque French village.

This is the way I like it.

When watching the sport from the comfort of your settee, if the racing itself is in something of a lull it’s the pretty bits that catch your attention, which is why I’m so alarmed about a number of recent blots on the landscape of our viewing pleasure.

French Sunflowers (Image: Wikimedia CC)

French Sunflowers
(Image: Wikimedia CC)

 

I fear it may be time to take the draconian step of introducing minimum acceptable aesthetic standards to pro-cycling.

Let’s examine the evidence:

Kinesio tape

Depending on your level of interest in cycling, and sport in general, when you hear the phrase ‘Kinesio tape’ you will either be rubbing your chin and nodding sagely, or thinking to yourself, ‘eh, what…never heard of it’. 

For the uninitiated, Kinesio tape is exactly that – tape. It’s usually bright blue, and can be seen stuck in great strategically placed strips to the body of an increasing number of athletes with the aim of preventing or controlling injury. In cycling we see it plastered up and down their thighs, across knee joints, or peeking out of their jersey’s in aid of some long forgotten shoulder injury. 

As this well written article by Cycling Weekly suggests, evidence of the actual benefits to performance or injury reduction seem to be sketchy, with the benefits apparently restricted to short term pain relief to injured areas at best. 

There are some cyclists who appear to be held together by the stuff, and we’re not just talking about the also-rans; Tony Martin, Alberto Contador, I’m looking at you (although to be fair, Contador has recently broken a leg), but still…it doesn’t look pretty.

Nose tape

Nose tape (if that’s what it’s called; it may well have some fancy scientific name, but if I get into googling this stuff I’m just playing into their hands) is basically the same issue as Kinesio tape. 

As pointed out by Chris Boardman on ITV4’s coverage of the Tour de France here in the UK (a man who gives me the impression that he generally knows what he’s talking about), these unsightly strips across the bridge of the nose serve no purpose; they simply give the impression that the wearer was on the wrong end of a knuckle sandwich after a late night in some back-street bar.

Alberto Contador and his nose tape (Image: Wikimedia CC)

Alberto Contador and his nose tape
(Image: Wikimedia CC)

If a cyclist should choose to take the start line looking like they are held together with Kinesio tape, and with a stretch of nose tape across their conk…

…frankly, I don’t care if your name is Tony Martin.

Skinny climbers and their white, muscle free torsos

Some of the legendary figures of the sport over the years – Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes, Lucien van Impe – and some of the modern greats too – Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador – possess the stick thin upper body of the true climber.

As my wife accurately (and hilariously) describes them; they are the ‘pipsqueaks’ of pro-cycling.

I have no problem with this – to ride well in the mountains, the upper body of a badly drawn stick figure makes perfect sense. What I have a problem with is these riders displaying this lack of upper body, often alarmingly white and translucent, to the watching world on crossing the finish line.

The correct etiquette on winning a stage is to zip your jersey up before the finish line to display the sponsors logo’s for the cameras, but also to remove from display your slightly weird looking physique.

Rafal Majka’s win on stage 14 of the 2014 Tour de France at Risoul was impressive, no doubt, but the sight of his pale, sweaty, hairy chest – essentially nothing more than some skin stretched over a bony ribcage – quite frankly put me off my dinner.

This is not a good look. Zip up please lads.

POC helmets

Team Garmin Sharp are never shy of expressing themselves through their kit design. For many years their blue, white, and orange argyle kit design was the last word in love it/hate it divisive styling; they clearly embrace the pro-peloton as sporting catwalk. In many ways, they should be commended for their recent bold attempt to introduce an element of style into the world of helmet design.

I have made my thoughts clear on the dreaded cycling helmet already. For my money, the helmet is a very necessary but ultimately tedious piece of kit that is seemingly immune to all attempts to make it desirable or pleasing to the eye. While I appreciate the attempts by David Millar and his team-mates to elevate the humble helmet, I believe the bar is best kept low in this regard; simply aim to avoid looking like a mushroom head, and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, with their innovatively sculpted POC helmets they give the appearance of the ultimate mushroom heads – the Grand Champignon’s of the pro-peloton – and no amount of strut and swagger can get you away from that. 

Astana kit

The problem is the colour, mainly. 

I’ve heard it described as ‘baby blue’, which is probably about right. Apt, too, as any member of the Astana team kitted out in full winter garb – winter jacket, full-length tights, gloves, overshoes – looks remarkably similar to an overgrown baby in an ill-fitting romper suit.

Astana in blue - big babies! (Image: Wikimedia CC)

Astana in blue – big babies!
(Image: Wikimedia CC)

Come on Astana; now that you have the Tour de France winner in your ranks, why not provide him with some kit worthy of his status?

****************

Perhaps you think that an attempt to police this stuff is over the top, and impossible to enforce?

You may have a point, but can I draw your attention to some of the abominations that masqueraded for team kit in the 1990’s.

Perhaps some out there have a certain fondness for the oversized 90’s sunglasses sported by Mario Cipollini and his like…

'Super' Mario Cipollini and his massive shades (Image: Eric Houdas via Wikimedia Commons CC)

‘Super’ Mario Cipollini and his massive shades
(Image: Eric Houdas via Wikimedia Commons CC)

 

Or maybe you have forgotten just how bad the legendary Mapei kit could get…

 

Mapei - colourful! (Image: lgcycling.com)

Mapei – colourful!
(Image: lgcycling.com)

If we don’t step in now, we could end up in the bad old days.

Is that what you want?

 

 

 

Posted in pro cycling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hiding Ducks

As I cycle up and down the hills and valleys of my local area I’m reminded regularly that it’s by bike that you truly get a feel for a place; you see, hear, and smell things that you probably wouldn’t through the windscreen of a car.

You also truly appreciate the ups and downs of the road; there’s a famous Hemingway quote along these lines: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them…”

Over time, I have come to associate particular places – towns, villages, rivers, hills, junctions, bumps in the road – with certain sights and sounds.

So, if I think about riding out across the coastal flatlands towards Pilling and Eagland Hill, I’m reminded of the Border Collie on a short rope waiting to jump out at me. If I ride to Kirkby Lonsdale, even before I set off I can already feel the air vibrate with the primal roar of a dozen motorbikes shooting past me (because in Kirkby Lonsdale, the cyclist is trespassing in biker country).

Geese in V Formation (Image: Wikimedia commons)

Geese in V Formation (Image: Wikimedia commons)

And there are countless others too; the Sea Bass fishermen lining the banks at Sandside; the wandering rural visitors eating ice creams and stepping into the road unannounced at Scorton; the geese honking in V formation over the farmland at Stakepool and Scronkey (I know, great name isn’t it?); and the cruel battering headwind (or kind and welcome tailwind) of Morecambe seafront.

One of my favourites though, has to be the ducks at Dunsop Bridge.

The village of Dunsop Bridge in the Trough of Bowland is a quiet rural idyll and a favourite spot of mine where the peace is only broken by weekend walkers, cyclists…oh, and a village green which is inhabited by approximately 7 million ducks! 

Ducks - difficult to hide...you would think!(Image: pshab - Flickr cc)

Ducks – difficult to hide…you would think!(Image: pshab – Flickr cc)

Ok, maybe not quite 7 million, but enough to disorientate your average cyclist and make a head count all but impossible. 

As you enter the village you hear their cacophony well before you see them; if such a thing as a carpet of ducks exists, then this is it. These ducks are ALWAYS there. ALWAYS. And so even as you semi-shout over their incessant quacking to make your voice heard to your riding companion, or you idly feed them the final crumbs from whatever mid-ride snack you’re nibbling on, they are so ever-present that before long you barely register their presence.

And then one day as you enter the village you think, ‘strange, seems quiet today, where are the ducks?’ And the village green is just that: green, and duck free. And in a strange and forlorn way you miss them, perhaps because it seems sinister; how can 7 million ducks disappear? Where are they?

That is a lot of ducks to conceal. 

If they were simply out for a swim in the river the water would be a teeming mass of duck. But it isn’t. So where are they? On a menu somewhere?

And then you return to Dunsop Bridge a few weeks later to find 7 million ducks – surely the same 7 million? – very much present and correct and jockeying for position on that cramped and crowded village green. 

I’m not sure ducks was what Hemingway had in mind when extolling the virtues of travel by bike, but either way, it’s a mystery.

 

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