A few weeks ago, I reported on my friend Bernard’s decision to retire from cycling, prompted by his deep feelings of ennui and languor. That his moment of clarity arrived in the midst of a sub-zero sleet storm several miles from home was, I’m sure we all accept, purely coincidental.
I predicted at the time that this retirement was unlikely to develop into a permanent state of affairs. And I was right. As I headed home at the end of a ride a few days ago, I caught up with my pear-shaped friend on his old training bike. “I read an article about how you can ride for just 20 minutes three times a week and enjoy all the benefits of 20 hours of hard training, as long as you do exactly the right efforts,” he explained.
“As someone with a lot of experience of high levels of fitness, I thought I owed it to science to get back on my bike and give it a go.”
I couldn’t help thinking that if a five-minute warm-up, three half-hearted 20-second sprints and a five-minute warm-down actually was the training equivalent of 20 hours’ hard riding a week, the chances are that somewhere in the 150-year history of competitive cycling, someone would have noticed before now.
All the same, I didn’t want to spoil it for him. It’s just that I couldn’t help it. “Is this going to be as successful as the beetroot and chicken diet?” I asked.
This was last year’s regime, uncovered in a 1970s US cycling magazine bought at a jumble sale, which promised a grade of miracle unseen for almost 2,000 years. “How did that work out?” There was an indistinct mutter in reply. I think what he said was, “I don’t know.”
This is the glory of what we do as bike riders. The grand experiment we carry out on ourselves. The research, from magazines, books, and websites.
The changes we make, the training we try, the different diet tricks. And, of course, careful, detailed and accurate monitoring of the results at regular intervals, all carefully annotated in a lab notebook or training diary and lovingly analysed to refine the overall scheme and ensure the improvements keep coming.
Or not. Bernard has a great enthusiasm for the first half of the experimental process, the changing of things, and a great deal less for the second, their measuring and analysis. He is, as I pointed out on this occasion, like a man who goes on a strict diet but doesn’t ever step onto a pair of scales to see how things are going. I can’t remember exactly, but there may have been an air of smugness around me.
“Whereas you keep track of everything,” said Bernard. “Tell me, have you found anything as effective as my new regime?”
“Nothing as good as it claims. But plenty that’s as good as it’s actually going to be.” “So if it’s not going to work, and if, as you often say, there are no shortcuts, why would I want to measure it? Why would I want to know?
At least this way I have something to be optimistic about. Something that makes riding a bike full of hope. But of course hope is the kind of thing you like to extinguish whenever it breaks out.”
“Well, I wouldn’t quite…”
“The only comfort the rest of us have is the phenomenal accuracy with which you’re going to be able to chart your decline into old age. The rest of us will be able to kid ourselves we’re as strong as we were when we were 25, because we are careful to ignore the facts.
You will know, to three decimal places, just how old and infirm and crap you really are. And I just can’t wait.” It’s like he’s never been away.
Cycling Greats – Jacques Anquetil (1934-1987)
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil was the first five-time winner of the Tour de France, finishing in yellow in 1958, 61, 62, 63 and 64. He was at the centre of one of cycling’s first drug scandals, when he was stripped of his World Hour record in 1967.
Anquetil was probably the most enthusiastic and open advocate of doping that cycling has ever had, and was normally quite happy to tell anyone who asked what he was using. He led a riders’ strike against dope controls in the 1966 Tour.
He was a prototype for a certain kind of cold, calculating bike rider. He never expended a gram more effort than was required to win, never even approached the swashbuckling, and hung all his victories on his superlative ability in time trials.
The organisers of the Tour in the early 1960s were usually careful to include plenty of kilometres against the watch to accommodate him. Tom Simpson said that being caught by him in a time trial was memorable for the huge amounts of sweat that squirted from every pore. “It was like being overtaken by a thunderstorm,” he said.
In retirement he became notable for having a child with his stepdaughter, which his wife raised as her own, only for Anquetil to leave her and marry his stepson’s ex-wife and have a child with her too.
We remember him best, though, for his advice to a young schoolboy who asked him how to prepare for a race. “With a bottle of good champagne and a woman,” he said.
Acts of cycling stupidity
I did my first race of the year last week – I won, thanks for asking. It was a little chilly, but dry, and quite sunny. I was surprised that a friend of mine from one of the local clubs was a non-starter. When I asked him about it later in the week, he said it was the weather. I pointed out it had been fine, excellent by recent standards.
“No, you don’t understand. There was a gale-force easterly forecast for the following day. I wanted to stay fresh so I could get one of the local Strava segments.” Ladies and gentlemen, the future is already here.
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