The great empty

May 1, 2015 § 35 Comments

The verdict is in on power meters, Strava, and computerized ride data. They make you faster.

A professionally designed power-based training plan, scrupulously followed, and including adaptations for the times when you are sick, injured, or beset by the things otherwise known as life, will turn you into someone who turns the pedals faster.




What it will also do — and the verdict is in on this as well — is make you unhappier.

If you are a professional, that is a meaningless consequence. Your sponsors don’t give you money to ensure your happiness, they do it to ensure your success, which theoretically leads to better sales. But what about YOU?

I have three case studies, not including my own, that I’ve followed over the last six years. Here they are. Judge for yourself.

Case Study #1: The happy racer

This guy got into cycling from marathoning and “high risk” action sports. When he came onto the scene he fit the profile we’ve all seen, zooming from freddie to feared hammer in a single season. We’ll call him Tom. Tom rode his bicycle with abandon and zest, and saw nothing wrong with Mile 1 breakaways on the Saturday Donut Ride, breakaways that sometimes succeeded but that always inflicted carnage on those left behind, not to mention those who foolishly tried to follow his wheel.

He rode instinctively, and though his instincts were often wrong, occasionally they were right and they put him on the podium. More importantly, the act of riding was an act of irrepressible joy. Win or lose he embodied the same pleasure that you can find in any little kid zooming full speed down the local hill. Not that little kids are allowed to do that anymore, of course.

As part of his “progression,” Tom’s engineering mind made technology-based training a natural area of investigation. He “computered up,” and over a few seasons mastered the fundamentals of power-based training. His natural ability, an already sharpened knife, became a razor. His grasp of training and innate desire to share made him a lightning rod for new riders in his club, with whom he gladly shared training information, workout plans, and swapped training data.

After about three years, Tom no longer took risks on group rides by attacking early. He became calculating and efficient. If the pace exceeded his training targets, he sat up. If it wasn’t hard enough, he went off and did something by himself. Tom became a slave to his data. It made him faster, but it also turned the freedom of cycling into the prison of golf, where you are constantly reminded that there are absolute numbers beyond which you can never progress. Tom’s beauty, which had always been the bright light in his eyes, had dimmed.

Enslaved to the numbers, when Tom had a really bad year with some significant medical problems that ruined his carefully regulated train-by-the-numbers approach, instead of digging into the mental bucket, bucking up and rallying, he began doing something he’d never done before: throwing in the towel, DNF-ing, quitting. The thing that had always sustained him, his mental attitude and his enjoyment of the sport, had been replaced with numbers and data that had no real strength to carry him through the rough spots other than their unflinching message of inadequacy and defeat. The last time we rode together he was still struggling.

Case Study #2: Escape from New York

I’ll call this guy Snake Pliskin. He was whatever type is more aggro than Type A … Type A positive? He also came from a running background and migrated to cycling when his knees gave out. Mentally tough and physically gifted, for Snake the act of riding a bike was the act of riding away from the stresses of work.

Snake had a grind-em-up attitude to riding. He didn’t race but he approached every ride as a competition. And though he was often put to the sword on long climbs, when placed in his element of flat or undulating road, preferably with a stiff crosswind, he could put paid to all but the very best of the best. Snake finished his rides spent and satisfied, regardless of whether he was the last man standing. The act of full commitment and giving it his all recharged him for the real battles that remained to be fought in his workaday world.

For him, cycling was the beautiful escape.

Somewhere along the way he became a complete Strava addict. Multiple devices to record rides, pages and pages of KOM’s, and a ferocious response on the bike to those who took his trophies. Yet the more he buried himself in the world of Strava, the more he opened himself up to attack, as countless riders took shots — many of which were successful — at his virtual winnings. This of course drove him to ride more, ride harder, create more segments, and further extend his pages of KOM’s.

Along the way cycling mutated from a refuge into a prison. With everything measured and quantified, with every foot of roadway a possible place to take a KOM or lose one, he spiraled from the incredible pressures of his job to the equally crushing pressures of riding his bicycle.

As with Tom, Snake’s numbers told him that however good he was, on some segment, on some day, someone else was better. The awfulness was reflected in the fact that not only had Snake’s escape become a wearying burden, but it was now on full public display. Unlike the real world, where your buddy kicks your ass, rubs your nose in it, and you remind him of the drubbing you gave him the week before, Snake was locked in Strava kudo hell, where anonymous people with strange nicknames have the same right to comment as your closest buddies who suffered stroke for stroke all the way up the climb, and where the interaction is a binary “kudos” or an “uh-oh.”

The humanity of friends trading jokes and trading pulls, laughing at the funny shit that happens on a ride, commiserating about life, sharing triumphs, and making fun of each other’s foibles had been reduced to a fake interface of 0’s and 1’s artfully designed to imitate real people, real relationships, real lives. The escape was now the cage and it wasn’t even gilded.

The last time I rode with Snake he crushed everyone, grimly.

Case Study #3: The old school

I will call her Harriet. She had been around forever and was still dominating the local women’s race scene into her late 40’s, outsmarting and intimidating women half her age. She eschewed data and Strava and wattage-based training plans. Harriet’s MO was simple: ride and train with the fast men. She couldn’t beat them, but she could hang on and it made her strong enough to beat her peers, even when they were young enough to be her daughters.

She paid no attention to technology and refused to join Strava. She’d ridden as a pro and knew three things: how to train, how to win, and how to have fun.

And in her own way, her pleasure in riding a bicycle remained as vibrant and undiminished as it ever was. The last time I rode with her she gapped me out, shouted at me for running a red light, and dusted me in the sprint. Then she pedaled gaily off to work, ready to start the day.

This great empty is hardly confined to cycling. It repeats itself in myriad ways for modern Americans whether they ride bikes or not. When people think about the rise of the machines they imagine cyborgs and androids and sci-fi creations, but those aren’t the machines that rule us. The machines are pieces of software that are piped to us by phones, Garmins, desktops, and laptops, they are algorithms that have reduced the complexity of life and human interaction into 0’s and 1’s.

And they dominate us because at its most basic form, life is that simple. But who wants that level of simplicity? Isn’t life better with messiness, with the nonlinear slop and jostle of emotions and feelings and real human contact?

Of course it is, and that’s the big lie that the great empty has to spend billions to paper over. When your emotions are tugged by the 0’s and 1’s that show the precious pug or the newborn of your best friend or the KOM on that 200-yard bike path segment (tailwind, natch), something deep inside is left empty and unfulfilled, the zipless fuck of the digital age. How do I know? Because after the little jolt you have to hit refresh or like or kudo or scroll eternally and in desperation down the feed.

Answers I don’t have, but this I know — when you ride a bicycle untethered to 0’s and 1’s, you may not become any faster. But you will, over time, become happier and more at peace with the ragged, raging, sloppy and jostling world that, despite the best PR efforts of Facebag, Google, SRM, and Strava, hasn’t yet learned that reality is denser and more complex than two simple numbers.



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Phone home

September 28, 2014 § 22 Comments

It had been an epic, bitter, full-gas NPR replete with unhappy blabberwankers, squealing baby seals looking for their freshly stripped pelts, fraudsters who cut the course and flipped it before the turnaround in order to catch the break, and the usual collection of complainers and whiners who missed the split, blaming their weakness on the “stoplight breakaway” and the usual complaint of non-racers who object to September beatdowns — “It’s the OFF SEASON!”

We swirled up to the Center of the Known Universe. Most ordered coffee. I leaned against the plate glass seated on the bricks, waiting for the throbbing in my legs to subside. Within minutes people were seated alongside with their phones out.

There wasn’t much conversation at first because everyone had to check email, then look at missed calls and figure out which excuse to use when they finally phoned in around ten. “I was in a meeting.” “There wasn’t any cell coverage.” “I was on the phone with a client.”

And of course Facebag had to be checked, texts had to be sent, and Strava had to be carefully reviewed. Some people kept their phones on their lap the entire time we congregated. One or two put them away. Almost everyone sporadically checked, interrupting conversations to gaze down at kudos and incoming dickpics.

Not me. I didn’t have my phone. It was sitting on the chest of drawers next to my bed. That’s where it stays nowadays when I ride.

I remember back when there were no cell phones. After a ride, or during a break, the Violet Crown guys would talk. Or smoke a big, fat joint. Usually both. Whatever the protocol, it always involved lots of gab. Sitting down after a ride meant rehashing the ride, inventing new rumors, or talking shit about a good friend who happened to be absent.

Compared to those conversations, the ones nowadays aren’t as much fun, and I think it’s because the flow of talk gets constantly broken up by constant cell phone monitoring. The fact is that no one has anything important to do on a cell phone in the morning. If they did, they wouldn’t be on a bike. And there’s something about conversation that, like a bike ride, requires a certain amount of warm-up. Then, once you’re warmed up, you sort of get going. It doesn’t work very well — like riding — when every few seconds or minutes the other person is checking his screen.

“But what do you do when you can’t get in touch with someone who you’re trying to meet for a ride?” is a common question. Back in the day we all knew where to meet, and if someone didn’t show up, you didn’t ride with him that day. It was pretty simple.

“But what do you do if you have an accident or your bike breaks or you have an emergency?” Back in the day we generally waited until someone called an ambulance, or we bled out, or we flagged down another rider for a tool or a tube. That was pretty simple, too.

“But what do you do if something happens at work or your wife needs you?” Back in the day we ignored that shit when we rode. It was one of the main reasons we cycled.

Since shedding my power meter, my Garmin, and now my iPhone, my riding is a lot more peaceful. More importantly, I’m about half a pound lighter on the bike. Now that matters.



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The Atheist Training Bible for Old Bicycle Racers, Chapter 6: Having the right de-equipment

January 24, 2014 § 19 Comments

As you continue your rest period, being laughed at by Sausage, called out by Donnie, and ridiculed by the entire NPR peloton as they pass you yelling “Spin, wanker!” and “Wanker on the right!” and “Outta the way, moron!” and “Are you available next Thursday?” you must have faith and be strong. This is what it was like to a Christian in the lion’s den, or, even more horrific, to be an atheist in a Houston public school in the 70’s.

Now that you have spent days on end going slow and tweezle spinning, your legs should feel fresh, relaxed, happy, and purged of the two most lethal chemicals that stand in the way of proper muscular and cardio development: lactic acid and old beer. However, this is only the beginning. Your adoption of the Wanky Training Plan ™ requires that you begin to tune in, turn on, and drop out (of Strava).

Proper training requires the absence of the right equipment

Before moving on to the next step in the WTP, please take the following handy-dandy quiz.

  1. I am on Strava. Yes/No
  2. I have a power meter. Yes/No
  3. I have a heart rate monitor. Yes/No
  4. I have a Garmin. Yes/No

Did you answer “yes” to any of these? Of course you did! So, let’s take them one-by-one and figure out how we can get you completely dialed into the Wanky Training Plan ™.  First, Strava. You need to get off this, just like you need to get off crack, meth, and Facebook. Not happening, you say? I know, but Strava’s not helping your cause because it becomes an end in itself. You fear posting a ride (Lane! Brian!) that’s not awesome, as if you’re a porn star who can’t get the job done on film. The reality is that by constantly forcing yourself to perform on Strava, you’re letting the software dictate your workouts — and tire you out. So what’s a Gollum-like Strava-head to do?

— Ride for the next thirty days without uploading a single ride.
— Quit looking at other people’s rides.
— Turn off the “You lost your KOM!” alerts (assuming you have any, which is doubtful).

Next is your addiction to the power meter. Studies have shown that no one ever rode faster due to a power meter, but millions have ridden slower, or given up riding altogether because of one. A power meter is a feedback mechanism that, at best, confirms what you already know: You aren’t that fast. Remember the first time you got one and how devastated you were to learn that your FTP was equivalent to that of a Cat 4, or a newt? Then remember how, after a year of hard work, you were only able to raise it to a Cat 3, or a salamander? Shuck the PM and accept that no improvement will ever come as the result of a device. Better yet, accept that no improvement will ever come. So, take off all your crank-connected, hub-connected, pedal-connected power meter devices and give them to someone you really despise. You’ll be glad you did.

Heart rate monitor? Really? There’s no need for this item. Like the power meter, it will only tell you that your heart is beating so fast you can’t possibly sustain the effort, so quit now before the infarction. Although the heart is an integral enemy and perpetual foe in the WTP, for now all you need to know is that you can — you must — ignore it.

Nothing has done more to ruin the essence of cycling than Garmin. This device has reduced the open road, the huge vistas, the stunning sunrises, the incredible panoramas into a tiny little plastic screen that spits out “data” which only tells us what we already know: You are slow and weak, and getting slower and weaker. Ditch the Garmin.

So what performance measuring device do I really NEED?

For hundreds of years, the holy grail of sailors was a watch that could keep time. Once it was invented, people conquered the globe by being able to plot longitude, enabling them to sail from an obscure port in Europe all the way ’round the world and back again in tiny barks scarcely worthy of the name “ship.” If it was good enough for Columbus, wanker, and if it was good enough for Eddy, then it’s good enough for you.

That’s right, the only device you need to measure your performance is a Timex wrist watch. If you can measure distance and you can measure time, then you can measure speed. Scott Dickson didn’t need a Garmin to win Paris-Brest-Paris. All he needed was a wristwatch, plenty of scotch, and an iron will. The wristwatch is likewise all you need for measuring cadence. Start the stopwatch function, count out 30 seconds worth of pedal strokes, multiply by two, and boom! You’ll have your rpm’s without needing to adjust magnets on your spokes, your crank, your chain stay, and without having to wirelessly ANT the whole thing to a $500 computer that, after the ride, you have to upload to a remote server, then upload to WKO+, then analyze with graphs.

Just use the stupid watch. Really.

Now that you’ve de-equipped yourself, you’re ready for the first week of non-training. Here’s your plan:

  1. Calculate your normal rpm with the wristwatch.
  2. Add 20 rpm.
  3. Ride for two hours at the new cadence.
  4. Drink a shit-ton of beer after you finish.

Don’t you feel good now? Sure you do.

So, like, what’s a “Between Bike”?

September 18, 2012 § 11 Comments

This marks the sixth consecutive year since learning about Interbike that I haven’t gone. Back in Texas, mid-September was always so intolerably hot that you were still trying to find a telephone pole for shade, so the idea of going out to Las Vegas, a/k/a THE BLINDINGLY HOT FUCKING DESERT to look at bike stuff wasn’t exactly exciting.

In September of 2007, though, I noticed that suddenly everyone in the South Bay had vanished.

“Yo, where’s Junkyard?”


“Oh. Uh, what’s Interbike?”

Withering look of contempt, unmixed with pity. “It’s nothing. Just the biggest annual bike expo on the planet that showcases all the upcoming stuff for next year. It’s a must if you’re in the industry.”

“Oh. Well, what about Sketchy?”


“That dude who’s on all the rides, has the cool shit, but, like, doesn’t seem to have a real job.”


“He’s in the industry?”

“No, but he knows a lot of people who are. So he has to be there, you know, to be seen.”

“Ah. Of course. And Twitchy? Where’s Twitchy? He never misses the Pier Ride.”


“Yeah, Twitchy. The old retired dude whose shorts are so ancient the elastic is worn out of the waist and cuffs so that they sag on his can and flap on his thighs. The dude who never buys anything, ever.”

“Oh, Twitchy. Interbike.”

“What the fuck’s he at Interbike for?”

“He likes to see the latest stuff.”

“But he never buys any of it!”

“He’s good friends with Zoner and Pooter, and they’re…”

“…in the industry.”


“Well, Zigzag’s not here. Don’t you dare tell me he’s in the industry. I know for a fact he’s a mechanical engineer with Megadeath Contractors and Global Radiation Products.”

“Ziggy? He’s tight with the Specialized rep. Every year he goes to Vegas and gets the bro deal.”

“This place is a fucking ghost town.”

“Welcome to Interbike season, Wankster.”

The many reasons I’ll never go to Interbike, ever

My biggest problem is semantic. I can’t get past the name. What the fuck is an “Interbike”? Eurobike, I get. It’s bikes in Europe. Or bikes for euros. But “inter” means “between.” Between bikes? The only thing between bikes should be open space, specifically, 3-4 inches to keep from overlapping wheels.

My next biggest problem is money. I don’t like to spend it. I especially don’t like to spend it in Vegas. Plus, I don’t have any.

My final biggest problem is that Interbike and its ilk exist for one reason, and one reason only: To solve, improve, ameliorate, or eliminate the Three Laws of Cyclodynamics, which are natural and immutable physical laws. I’ve listed them below for your easy reference.

  1. You’ll flat.
  2. You’ll fall.
  3. You’re too fat.

Fixing the problem of flat tires

From time immemorial, or at least from the time they graduated from steel wheels to rubber wheels to pneumatic tires, bikes have gotten flats. I’m not going to Vegas to look at someone’s newest great idea on how not to get them. If the idea’s any fucking good it will show up at my LBS quicker than herpes at a frat party. (Hint: if it promises to drastically reduce flats, or make them lots easier to fix, or eliminate them, it’s not.)

On the other hand, the latest greatest flat elimination concept is more than likely something along the lines of a tubeless tire. Those who swear by them eventually swear at them. Any bike device that requires injections of sticky green goo is a device whose time has not yet come.

Fixing the problem of falling

From the days of the high wheeler, when riding a bike meant “taking a header” and falling from six feet up in the air onto a rock or into a mud pit or under the hooves of a horse, cyclists have come unhitched from their bikes. The severity of falling has been somewhat reduced by the safety bicycle (that’s the thing you ride today, with two equally sized wheels rather than a giant one in front and tiny one in back).

It’s been reduced by helmets, though they now make you look like a cockroach.

And of course it’s been reduced by our national highway transportation system, which discourages cycling and keeps the brains of countless millions intact, safe inside their cars where they can run over the few idiots crazy enough to think “share the road” is more than a political sop.

Ultimately, though, all of the crap at Betweenbike engineered to increase stability, improve braking, improve helmets, make lighting more powerful, and generally safety-ize the bicycle will never eliminate the rendezvous you’re soon enough going to have with gravity. And I’m not going all the way to Vegas to look at things that will be rendered obsolete by the first bimbo who’s texting with one hand and scratching her ass with the other.

The true purpose of Betweenbike: Fat reduction compensation

But the true holy grail of Betweenbike is to make you faster. No matter what anyone says, the bike industry is all about speed. The naked hookers at the booths, the screamingly bored pros trying to pretend that they’re interested in the 4,000th person to say, “I’ll never forget the time you attacked in the Hooterville Crit with two to go and Snots Buggerly bridged and the two of you won that box wine prime, and it looked like you’d hold off the field until Herndy Doo took a flyer and nipped you at the line!”, the fanboys and blogboys and mediaboys and Tweetboys all trolling the aisles desperately looking for something original to say about things that aren’t original…they’re all there in Vegas to pimp speed.

One year it’s a powermeter in your pedal! The bomb!

Another year it’s electronic shifting! The bomb!

Another year it’s textiles that cheat the wind! The bomb!

But after all the hype recedes into interest-only payments on your maxed out credit card, and no matter what anyone says, the cheapest and quickest way to go faster is to drop twenty pounds. Or forty.

Since dropping extra weight is so damned hard, and since it’s so much easier to drop $2k on a “fast” set of wheels than to drop 2kg off your third chin, the bike industry annually churns out newer, lighter, faster, more complex stuff to do what a good, old fashioned famine could have effected in 90 days or less.

Tested in a wind tunnel! Dimpled for drag reduction! Particle image velocimetry proven!

These and other complex and totally legitimate scientific principles get applied, each year, with greater precision and with wider application to the entire field of bicycles, clothing, and components. The problem is that you can get all of their benefits, and lots more, by just laying off the double cheese Sicilian deep dish and the three Hag bars.

Of course, Betweenbike and “the industry” aren’t stupid. Which one is more fun? Giving up life’s greatest pleasures to become a lonely, recalcitrant, ill-tempered stay-at-home blogger, or indulging in them AND adding trick swag to your bike cave?

Case closed.

See you next year, maybe.

In Vegas.

Waffling reader can’t make up mind about power meter

September 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

Dear Wankmeister:

I’ve been cycling for three years now. I started with a hand-me-down Nishiki that my brother used in college, and have gradually worked my way up to a new Specialized Venge with Zipp 800’s and Shimano Di2. I started doing the Donut Ride about a year ago and although the first part is tough but doable, I have a lot of trouble when we hit the bottom of the Switchbacks. I’ve also done some USCF road races and tend to come unhitched when the road tilts up. After reading Coggan’s “Training and Racing with a Power Meter,” I’ve almost made the decision to up my game and get one, but it’s a tough sell on the home front as my wife doesn’t really “get” why I need a power meter after buying such an expensive bike. I’ve tried to explain power to weight ratios to her and stuff like that, but her eyes just glaze over, she starts talking about the kids’ orthodontics, and then I don’t get any sex for a couple of weeks. Any suggestions on how I can make my case? I’m primed for some serious training this winter and an upgrade to the 4’s in 2012.

Tired of Talking to the Hand,
Billy Budd

Dear Billy:

Pardon me while I puke. There, I’m almost better. Dude, you haven’t “gradually worked up” if you’ve gone from a Nishiki to a Venge in three years. That’s like getting triple D breast implants before you’ve even reached puberty. Back in the day you had to ride a shit bike for three years just so you could upgrade to 32-spoke GP4’s, you spoiled little showoff snotnosed sonofabitch. Your letter indicates that on the Donut, prior to hitting the Switchbacks you’re already in trouble, which should be a Wanker Alert of the first order: the Donut Ride should be a fucking cakewalk until you hit the climb. If you’re so much as cracking a sweat before then, your problems have nothing to do with a power meter, and everything to do with power, of which you apparently don’t have much. Getting a power meter to increase your power is like getting a longer tape measure to increase your height. And by the way, your wife’s not the only one who doesn’t “get” it; I don’t, either. You’re getting shelled at the bottom of the climb on $10,000 worth of bike? You need to study Newton’s First Law of Cyclodynamics, which is that idiots can never be created or destroyed, they can only change bikes. And if you feel stupid flailing off the back on the equivalent of a Ferrari, think how stupid you’re gonna feel when you introduce your friends to your kids and their teeth are growing down into their chins. IT’S A FUCKING HOBBY, MORON, NO MATTER HOW MANY PARTS AND KITS YOU OWN THAT LOOK JUST LIKE FABIAN’S! Plus, the fact that you can even think about sex is proof that you’re not logging the miles, and are logging something else instead.

The Wankmeister

Dear Wankmeister:

I’ve done some reading on tubulars v. clinchers. Which do you recommend?

Glued to My Inbox,
Sammy Snuffles

Dear Sammy:

A long time ago, when hard men with names ending in a string of unpronounceable consonants plied the cobbles between Compiègne and Roubaix, there were good reasons to use a tire that leaves you covered up to your eyelids in glue, that falls off the rim when it’s too hot resulting in catastrophic accidents, that can only be repaired by a master seamstress, that requires you to carry an entire other 2-lb. tire for flats on the road, and that costs ten times more than a replacement clincher inner tube. That time was long before you were born, during a Golden Age of Cycling when it was honorable to be stupid. Now, the only reason to use a tubular is if you’ve purchased every possible component and whacky invention to increase your speed (think elliptical chain rings, Power Cranks, etc.), yet you still suck. They won’t make you any faster, but you’ll take out the field when you rip through the state championship crit on the last lap and roll a tire.

The Wankmeister

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