Despite being physically some of the fittest athletes on the planet, off the bike, pro-cyclists often look a bit odd; deformed, misshapen and out of proportion, with their oversized cycling specific muscles and complete rejection of any body weight which isn’t absolutely necessary for the job in hand.
To see some of them carrying out a simple, everyday task like walking in a straight line often gives the impression of a gangly teenager or a baby deer; all arms and legs, none of which are completely under their control.
But to see a pro-cyclist in context (i.e. on a bike) is often a demonstration of beauty and grace.
Their otherwise misshapen body parts, when seen in their natural habitat and utilized for their intended purpose, make sense. The best cyclists have a fluid, circular pedalling style which is smooth, efficient, and beautiful to watch. In fact, it is said that what truly separates the professionals from everyone else (apart from determination, powerful muscles, a big heart and huge lung capacity) is pedalling style. The French call it ‘souplesse’: a style which is supple and flexible.
There are skinny little climbers, up out of the saddle and dancing on the pedals, muscular sprinters with bikes bucking beneath them in acceleration, and time-triallers tucked into impossible aerodynamic positions and cutting through the air; all exhibiting their own take on style, grace, and the kind of speed that most of us can only dream of.
In contrast, the less talented (or simply very tired) amongst us mash up and down on the pedals, stamping the power out in great clumsy jerks, and missing out totally on the efficiency of smooth technique; employing not so much a fluid circular motion, as pedalling squares.
But it goes beyond pedalling style; the more cycling you watch, the more you begin to understand the finesse and the bike handling skills of the top cyclists. The very best shift their weight around the bike with simple, imperceptible movements, which allow them to nip through a gap, negotiate an awkward corner at speed, or bunny hop a traffic island when rolling through town.
Talking of bike handling, take a look at this video clip featuring former world champion Thor Hushovd using up a few of his nine lives:
But even in the pro ranks there are riders who, although quick, ride as if they’ve been handed the wrong sized bike, or indeed are riding the contraption for the first time. You see some who arch themselves across the bike like an excited crab, others who look hunched or who waggle their elbows around as they pedal, and those for whom rigor mortis appears to have set in. The great Eddy Merckx, in fact, was no technician, even as he bobbed and weaved his way to win after dominant win.
On my better days, when the kids have decided to allow me a full and unbroken 6 hours of sleep, and I haven’t overdone it on the Rioja, there are brief moments when I’m skimming across the tarmac like a vision of athletic poetry; smooth, agile and quick.
Then I catch a view of myself in a shop window and the image evaporates.
Ah well…every cloud has a silver lining. I may not look like Laurent Fignon on the bike, but at least I don’t resemble Bambi-on-ice when I’m out doing the shopping.