I have been devoting much time recently to the study of physiology in humans. This isn’t a euphemism. Specifically, I have been interested in exercise physiology.
It’s the academic discipline for anyone who ever glanced down in horror at a pair of legs that had decided to abruptly withdraw their cooperation, and shouted, “Now? Why now? Stupid legs!” (Well, there’s probably some psychiatric element to this as well, but we’ll stick with physiology for the moment.)
What’s surprising is just how little anyone really knows about that moment of failure. The point where you just can’t do any more, push any harder, where the kind of suffering you sort of enjoy turns to the kind of suffering that sort of makes you want a big hug and an ice cream and someone to tell you everything is all right, you can stop now.
The physiology literature has plenty of academic waffle about blood acidosis, neuro-muscular fatigue, calcium availability in the muscle fibres, but clearly, in reality, it’s a mystery – as some physiologists admit.
One recent, highly reputable study says, “Although it is not difficult to know when one is fatigued, it is entirely another matter to be able to identify the physiological mechanisms responsible for this condition.”
That’s why I’ve come to rather like the theory of South African physiologist Tim Noakes. He suggests that there is a ‘central governor'; a subconscious bit of the brain that uses various ‘sensors’ to constantly monitor what’s going on in the body. In hard efforts, it can start to shut down muscles to prevent you from doing damage, especially to the heart or brain, by starving them of oxygen. This is what creates the feeling of fatigue.
I know that, if it exists, it’s a subconscious and automatic process of the central nervous system. I can’t help thinking of it as a little man in a control room. Not so much central governor as central guv’nor.
Having thought that, it’s impossible not to start adding details. Tony Martin’s central guv’nor I imagine in a lab, wearing a white coat, surrounded by test tubes and perhaps an anatomical diagram of the German dribbling cod, the animal upon which he bases his rider’s time trial position.
I tend to assume he would control Tony with a complex iPad app of his own creation. He pushes him to the very edge, but with skill and concentration keeps him beautifully balanced at the very limits of what’s he can do.
Mark Cavendish’s guv’nor I see differently. In the chaos and noise of a sprint finish, he’d look a lot like the Matt Smith incarnation of Dr Who, grinning like a maniac in a wildly shaking Tardis, pushing buttons and twirling dials. He wouldn’t care a fig for what’s ‘safe’ according to the operating manual, but he’d get away with it every time.
My central guv’nor? I think of him as overweight, a little balding. He’s almost certainly wearing dungarees and a grubby padded-shirt. For some reason, I think he’s probably sitting in a sort of crane-cab, with fag-ends on the floor, and lots of clanky-looking hydraulic levers. He’s usually rummaging around in a Tupperware box for another cheese-and-pickle sandwich.
Whenever things start to shake a bit, he snatches up his Thermos-lid of tea before it falls over, and under his breath he mutters, “Ah, for Chrissakes, not this bike-riding crap again.” He pulls the lever that disables half the muscles in my legs. It’s a much-used lever, badly maintained, and he has to pull it several times. I slide helpless and baffled out of the back of a bunch. “Better,” he says, and sets his tea down again, props his feet up on the rusted-solid ‘more power!’ lever, and takes a bite of his sandwich.
I read, with a sinking heart, yet another of your attacks on doping in cycling. When are you and all the other pious pricks going to grasp that sport, and life in general, is a win-at-all costs game?
It isn’t about honesty, it’s about taking everything you can get away with and screw the little people.
Armstrong played the game better than everyone else – anyone he beat he beat fair and square. If he had his time again, he’d do it all over again, and he’d be right to do so.
Yours, Kevin, email
Kevin – thank you for your observations. I’m pleased to notice your email comes from a well-known financial institution, with which I have invested some of this column’s not-considerable wealth. I shall be moving it.
How to… ride no-hands
Simple one, this. You take your hands off the handlebars. And behold, you’re riding no hands. (Legal notice – neither Cycling Weekly nor Dr Hutch accepts any legal liability for injury caused by following advice in this column).
The faster you’re going, the more stable the bike will be – but the more dramatic the consequences if it all goes wrong. Generally, the speed you feel comfortable with for experimenting is determined in inverse proportion to your age.
Riding no-handed is not much use unless you learn to do something with the hands you have thus freed-up – and this is where the problems start, since you need to keep riding smoothly if you want to go in a straight line. Try hand-jiving as a first step. This is not really very helpful - but it will give anyone who sees you a real laugh.
After that, you can move on to taking off and putting on a rain jacket. Do this with great caution. Cats, dogs and potholes can see you doing this, and will run out in front of you unexpectedly. Cats and dogs do this motivated by a hunting instinct. Potholes are just sadists.
The PhD of no-handed riding is shaving, as practised by old-school six-day riders trying to attract the attention of photographers.
Finally, a bit of free advice: if you do crash when riding no-handed, don’t tell anyone what you were doing. People can be very judgmental, especially casualty doctors and wives. This applies doubly if you were shaving at the time.
This article was first published in the February 28 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio, download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.