walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

O Magnum Mysterium: In Which I Divulge What Little I Have Learned About Bike Racing

Until recently, I knew essentially nothing about bicycle racing, except that Eddie Merckx looked like Elvis when he was young and has been elevated to sainthood, Lance Armstrong won the TDF seven times, and there's been a degree of doping-related public scrutiny that seems somewhat out of proportion to non-doping-related public interest in the sport.

I grasped the fact that bike racing involved teams, but I figured a 'team' of cyclists was kind of like a 'team' of cross-country runners — they might have a common 'home base,' matching kit, coaches, training regimen, and sponsors, but once they hit the racecourse, they're on their own (though the idea of a cross-country paceline is delightfully hilarious to envision). I was quite sure that cycling was basically an individual sport, since each race had one specific winner. Guess I was wrong, there.

Likewise, I probably would've guessed a 'domestique' was a racer's spouse or significant other, and could automatically become a 'super-domestique' for a period of time by doing something like buying his or her racer a sweet new ride or running back home, retrieving said cyclist's forgotten good-luck socks, and making it back to the start before the rollout. Turns out that's also totally wrong.

In fact, I've been wrong about a lot of things, where bike racing is concerned (actually, the same goes for cycling in general: perhaps more than anything, my bikes have been busily teaching me to be wrong without freaking out about it).

At this point, I'm still pretty mystified — but the more I learn about the strategic end of bike racing, the more interesting it sounds.

Recently, I've been reading the Intro to Team Racing thread on Road Bike Review. Like Cadent, until I started doing my homework, I believed "...it was a bunch of guys all riding around in a scrum until the commercials aired, then everyone gave up and let someone win."

As hilarious as this concept is (it could benefit from fisticuffs, IMO), I'm glad there's a little more to the reality.

The thing I think is really interesting about competitive cycling — which I suspect may also be the point that makes it hardest for Americans to embrace — is that it requires a staunch capacity for self-sacrifice on the part of the individual cyclist.

One can be a full-time, professional cyclist who never wins the big races that the non-cycling world actually hears about. In fact, just like racing thoroughbreds, most racing cyclists are essentially anonymous. Unlike racing thoroughbreds, however, non-winning bike racers don't necessarily find themselves shunted down the ranks to the claiming races and then sold at auction (that would probably be illegal anyway). Through dedication, hard work, and a little luck, they can find themselves in good positions, where their job is to support the point man, who is in turn supposed to win the race for the team. These are the guys who may not appear to be doing anything worth noticing during most of a race, but who specialize in sprinting or climbing or ... um ... fisticuffs. Okay, probably not that last bit. If skip knees and mid-kicks ever become legal in bike racing, though, I'll know what to write on my specialist shingle.

The self-scrifice thing seems especially true in stage racing: at the end of a tour, we might see three guys standing on the podium, but it's very likely that none of them would be standing there without the aid and cooperation of a slew of team-mates whose names appear somewhere further down the rankings. Some might even DNF. Their names will not be plastered across the front pages of newspapers worldwide (though they might make their hometown paper), and nobody will go to sleep wearing pajamas in their team colors and dreaming of being them.

On the other hand, that self-same feature of bike racing means it's an unusually accessible sport — few of us are world-class all-rounders in any sport, but bike racing offers those who dedicate themselves to developing their talents the chance to find a place to shine. If you're a scrawny little guy with a high strength-to-weight ratio, chances are some team near your very own home would be happy to have you for a climber (if you're willing to ride the endless hill repeats that will hone your technique). If you're a t-rex who can pick up and sprint like there's no tomorrow, you, too, can find a home (and you can hone your skills by riding in traffic, heh). You get out what you put in, and what you put in is entirely up to you.

Americans tend to be a little allergic to anonymous self-sacrifice — but we get behind democracy pretty readily.

I hope that, someday soon, racing as a sport will embrace both its democracy and its anonymity, and use those traits to overcome the waves of doping-related scandal that have rocked its waters in the last few years.

Even if that never happens, it's good to know a little more about bike racing than I did before.

Hm. I wonder if we can hire a domestique for our QA team at work — you know, someone who can drop what he's doing and roll over to my desk whenever I get distracted or lose my water bottle.

Edit: Oh, also, I discovered the Speedplay Museum of Pedals and Pedal-Related Accessories. This is one of those things that I probably shouldn't admit I find fascinating, but I totally do. Part of me, however, feels that this is the sort of thing I should be looking at behind closed doors, at home, in the safety of my Avid Cyclist Closet. You know, along with component catalogs and what have you.


  1. I guess the rabbit in long distance track running events is like that, although not necessarily as integral or required as the support teammates in cycling. Until recently I would have put the unknown pro football players who performed the non-star, workaday tasks on the field for a few years until their bodies got too broken to continue in that category. It's still a rough sport, but with average salaries in the $700K range on up, I don't think we could call it sacrifice any more. I think all the doping in cycling is dreadful, but I'm afraid there's no end in sight--soon as the dope boffins figure out how to graft sprinkbok genes into racers' DNA cyclists will be sustaining 50mph sprints up the mountain stages.

  2. Heh, is my naivete and undying hope that mankind is really inherently good showing? :)

    When I'm not riding my bike, I do Muay Thai, and there is, of course, an ongoing discussion about doping at the gym -- we have pro-dopers and anti-dopers (our coach would personally strangle anyone he caught doping, though, which is cool IMO).

    Since we can't seem to stop people from cheating, I always think about suggesting just dividing the sport into two divisions -- 'enhanced' and 'natural,' or what have you. Not that I'm advocating the use of performance-enhancing drugs, since even if I thought it was ethically sound to do so, filling your body with poisonous substances when you don't really have to strikes me as dumb. I just can't help but think that sometimes fighting the tide doesn't make sense.

    Then I always realize that I'm one of like three guys who would choose the natural option if the choice was offered, at least in the States. However, even if that wasn't the case, audiences would probably rather watch the 'enhanced' version, because it would probably be more 'exciting,' so at the pro level at least, the 'natural' division would eventually die out.

    This disturbs me -- I only recently learned that people watch NASCAR for the crashes, and it seems like a similar phenomenon. People seem to want action at all costs, and if it isn't 'better' (i.e., more exciting and explosive) than last year, they stop watching.

    I wonder how things would play out if cycling made a similar call.

    The amateur racers I know all say they wouldn't dope even if they could, I think in part because it's about taking what you have and pushing it to the limits. I wonder if that's true, though -- not that I think they're lying, but it's funny how your sense of ethics can get skewed when everyone else's sense of ethics appears to be more skewed.

    It seems to me like in pro cycling, the desire to continue 'wowing' the fans and the pressure to keep the sponsors happy led to the ongoing modification of racing bikes, and then to the modification of bike racers. Your comment about springbok DNA made me wonder what's going to happen once genetic enhancement becomes a reality -- we've already seen the 'bionic man' effect in running with high-performance prosthetics for lower-limb amputees leading to controversy over whether or not their users should be allowed to compete with non-amputee runners.

    I wonder, sometimes, if there's any place in the future of sports for those of us who just want to make the most of what we already have.

  3. Oh, btw, I don't mean anything negative about amputees. IMO, I'm really glad there are high-performance prosthetics that let people who have lost limbs do the things we all love doing. I'm more pondering what will happen as performance-enhancement surgeries become widely available. Sometimes it makes me a little afraid for our future.

  4. I kind of wonder what performance-enhancing surgeries are already in use out there. Probably some. And if you are an athlete in the "natural" category, can you imagine the advantage of just a wee bit of doping? It may be more feasible to just say, OK, do whatever you want to your bodies, so long as you win races. I know, I know, that's wrong six ways. But it may better reflect a pragmatic analysis of reality.