Your tiny niche is now a global plumber’s crack

September 28, 2017 § 25 Comments

The day you knew your weirdness was now mainstream? That’s the day that Men’s Journal came out with an article praising Strava as “The Only Fitness App That Matters.”

Notice I said “your.” Not “my.”

I remember the first day I heard about Strava. I was in Bull’s living room. We were talking about something bikish and he said, “Hey you gotta check out this really cool program, it’s called Strava.”

Notice he said “program.” Not “app.” And certainly not “fitness app.”

Bull walked me through it on his laptop. “See?” he said. “It records everything and has these segments where you can look at parts of a ride and a leaderboard. See?”

“Stupidest fucking thing ever,” I said.

“It’s super cool,” he added, unfazed. “You’re gonna love it.”

I think that was in 2012. I did Strava for a couple of years until it became as unbearable as my power meter had been, a relentless reminder of quantified suckage, and what was worse, accelerating suckage. One day I took it behind the outhouse and shot it. Then, a year or so ago, shortly after my nutsack-breaking-incident, I resuscitated it.

But Men’s Journal has now anointed Strava as the only fitness app that matters; the killer app. Before you go proudly clapping yourself on the ass, please check their home page and note that Men’s Journal features:

  • A giant, inflatable Irish pub.
  • Kelly Slater paddling his surfboard.
  • Some tatted up dude tossing an exerball.
  • How to break in raw denim.
  • Killer indoor exercise machines.

In other words, the mag has zero cred unless you’re a drunk surfing tatty-poo fashionista who exercises in front of a giant mirror.

The article is long on words but short on substance, which is like Strava itself, robustly empty. Basically, Strava is a killer app, the writer says, because it has a slick interface, yo. And segments, yo. And everyone’s on it, yo. This last part is the thing that makes it most killer for the author and therefore the type of person likely to read Men’s Journal. It’s kind of like a restaurant review that says “The food is incredible because everybody likes it.” Ah, yes. I see.

What the article missed is that Strava succeeds because it’s the digital equivalent of  the giant mirror in front of the free weights where you can stare forever at the tiny bumps between your shoulder and elbow masquerading as muscle. Every Men’s Journal subscriber will understand.

Strava lets you ogle, stare, admire, note tiny differences from the last workout (“See! A new vein! I think.”), and just as importantly gaze at the lifter next to you, the one whose arm is twice the diameter of your torso. A few more reps and you’ll be exactly like him because you both belong to the same gym.

The digital narcissism of Strava has perfectly melded with the desire to watch yourself in motion. Nextgen versions will integrate with the four personal drones that follow you on the ride, and it will also connect with Zwift riders who virtually challenge you in their basement on the live video feed while you pedal the actual street. The live feed on Facebag will show realtime power/HR/elevation/speed and a 3-D topographical map running along the bottom of the screen. After the ride you’ll relax with some diet water, eat some raw almonds, compare your performance with people who are similar enough to beat but not similar enough to beat you, and review the whole thing in a video podcast that you upload through your glasses. The world isn’t all about you. The world is you.

And really, the author did get it right. Strava is the killer app. And the thing it killed? Fun.

END

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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could. And I may have forgotten to mention that there is free food and beer for the first 300 guests, so get there early.

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e-Tap and Wanky Tech Review

June 24, 2017 § 24 Comments

In the overall scheme of things, “scheme” being “since time began,” I haven’t seen all that much. In cycling I have seen exactly three technical changes since 1982 that were really significant, things that changed cycling a lot for the better. I’m sure you will disagree with my Big Three, but here they are:

CLIPLESS PEDALS

What they replaced: Toe cages, toe straps, and heavy alloy pedals.

How they made cycling better: They got rid of purple toes and dead toenails and hotspots a mile wide unless you happen to wear Bonts, in which case you pay extra for those things. Instead of falling over at lights because you couldn’t reach down and undo the strap in time, now you fall over because you can’t twist out in time. They eliminated the constant repurchase of worn out Alfredo Binda straps ($25/each), and now require the replacement of worn out cleats ($35/each), and highly specialized and technical shoes ($435/pair). But seriously, clipless pedals made pedaling easier, less painful, and more efficient. Game changer.

What I miss about the old stuff: Nothing, except not having old straps lying around to strap stuff under my seat with, and being able to buy a pair of Dettos for $39.

INDEX SHIFTING

What it replaced: Friction shifting.

How it made cycling better: It eliminated wing-and-a-prayer shifting. It eliminated the 12-year apprenticeship required to learn how to find the right cog. It led to handlebar shift levers, which made shifting faster, safer, and more efficient, especially since the number of cogs climbed in a few short years from six to eleven. Now it goes to eleven.

What I miss about the old stuff: Simplex friction shifters were silent and perfect once you learned how to use them. Index shifting killed downtube shifting, which was good, but at the expense of heavier, clunkier hoods and bars. That’s pretty much it.

ELECTRONIC/WIRELESS SHIFTING

What it replaced: Mechanical shifting done with wires.

How it made cycling better: It eliminated the “shifting penalty” that kept you in the wrong gear a lot of the time. Before wireless shifting you had to always consider the effort it was going to take to shift plus the fact that you might put it in the wrong gear, mistakenly thinking, for example, that you needed to be in the 11 rather than the 28. With the mechanical stuff, when you shifted into an inappropriate gear, you then had to shift again to get into the right one, which meant at least one wasted shift effort, more if you were a complete goober. Since all cyclists are lazy, even when it comes to something as effortless as modern mechanical index shifting, which basically requires the effort of pushing around a warm stick of butter, most cyclists would rather pedal along in a gear that’s slightly too hard or slightly too easy than shift twice, or, dog forbid, go up and down several cogs to find the right gear. This inherent laziness caused by the effort required to mechanically shift is the “shifting penalty” that keeps you in the wrong gear a lot of the time. However, with e-Tap and its ilk you just clickety-clickety-click and it doesn’t fuggin’ matter how wrong your gear selection is. You can mis-shift entering a turn and be in the right gear before you’re even through it. You can mis-shift on a climb when someone is attacking and be in the right gear even after being in a couple of wrong ones.

What I miss about the old stuff: Nothing. I hated those fat hoods with a passion, to say nothing of the droopy tentacle-design favored by Shimano’s earlier versions, where the wires came out of bar tape like bug guts.

Of course, along with the three best improvements ever, there are also the three worst things ever to happen to cycling. In order of repulsiveness:

TT BIKES AND EQUIPMENT

What they replaced: Regular bikes, good looks, common sense.

How they made cycling worse: You look like an idiot on one; they make really slow people think they are fast; they discourage thousands and thousands of people from ever getting into TTs; they are twitchy and crash easier than drunk unicyclists; they add exponentially to the cost of what is already a fake sport even on a good day; they make terrible clothes hangers, which is what they end up as. Or the world’s ugliest wall art and/or garage filler. Also, an old TT bike ages about as well as an old ass tattoo.

What I miss about the old stuff: Everything. One bike no matter what kind of race; affordability of one bike versus two; knowing that apples were being compared to apples; sharing the lineage of Eddy.

ONBOARD COMPUTERS AND POWER METERS

What they replaced: Brains. Fun.

How they made cycling worse: No one knows anything anymore. People just read and memorize data. Cyclists, who are already the world’s most boring people, when armed with ride data become duller than a year-old razor blade.

What I miss about the old stuff: I liked my brain a lot. It was soft in spots but worked pretty well in others.

STRAVA, PHONES, AND ANYTHING CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET

What they replaced: Freedom.

How they made cycling worse: You have no more excuses for escaping from the drudgery of work, family, or life. Cycling, especially when combined with “data” items above, becomes just more drudgery.

What I miss about the old stuff: Freedom. Duh.

END

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Failed parent

March 25, 2017 § 33 Comments

Every parent has their secret horror, the words their child might utter, words that would make a mockery of everything the parent has tried to teach. Here are the most common parenting fears:

“Dad, I need to talk with you about my retail heroin operation.”

“Dad, would you still love me if I voted for Trump?”

“Dad, I’m having an affair. With mom.”

But for me none of those awful scenarios is nearly as frightening, terrifying, or depressing as this one: “Dad, I’ve gotten into cycling.” Because that’s what my daughter said.

Where did I go wrong? I thought I had showed her the folly of bicycles, how riding them would, in the words of the immortal Fields, “Lead to the bottom of a dumpster.”

I had talked with her about my friends who had pursued “bike racing,” “bike touring,” “grand fondues,” and worst of all, “the bicycle industry” only to wind up washed up. The list was endless. Cyclists turned Buddhists. Cyclists turned bankruptcy lawyers. Cyclists turned brewers, politicians, consultants, adult video actors, yes, even cyclists who had sunken to the worst depravity of all, triathlons.

And it seemed like my efforts had worked. I even took her on a couple of “fun” 40-mile rides on a bike with no gears and 4,000-feet of elevation to make sure she hated it, and she did! For years the mere mention of the word “bicycle” made her angry. Best of all, I could look her in the eye and say, “Do you want to be like me?” and watch the color drain out of her face before adding, “then be a cyclist.”

So I slept soundly for twenty-eight years, safe in the knowledge that another kind, decent, well-adjusted person had been saved from the mindless insanity of madly dashing hither and yon in search of new ways to waste more time and even more money.

Until a couple of months ago, when I noticed the warning signs, which for me were roaring, screeching, sirens. “Hey Dad, I went for a bike ride today!”

After that it was only a matter of time before she began wearing something other than her husband’s six-year-old hand-me-down shorts, baggy t-shirts, and leggings with skeleton prints on the outside. THE LAST TIME I SAW SOMEONE FALL HOPELESSLY, INSANELY HARD FOR CYCLING WAS WHEN MMX RODE WITH A SKELETON-PRINT JERSEY. WHAT IS IT ABOUT SKELETON PRINTS????

We rode together. The first time up Silver Spur, she walked. The second time, she walked half-way. The third time, she rode.

A month passed before she broke the terrible news, with a smile of course. “Hey, Dad! I’m on Strava!”

I sobbed softly, hand trembling for the beer I wished was there. “Yes?” I asked quietly.

“Yeah! And I got 2nd on the Monero segment!! Behind some girl named Frenchie!!”

“Oh,” I mumbled.

“Do you know her? Is she really good?”

“No,” I said. “Yes.” This was what it felt like to have a child go off to war and never come back.

“I’m only a few seconds down,” she said excitedly. “I’m gonna try hard to get that QOM!”

I looked at her tennis shoes, her MTB handlebars, and her 35-pound chromoly bike. Here was my dear child, coming to me with a Strava problem. How would I tell her the insanity of it all? The madness? The addiction? The waste of a young and beautiful life? How would I tell her to burn her bike and buy a Range Rover?

Our eyes met. “Look, honey,” I said, taking the deepest breath of my entire life.

“Yeah?” she said.

“You gotta approach Monero from Granvia and Hawthorne on the downhill. Slam the right-hander, rail the turn and let the momentum take you up the first quarter of the bump before you have to dig. Then hold about 90% to the crest, but save your last 10% for the flat after the top. That’s where people bog. You’ll nail it.”

She looked at me, giddy. “Thanks, Dad!”

END

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The incredible heaviness of other people’s training

December 28, 2016 § 37 Comments

I used to have a friend in real life who vanished from Facebag one day. “Yo, dude,” I said. “What happened?”

“I couldn’t stand all the happy people.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone was surrounded by a loving family in a beautiful home with a new bike and a cute dog. My life felt like shit.”

“It did?”

“Oh hell yeah. I was like ‘There’s no way that all 1,500 of my Facebag friends are that happy.’ You know? Divorce and suicide and drunkenness and jail and cheating on each other and debt and getting fired and loneliness and you know, reality. But even though I personally would see a friend at AA, there he’d be smiling on Facebag as if he weren’t on the knife edge of suicide and collapse.”

“People want to be happy.”

“I get it. But it made me feel like a loser. So I’m out.”

“And?”

“I feel great. No more time spent looking at other people’s happiness. I can focus on my own miserable fucking life and how to make it better.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. So for someone on Facebag it may not mean a lot when I get through Christmas without having a screaming match with my parents, but for me that’s progress. Feels great. My success is mine. Don’t have to compare it to some dude’s Ferrari that his wife bought him for the holidays so he can drive the fucking twins to Harvard en route to cashing in their billion-dollar winning lottery ticket.”

After that, every time I ran into Friend, he really was happier, and each time I asked him if he missed social media.

“Oh sure,” he’d say. “Like I miss having my big toe gnawed off by a pit bull with rabies.”

So I recently joined my club’s Strava page. On Strava I don’t follow anyone because I only use it to keep track of mileage. I don’t ride with a Garmin or a power meter or a heart/jock strap, don’t know how fast I’m going, how far I am from home, or when I’m getting back. I don’t give a fuck how far anyone else has ridden or how many KOMs they’ve harvested or how many miles they rode this week or month or year. Why not? Because crappy though it may be, my training plan has remained the same over decades:

  1. A little > nothing
  2. Ride with people when you can
  3. Go hard

As you’d expect, the results haven’t been spectacular, except in the one simple metric that matters, i.e. I’ve kept riding all my adult life, with almost zero interruptions. As people I used to ride with and race with have fallen off the radar screen and gone over to the dark side of Cheesecake Factory, unlimited servings of alcohol, or even triathlons, I’ve kept plodding away. Without any goals, without any targets to hit or to miss, and with nothing but the pleasure of riding a bike to keep me going combined with congenital meanness, it’s kind of worked. I’m hardly the last man standing, but many have come and gone and I’m still at it. Wish I had a nickel for every cycling enthusiast who was going to keep riding until he died and quit after five years with a quiver of bikes, a closet full of kits, and a garage turned into a professional indoor training space-cum-mechanic’s lab.

In other words, just plodding the fuck along, immune to the awesomeness of everyone else, works for me.

So when I joined the Big Orange Club Strava page I got a huge shock. Like, I suck. Not just the usual “Oh well, I suck,” that I accepted long ago, but the “Man, you are probably the worst cyclist in history and should donate your bike to an underprivileged fixie rider.”

The reason I suck so bad is that the club’s leader board is astounding. People ride 300+ miles a week and climb more hills than a Sherpa. It used to be satisfying to knock out 150 or 190 miles and think “Great week! Way to rock it, Wanky!” but no more. That won’t even get you up to the middle of the club scatter graph. Dude, if all you got is 200 miles a week, YOU SUCK and why are you hanging out with us?

At least that’s how it felt. And the following rationalizations, by the way, don’t work.

  1. My rides are quality, not quantity.
  2. Most of the people ahead of me on the leader board don’t race.
  3. Miles don’t equal speed.
  4. I dropped him and him and him and him and her and her and her last week and wasn’t even pedaling hard.

Those rationalizations don’t work for the same reason that my buddy’s observations about the imperfect lives of his Facebag friends didn’t work. When you see more miles and more climbing, it automatically makes you feel slower and less fit and more like a worthless slug. What’s worse, looking at some college kid with 389 miles makes me want to compete, even though it’s that very type of obsessive competition that I have never done and the avoidance of which that has allowed me to keep pedaling my bike for 35 whole years.

In fact, I even had it summed up in a little aphorism: “If you ride to achieve you’ll eventually quit. If you ride for fun you’ll ride for life.”

The huge challenge with cycling, especially as you get decrepit and your wife gives you birthday cards that gently make fun of your erectile dysfunction, is forcing yourself to roll out–not out of the house, out of bed. Once that battle is won, a fierce life-and-death struggle that begins and for most people ends with the gravitational pull of the warm pillow, everything else takes care of itself. But when you think that you’re already behind the 8-ball on Wednesday morning because you’ve only got 51 miles for the week and the club leaderboard has a dozen people already knocking on 150, it makes you want to give in to the siren song of “sleep more, ride later.”

The later, of course, never comes.

The other problem is that our club’s Strava leaderboard seems to feature people who are at completely different points in their cycling lives from me. Maybe they’re new or new-ish riders who are still on fire for all things bicycling. Maybe they have a coach. Maybe they are in their 40’s and doing their first athletic activity since high school. Maybe they’re trying to upgrade in 2017. Maybe they have one of those things, what are they called? Oh, yeah, goals. I’ve heard of those!

Whatever they’re up to, they’re doing something different from me, which is struggling simply to keep riding because nothing looks fresh and rosy and pink and fluffed when it’s in its fourth decade. I’m not fired up by having big miles or lots of climbing or racing or the Donut Ride or anything. My fire was doused in ice water years ago and all that’s left now is a 53-year-old bag of skin trying to slow the inevitable skid off the edge into the abyss.

Sure, I get fired up when I’m finally on the bike and pedaling, but that’s like saying I feel good when I win the lottery. Any fool can be happy when he’s doing something fun. But the trick is to get fired up beforehand, because without that you never make it out the door, and igniting the spark at 5:00 AM when you’re only seven years younger than a dead Princess Leia, two years younger than a dead Prince, the same age as a dead George Michael, two years older than a dead Michael Jackson, and eighteen years older than a dead Mozart, striking the flint is harder than you think.

And since the club leaderboard makes the battle with the pillow exponentially harder than it already is, I finally succumbed and hit the “leave” button on the club leaderboard. No offense, but I feel better already.

END

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Wanky’s super power loop

June 21, 2016 § 10 Comments

I have recently devised the best training loop ever in the history of bicycle riding, called the Wanky Super Power Loop. I also hold the Strava KOM on this fantastic, amazing segment so please don’t bother trying to take it. In fact, since it’s my only KOM I really hope that all of you cyclists in the South Bay will be sure to not try and take it from me, as it would really hurt my feelings a lot, kind of like the time that I set a secret KOM on my home street and showed it to Eric and he went out and took it away from me the next day.

I’m not bitter about that.

Also, I trust that Wanky’s Super Power Loop will remain with me atop the leaderboard at least for the next five or nine years. However, today’s post isn’t (only) to point out how totally I crushed the Wanky Super Power Loop segment, it’s also to gin up recognition for this as, really, the best riding loop anywhere, ever. Why is it so good?

First, it has plenty of elevation but none of it is steep. This means you can use it to clear out your legs after a weekend of racing or eating donuts. It also means that if you want to go racing around as if your power numbers and Strava doodads really matter, you can do that too. In other words, it’s good for slow and it’s good for fast.

Second, it has plenty of shade. Los Angeles is not known for shade, and in the summer of the hottest temperatures ever recorded at the South Pole and an El Nino that has bleached dead hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine coral reefs worldwide, there is a premium on trees (until you need them for a new floor, of course). Wanky’s Super Power Loop lets you pedal in comfort no matter how many people die from heatstroke over in Gardena.

Third, since it runs through a gorgeous and quiet neighborhood on the edge of Palos Verdes Estates, you will piss off all the curmudgeons who think that the street is theirs. Nothing makes a fun ride funner than waving a cheery “Good morning!” to some codger with an impacted stool who just wrote three angry letters to the mayor and donated $5 to the Trump campaign than the sight of a happy bicyclist pedaling down his street.

Best of all, Wanky’s Super Power Loop reprises sections of the infamous Thursday Flog Ride, so while you’re spinning along you can pick out the most judicious place to launch your attack or to chokingly wave “Easy week!” as the peloton rides away.

END

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PV Shitmaker

July 4, 2015 § 24 Comments

Occasionally people sidle up to me on rides and say, “Listen to this.” So I listen. Of course what they really want is for me to blog about it, so I invariably don’t, unless of course I do. Yesterday was a double whammy. On the one hand you had the Alto Velo bicycle riding club in Richfolksville, CA, suing the Alto Velo Seasucker bicycle riding club in Wankerville, NC, for trademark infringement.

I was all prepped since it had to do with law and stuff, until Wily tipped me off on the new Garmin 520. “DC Rainmaker has a write-up on it. And you won’t believe what it does.”

“What does it do?”

“It shows Strava segments in real time so you can ‘race’ other Strava wankers who are still in bed waiting for a more favorable wind, less rain, or better air pressure.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Wily. “Just think of all the people who are about to die.”

“How do you figure?”

“Are you kidding? Face glued to the stem while your Garmin eggs you on to your top-10 in the 55+ men’s age group between 210 and 218.6 pounds? Just as you nail down the 32-second Festersore segment, out pulls a garbage truck and wham! KOC.”

“KOC?”

“King of the Cemetery, dude.”

I went home and looked up the DC Rainmaker’s review, which is here. I skimmed it, since ol’ DC has a bad case of graphorrhea, and only noted the following, which came after a lengthy explanation of all the computer fiddle-faddle you have to set up in order to race Strava avatars while you train: “With all the prep work taken care of we head out for a ride.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I ride in the morning when time is tight and “prep work” generally involves unloading a pair of corn-studded bowl breakers, wolfing down a cup of boiling coffee, airing up the tires, and making sure my arm warmers match.

So now you’re telling a guy who’s lucky to make it out the door without a couple of skid marks in his shorts and TP stuck to his cleat that he has to pre-load a fuggin’ Garmin (which he doesn’t own) so that he can race an absent stranger while he trains? And isn’t “race while you train” one of them oxymoron things, like “driving while you walk”?

The whole thing makes my head hurt because it is the next ripple in the new wave, which is to further divorce humans from each other and wed them more tightly to their computers. I mean, we have a ride that leaves at 6:35 AM pointy sharp every Thursday that is so fucking hard it will make your gallbladder pop out your eyes. The people who do it aren’t looking at their fuggin’ Garmin, they’re either cross-eyed or staring at the wheel in front praying it doesn’t speed up, or they’re dry heaving or seeing big black spots or lying in the ditch. Oh, and generally they are very familiar with race podiums.

And of the hundreds of serious bikers in the South Bay, there’s never more than a dozen who show up, and why should they? With the new Garmin 520 they can compete in comfortable privacy against 0’s and 1’s; mostly 0’s.

END

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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.

Faster.

Faster.

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.

END

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