the Modern Cyclist – hard core devotee, or a secret shopper?

this article originally appeared in SPIN magazine

'the Norfolk Suit in aubergine, please!'
‘the Norfolk Suit in aubergine, please!’

We all like to think that we are two-wheeled Ninjas, like lycra-clad shuriken slicing through the air. It’s not just about being fit and lithe, it’s also about The Look. Everything has to match, to look just so.

Bar tape has to complement the frame, the wheels have to bling a little, whether they be stealth discs or of the louder variety. A new team or club and with it a new jersey means we need a new helmet, right? Obviously!

And when your better half complains, well, they just don’t get it. Scuffed shoes? Need new ones. New SRM console in blue? Better get matching cable housing.

I am the same, my better half would say! In fact, most cyclists are. Looking pro is about feeling pro – the two go hand in hand. But is there a tipping point? Is there a moment when the delicate balance between being in the sport for the fitness and competitive benefits gets skewed, and the sheer buzz of  – dare I whisper it? – shopping takes over?

I’m going to say, not for me. I’m hardcore, baby. I train hard and race hard. It’s intervals twice a week, 90km TT training on Wednesdays, hill repeats on Thursday and epic rides on the weekends.

Get me out shopping in the city with my girlfriend for clothes or shoes or whatever else she drags me round for and I go into a catatonic state after 2 hours. Put me on a bike for 6 and it’s a different story, I’m tired but not drained, more elated and very much alive.

But then again… why is it that I go into the same bike shop just about every single week and look at the same stuff every single week? And still feel a little buzz, a little tingle up my hair-free pins?  How odd is that? Same with the big web-stores, I can click away on there for aeons.

In a way, consuming is such an intrinsic part of our priveliged, modern lives that it’s not surprising that we like to think about buying and then to go actually purchase these little objects of our heart-thumping desire. And in a sense, cycling, known annoyingly in some circles as ‘the new golf’, is the perfect sport for the habit of consumption.

Look at soccer. What can you really buy? Shoes. A ball. Shinpads. Whoo! Er, no, not exciting at all really. Tennis? A racket. Shoes, again, and some little furry balls. Again, you can only have so many, there’s no real built-in need to shop in most sports.

But cycling, like golf, requires lots of little bits and pieces, and some bigger ones.  I used to laugh when I saw golfers with golf belts, golf socks, golf pants, golf everything. I mean, who needs gold socks to play golf? What a rip-off!

And yet look at cycling, it is exactly the same, everything is sport-specific. Clothing, obviously, but also now socks, watches, glasses and even headphones. In the old days when I was a kid, you couldn’t even buy the stuff the pros used, it was too elite, too secret, too. People didn’t have the same expendable income and free time to obsess over the stuff and then to actually buy it. It was almost unheard of.

Now though everything the pros use is available – at a price. The industry is quite clever in that way, in that it exploits something that is central to endurance sports. Namely, the idea is this: “If only I had more time to train, I would be as good as John X. And if only I have these wheels, and that frame, and that power meter, wow! I’d be great!”

See, in soccer, a very healthy 20 year old kid who is half decent can come up against a 50 year old – say, Maradonna – and have a kick around, and within 30 seconds you will see who is naturally better. But in cycling, it is stamina based. Yes, it is still largely about genes and DNA but we tend not to see that.

Instead we believe we can be as fast as the fastest guy around, if only… If only I did this, or knew what he ate, or had the equipment he had. Many cyclists are constantly on the look out for the secret  – the training method, the short cut, the aero advantage, the lighter gizmos.

It’s not intrinsically wrong to think that way, but it is potentially damaging to your development.

Why? Well, when you get into constant upgrades, you lose sight of what is crucial to becoming a better rider – namely, good old fashioned hard work. It really is that simple.

When you go on a club ride any weekend in japan, or Taiwan, or, dare I say, Singapore, you will see bikes that would make the Pro Tour guys salivate. There are machines worth more than any car I ever owned! They are incredible and great to look at, to pick up, to imagine racing on.

Now, go to any elite bike race where the guys pay for their own machines and you will see some top end bikes but most will be a little tatty, a little scuffed, and some will be absolutely battered. Drive trains will be clean but the undersides of the bottom brackets will be a bit mucky. Bar tape will be fraying and cable ends may be coming apart.

To these guys, the bike is a tool, not necessarily a possession. Again, neither is right nor wrong, but for those seeking to improve who are also addicted to upgrades – the Secret Shoppers – it might be an idea to reassess their cycling philosophy.

Why do I ride? What am I doing this for? Will those $5000 wheels really make me faster?! The answer, more often than not, is no. Only one thing will really do that – and that is suffering!

With all the clutter of modern life, all the accumulation of stuff, it might be an idea to trim a little, to get back to basics, and, if your goal is really to get better, to foster that Ninja philosophy of improvement through repetition, to aim for simplicity and efficiency rather than its opposite.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, no matter how expensive that outer layer!

15 thoughts on “the Modern Cyclist – hard core devotee, or a secret shopper?

  1. Amateur racing’s dirtiest secret-the other secret shopping -for dope.
    The most ardent shopper for partz is a babe in the woods next to those who have chosen the Dark Lord.

  2. hehe, last week I saw 4 guys riding along, 3 on custom bikes made by independent fabrication, passoni and moots. The fourth was on a pinarello prince of spain with durace etc etc – you know the score.. I’ve no reason to doubt they were all real. but the pinarello had flat bars and flat pedals – with xentis 2 TT wheels. All the gear and no idea? I’m not sure, as they were sitting down drinking coffee at the time 😉

  3. Same as it ever was, 79 cent legs and a $10K bike. Back-in-the-day it was a $2K bike, but you know what I mean. The best thing about cycling is no matter how much you spent on it, it pretty much just sits there unless you pedal it…so all the newest-latest crap will never make up for crummy legs, no matter what the bike industry would like you to believe.

      1. Funny that. Back-in-the-day when carbon fiber bikes were first introduced they were hyped with the myth that this wonder material could make a bike with a better ride than steel combined with the infamous “efficiency” of super-rigid, oversized aluminum frames, all while weighing far less. But since then, all the bikes touting smooth rides over less-than-glass-smooth surfaces seem to have various “rubber baby-buggy bumpers” jammed into holes in the frame and fork, “flagpole” seatposts, fat tires, gel-padded handlebar tape, hinges in the middle or other so-called “shock-damping” gizmos. Seems like someone was yanking the public’s chain with those claims, no?

  4. Yeah, fair enough, but I reckon it is totally fine for anyone to buy whatever bike they want, regardless of their performance.

    The thing is, there is no other wheel based sport where the average-ish man can get his hands on the absolute pinnacle of technology used. When I ride down the road on my Di2 Dogma, it is exactly the same bike used to win the Tour de France, and that is utterly rad. It is access into a supremely high end world, for relatively very little outlay. Bikes like these; Dogmas, Evos, Venges, etc., are right at the very top, and the equivalent of the motorsport fan being able to buy an F1 car. As I say, there is no other wheel based sport where this is possible, with this level of technology.

    Why wouldn’t you want to get in on this?!

    I see how it is pathetic seeing chubby stumpy legged losers riding along on these speed rigs, but whatever.

    1. I LOVED guys with your attitude back when I was in bike retail! We did have to warn them that the legs were NOT included…so perhaps they might want to wait a bit on the bicycle equivalent of an F-1 Ferrari until they had some clue as to what to do with it….and by the time they developed some skill and fitness, the object of their desire might not be the same bicycle or component groupset.

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