I find myself returning with ever-increasing wonder to thinking about how much cycling has changed. For example, it’s 20 years since the famous Obree and Boardman Hour records: Obree rode 51.596km on July 17 1993, Boardman 52.270km just six days later.
Most cyclists, even those who aren’t old enough to remember it, have a rough idea of the plot-line. Obree the maverick genius, the outsider, tinkering away on his own, and Boardman the robot, trained in a laboratory, the product of the establishment. Both tackling the greatest record in cycling.
The genuine contrast between Obree and Boardman drowns out the detail that, by current standards, even Boardman was chronically underfunded, under supported, and more or less busking it. I’m tempted to say ‘white coat and no knickers’, but if I do I imagine I’ll be hearing from him. He had to pay for the attempt himself, and was forced to borrow a van at the last minute (from the Rolling Stones – honestly) to even get to the track in Bordeaux.
There was something ragged-round-the-edges about both men’s records that I find I sort of miss in an age of organisation and gloss. Cycling, especially in the UK, has become so smooth, so sophisticated, that I yearn for some old-fashioned cobbling-together.
The Hour record itself upped and died after the UCI introduced a set of disastrous new ‘level-playing-field’ rules for it in 2000. I miss it too. It was a record that joined up the whole history of bike riding.
Love a bit of rough
I find I miss other things that have been polished out of cycling. I miss the days before pros had to wear helmets. There was more character to a peloton, because you could tell who all these people were. And I don’t mean just being able to identify them.
You could judge them by their hairstyles as if you were the Daily Mail. You could snigger at the way cycling caps made Sean Yates’s head look like it sloped backwards, and Stephen Roche’s look like it had shrunk.
Now with helmets and sunglasses you have to both identify and form an opinion on them from the nostrils down. I’m not even sure the 170-odd riders in the Tour today are the same 170 guys who were doing it yesterday. For all I know Chris Froome is a committee.
There could be half a dozen skinny, long-necked guys living in the back of that bus. God knows how many pairs of sideburns they had in there last year. It’s doppelganger doping.
I miss really dreadful team kit designs. There has been too much restrained tastefulness of late. Marco Pantani used to race in Mercatone Uno kit that looked like it had been created by a five-year-old with a pile of Italian glossy magazines, a pair of scissors and a pot of glue.
It lowered the taste-average so much that immediately every other cyclist in the world was well dressed.
I miss STI gear cables, the ones that used to stick out of the brake lever body at right angles. It looked awful, they flapped in the wind, but crucially, when you were stranded in a hotel room, you could hang your shorts up to dry after you’d washed them in the sink.
Whatever marginal aerodynamic gain we’ve had from putting the cables under the bar tape has not been worth the price of a soggy chamois.
I ran a lap of my office and cheered last week when Fabian Cancellara announced an attempt on the Hour record. At least, I did for a few seconds. Then I realised; he’s Swiss. Understated. Immaculately coiffed. He even owns a tumble-dryer. He might bring back the Hour, but he won’t bring back anything else.
Acts of cycling stupidity
My compliments to some friends of a friend who decided, on the spur of the moment, to take themselves off to France to try to catch some of the Tour. They took a Tour guide with a route in it. Sadly they did not take their sat nav with them, nor a road atlas, nor any means of navigation more modern than the sun.
After driving aimlessly round the Côte d’Azur for half a day, they eventually found a crowd. “What’s happening?” they asked hopefully in their best French. “The riders are just coming,” said a local. They hastily parked the car, and hopped out to wave and cheer.
The race swept past. There were a dozen riders, followed by a solitary, scruffy Peugeot. The spectators started to drift away. “I was expecting the Tour de France to be a bit… bigger,” one of the British pair said. The local mirth was unconstrained. They’d bumped into the race attached to the local high school sports day.
Great inventions of cycling – 1860 – Stiffness
‘Stiffness’ (stop sniggering at the back) is one of the most sought-after attributes in a frame or wheels, and has been almost since the invention of the bicycle. It’s definition is simply the… um… well, you know, how stiff everything is.
You can tell how stiff any given bicycle is claimed to be by looking on the price tag for the number after the ‘£’.
Stiffness is, from a marketing point of view, a great blessing, because it can be presented as a vague, numberless parameter. Unlike such characteristics as weight, no one is going to take a ‘20 per cent stiffer!’ bike home, measure it on their stiffness meter, and stiff you under the trade descriptions act. Bikes have been getting at least 20 per cent stiffer annually since 1860, and one can be confident they will continue to do so indefinitely.
Even if a customer did measure it, you could tell them they’d measured the wrong stiffness – for stiff comes in vertical, horizontal, torsional and any number of other varieties.
Curiously, given its importance, no one has ever manage to establish with any certainty how much faster a stiffer bike might be able to make you go. The only thing that is clear is that the stiffer a frame is, the less comfortable it will be.
This article was first published in the July 11 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!