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That's Why They Make The Big Bucks
 
By Staff
Date: 11/26/2003
That's Why They Make The Big Bucks
 
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- This article, by guest writer Bill Oetinger, is reprinted courtesy of BikeCal.com

I was reflecting the other day on a conversation I had recently with some friends who know very little about the world of cycling. I was telling these friends about one of my biking buddies who is having a wonderfully productive year as a rider/racer. I related how he had finished first in a number of different events, from double centuries to road races. For non-cyclists, my acquaintances were actually quite interested in my story, and after hearing about the fellow’s exploits, one of them asked me: “If your buddy wanted to, could he turn pro and race in the Tour de France?” I forget the exact words, but that was the gist of it.

Although my buddy is indeed having a great season, he is a long, long way from pro or even serious amateur racing. For one thing, he’s already in his 40’s, an age when all but the rarest of pros have hung it up. For another, the events he’s been winning are relatively small time and provincial. No one who follows bike racing at all would need to have this explained. But the fact that someone unfamiliar with cycling could ask the question--“could he turn pro?”--illustrates for me how little the general public understands or appreciates bicycle racing at its highest levels.

I suppose I should be flattered that the average sports fan might think that I and the other weekend warriors he sees on a local Saturday club ride are close cousins to Lance Armstrong....that the way he rides is the way we ride. In the most superficial sense, this may be true, but the resemblance is little more than lycra-deep, and rather than being flattered by the comparison, I deplore the misapprehension that what the pros do is only slightly more ambitious than what a bunch of overweight, middle-aged desk jockeys do on their recreational rides.

For perspective, cast this same comparison in the context of another sport that is supposedly well understood by the average sports fan: baseball. Okay, say we have this ball player name Hank. He’s pretty good. He was the star of his high school team and played well at the collegiate level. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and got so far as to play some minor league ball in their farm system and have a cup of coffee with the Tigers in spring training. But for whatever reason, he never quite hooked up at the highest level, so after a couple of years, he packs it in and gets a real job in the real world. Now, a few years after his flirtation with pro ball, he shows up to play for his company’s slow-pitch softball team...

Well, holy cow, the guy just hits the cover off the ball, fields like a magician, etc. In short, in the little pond of a slow-pitch softball league, Hank is a very big frog....a god among men, a man among boys. And his co-workers all nod, and with great reverence, say, “Oh yeah, that Hank: played for the Tigers once, y’know!”

They understand the great gulf between what they do in their leisure time and what truly gifted baseball players do for a living. And remember: Hank was never a super star in the big leagues. He never even really made it to the majors. And yet, even so, this marginal ex-minor league pro is revered as a player of a much higher order, and deservedly so.

Why is this not so with bike racing? Simple ignorance, for the most part....a lack of understanding of the subtleties of the sport, of the myriad skills and strengths that distinguish a great racer from an average one, and all racers from the vast mass of recreational riders. The softball player, through his own feeble attempts at hitting, fielding, and throwing, understands how difficult baseball can be, and he gains a deeply respectful appreciation of the more advanced skills of professionals in his sport. But to a non-cyclist, all cycling looks approximately the same. It’s difficult to tell the difference between a recreational paceline going 20-mph and a pro paceline going twice that speed, at least when seen for a few seconds on the evening TV sports report. This blind spot about bike racing isn’t confined to just the rank-and-file couch potato either. Plenty of supposedly knowledgeable sports journalists are equally and willfully obtuse about the sport. Many of these bright boys wrote disparaging things about Greg Lemond when Sports Illustrated voted him Athlete of the Year in 1989. Most made comments like, “Hell, anybody can ride a bike!” Recently on an MSNBC site, a supposed sportswriter named Ron Borges (who normally covers boxing for the Boston Globe, which I guess qualifies him as an expert on cycling), wrote an insultingly patronizing rant about Lance Armstrong and the Tour that was so pinheaded I couldn’t even finish it.

So, how do we explain to the uninitiated the vast chasm that yawns between just riding a bike and riding in the pro ranks? How about this? I’ll attempt to create an average recreational cyclist--I know: an impossible assignment--and then we’ll compare this everyman with a pro racer.

If we consider the average recreational cyclist to be some middle ground between, say, a Cat 3 amateur racer on one extreme (or a fast double century rider, perhaps) and a once-a-week noodler at the other extreme, then maybe we can define our terms. Let’s say the average recreational rider can comfortably do centuries, and will usually do them in around six hours. With some really concentrated effort, he can knock off a 5-hour century from time to time. Or conversely, he can piddle along and turn in a 7-hour century while socializing with his friends. Pacelining in the high 20’s is a pretty big deal for him (or her). High teens to low 20’s is more like it. If he had a bear chasing him, he might be able to sprint for a short distance at around 35-mph. He rides with the fastest group in his club of generally laid-back cyclists (very few card-carrying racers in the bunch). In that lead group, he’s generally mid-pack, and more likely to be off the back than off the front. When he shows up for one of his club’s more moderate rides, he may feel as if he’s among the fastest riders there. He knows the basics of how to rotate smoothly through a paceline, how to spin circles, and how to descend briskly, without endangering himself or his riding companions.

If these rather fuzzy parameters still fail to capture your notion of what an average cyclist is, then substitute your own specifications. They feel about right to me for the simple reason that they approximately define my own abilities.

Now for comparison, let’s look at some numbers from pro racing. First, for an extreme example, check out Stage 9 of the 2001 Vuelta a España, one of the three great stage races each year (along with the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia). That stage was 111 miles long, and the average speed was 34-mph. Think about that for a minute. That equates to a 3-hour century! What’s even more impressive is that they didn’t go all out, all day to do it. They “dawdled” at the beginning, but picked it up mid-stage and rode the final 70 miles at an average speed of 37-mph!

A 5-hour century is considered quite good for an average rider, and I ride with people who do centuries in the low 4-hour range, so I know that’s not beyond the pale for mere mortals. But three hours? Bear in mind that even tiny increments in average speed over that distance require huge additional expenditures of energy. For Mr. Average to bump his speed from 18-mph to 20-mph for an entire century would entail a major effort. The thought of sustaining a speed of 34-mph for 111 miles (or 37-mph for 70 miles) is utterly preposterous, from Mr. Average’s vantage point.

Admittedly, the racers had the advantage of a tailwind and an ever-so-slightly downhill profile for that stage, not to mention crackerjack pacelines and rolling food hand-ups. And it is an extreme: in fact it’s the fastest stage ever run in a major stage race. But even less impressive numbers from other tours are still mind-boggling. Lance Armstrong averaged around 25-mph for all of this year’s Tour de France--day after exhausting day--including all those mountaintop finishes. If you can even begin to grasp how huge some of those climbs are, that number will really knock you for a loop. And remember: with a mountaintop finish, you don’t even get to do the downhill off the other side of the mountain to recoup any of your lost average speed.

That day-after-day component is critical too: if you’ve ever done a multi-day cycling vacation where you rode 100 K a day for a week--never mind what your speed was--there was probably a day in there around mid-week, where your legs started to get a little heavy....where the prospect of getting back on the bike again in the morning seemed like a bit of a tall order. Now, instead of a week of 100 K rides at touring pace, try three weeks of 200 K rides at the most ferocious pace imaginable. That’s a grand tour. Brutal.

On another fast day in last year’s Vuelta--Stage 17--a break of 30 riders got away when severe cross winds caused some gaps to open up in the main bunch. Riders in that front group realized they could put serious time into some of their rivals by hammering away at the front, and hammer they did. Reports said that at times the group was pacelining at 80-kph. That’s just a hair under 50-mph! On a level road. In a cross wind. After over two weeks of hammering, and with another week to go.

If you’re the cycling equivalent of a slow-pitch softball player, these are numbers to conjure with. Amazing but true. And the pros don’t always need a paceline or a peloton to generate numbers that gaudy. Averages in the low to mid-30’s are not uncommon in individual time trials, where it’s just one man alone against the clock.

That scene in the classic bike movie Breaking Away--where the young rider drafts behind the Cinzano truck at 60-mph--may seem a bit far-fetched, but is it really? The great woman racer Laura Charameda once told me about seeing Mario Cipollini chase and catch a truck going 45-mph (meaning he had to be going faster than the truck to bridge up to it). How did Laura know the truck was going 45? Simple: she was drafting behind it at the time.

My favorite first-person experience of pro speed came on a little ride I did with the Saturn team a few years ago. It was the day before a big road race, and the team members were hosting the ride as a sort of public relations deal for the sponsors, with a free food buffet afterward. For the pros, it was little more than a promenade: discharging their sponsor obligations and maybe keeping their legs loose the afternoon before their race. I don’t remember who all was on the Saturn team that year, but I do recall that I was riding at the front of the group, next to Levi Leipheimer and Frank McCormack, as we approached a small climb. One of his teammates rode up next to Levi--it may have been Fred Rodriguez--and said he was going to stretch his legs a little on the hill, and then he just shot off up the grade, whizzing away from us so fast it looked like he had been teleported to the top. But what impressed me more than the speed was how effortless it appeared: no leaping out of the saddle, no rolling the shoulders, no throwing the bike around, no eccentric motion whatsoever. He didn’t appear to be doing anything differently. He just sat the bike and was....gone.

So we can see that the pros go very fast....unthinkably fast by the standards of an average recreational rider. And we know they can do it for long distances, day after day, week after week, and sometimes under very adverse conditions, ranging from extreme heat to freezing cold, rain, and snow, (not to mention slick, muddy cobblestones). But there is more to being a pro than just being fast and strong and stubborn. The mainstream sportswriters who denigrate cycling often justify their position by asserting that there is no skill involved in cycling, beyond just being able to stay upright without training wheels.

How to explain to these numbskulls about the many skills and techniques expert riders master for gaining an advantage, or for simply staying alive in the pressure cooker of a race? Most of these are almost invisible to the casual observer: subtle weight shifts, pressure on this pedal or that handlebar to make the bike stick in a corner at some ridiculous speed; little bunny hops across obstacles; a hand on the hip of another rider to fend him off in a tight pack; touching wheels with other bikes and not going down, etc. And the more intense the situation--the tighter the pack; the faster the descent--the more these acute motor skills come into play.

Cycling is a job for these guys. They spend as many hours on their bikes as most of us do at our jobs: eight hours a day, five or six days a week, most of the weeks of the year. They are as comfortable in the saddle as you are at your desk or in your Lay-Z-boy. They are not all equally adept at these various skills, but even the least of the top-level pros have to be damn good or they just won’t survive for more than a season at the top. The pro peloton is a savagely cruel test bed for riders. The weak or inept are chewed up and spit out, like the minor leaguer who can’t hang in against a major league curve ball. See ya later...get a real job.

Perhaps another good anecdote will help to illustrate my point about these skills. This story was told to me by one of my friends who grew up in Europe. My friend and his pals had been watching the race from atop a summit, and after most of the riders had gone by, they hopped on their own bikes and followed the racers on the long, technical descent toward the finish. Now, I think of my friend as a pretty good descender. On a good day, with all my stars in alignment, I can just hang onto him on a downhill, or at least keep him in sight. Most of the time he’s much faster than I am and disappears from view after the first few corners. And in this instance, he’s descending a road just outside his hometown....a road he’s ridden many times and knows well. In theory, he should have this descent wired. But as he’s flying down the hill, he’s caught and passed by a handful of pros who had been noodling along at the tail end of the race. Presumably, from their position at the back of the field, these guys weren’t trying all that hard--weren’t pushing the envelope--and yet they went by him so fast, he felt like he was backing up. But for my friend, the amazing thing was not that they passed him, but that, while passing him, one of them was sitting up, no hands, pulling on his jacket!

When a golfer executes a brilliant hook or draw; when a batter guesses correctly on a change-up and slaps the ball to the opposite field on a hit-and-run; when a quarterback and wide receiver connect on a perfectly timed post route, we have buckets of air time to watch these skillful moves on endless slow-mo replays. But the little skillful moves than animate a pro bike race happen in the middle of a scrum of riders at high speed, and neither real time nor replays can really capture and elucidate the tricks of the trade that make the best riders special. Unless and until you’ve tried to carve a mountain corner at the limit, with your courage screwed to the wall, you’ll never understand how good these guys are.

Photo © by Dave O'Nyons, all rights reserved.

If you’ve watched the Giro, Vuelta, or Tour on TV, you know those descents in the Alps and Pyrénees are truly scary. They are long, steep, technical, and often lacking in almost any safety features, such as railings or wide shoulders. Often these dinky mountain tracks drop off into empty space on the outsides of the corners...nothing between you and eternity but a row of piddly little granite cobbles. As you see the riders snapping back and forth through the slinky bends--at 50 and 60-mph--you realize that not only are these guys very skillful, they’re also very brave. Ditto for those hard boys who battle it out in the elbow-banging mosh pits of field sprints, also at 50-mph. With all due respect to race car drivers and boxers and football players, I don’t think there is another group of athletes in the world that skates as close to the edge of danger and catastrophe as pro bike racers, and always with next to no protective clothing or gear. Only extreme rock and mountain climbers and occasionally white water kayakers put themselves in such peril on a regular basis.

And we haven’t even touched on the subject of strategy: the poker game of knowing who’s strong today and who’s bluffing; who might be about to bonk and who might be about to attack. Positioning for a sprint. Covering a break. On and on. It’s complex and shifting beyond imagining. This too is something the casual observer simply cannot grasp, and yet without at least a cursory understanding of overall race tactics, the entire exercise is meaningless, especially in a stage race, where winning individual stages may have little to do with winning the overall. Riders need to be more than fast, skillful, and brave. They need to be intelligent and crafty, which isn’t always easy when you’re living for days on end next door to exhaustion.

So anyway....what else can I say? If you’re reading this column, you probably already know these things, and you probably have loads of anecdotes of your own to illustrate my points. So I’m likely preaching to the converted. But perhaps if someone you know questions the legitimacy of bike racing as a major sport or seems to think racing is nothing special--just like riding a bike--maybe you can print out this column and ask them to read it.

More about Bill Oetinger

  • Occupation: free-lance graphic artist and illustrator (and writer)

  • Ride Director and newsletter Editor, Santa Rosa Cycling Club, Sonoma County, California

  • Director, Terrible Two Double Century, Santa Rosa, California

  • Board of Directors, California Triple Crown cycling series

  • Owner of Adventure Velo Cycle-touring

"I’ve ridden bikes all my life and have been cycling “seriously” for most of the past two decades. I currently ride about 7000 miles a year. I’m not a racer. The only vaguely competitive riding I do is centuries and double-centuries, and in these events, I’m mostly competing against myself..trying to do the best I can and see where that leads me. In spite of having completed many doubles–including some of the toughest ones out there–I can still recall the challenge and thrill of completing my first 50-mile ride."

 

 

 
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