Friday, March 14, 2008

I'm Sending this article to Tim Brink at Bicycling Magazine - any suggestions?

The Bicycling Life
Our lives have become fiercely competitive and fiercely co-operative, but bicycling helps us find balance and connection

Energy efficiency is fast-becoming a cliché not only in South Africa, but also in many other countries. High fuel, food and electricity prices impact on everyone. The bicycle presents a unique solution, but perhaps even more, teaches with maximum fluency the mindset of efficiency. Save your energy, weigh less, share in your efforts, work together, and by working together, everyone benefits.

Perhaps the most vital attribute a cyclist needs to have is – wait-for-it – slimness. At a time when energy costs especially are forcing companies and individuals to be as efficient as they can be, carrying unnecessary fat and burning unnecessary fuel is a big no-no. Slimness allows for efficiency and important, quick adaptation, flexibility and rapid response to a changing scenario. In car terms it’s a Yaris and a Hummer racing one another for the nearest petrol station in peak hour traffic. Being lightweight allows for easier movement, better overall health and a reduced risk of injury notwithstanding the effects of gravity and entropy.

Coherent, Cohesive Intelligence

But one of the biggest sins in cycling (beyond obesity) is being a hothead that sprints foolishly ahead of the bunch; wasting precious endowments of glucose and getting nowhere. In this sense, tact and intelligence are vital. Pure strength, technology on its own, lightness, all the ingredients on their own are not enough to guarantee a good ride. They must be integrated into a coherent system, a program (both in terms of training and how these sessions are employed towards effective racing performances).

All By Myself

Naturally of course there are riders who rebel against the herd instinct. They don’t want to conform, they want to rebel. Every rider feels this at some stage. There is a compulsion be an individual, to indulge in what one wants when one wants it. It’s the consumer-mindset. The heaviest rider in a bunch will shoot ahead of the pack on a downhill…why not allow himself to get ahead, and build momentum for the next uphill? A light rider might find the pace up the steepest section far too slow. Sooner or later those initial gains are countered by working alone against the wind. An alliance with other individuals sometimes (rarely) pays off. The place for individual effort is just before the finish line. So cycling involves the strategic use of a collective co-operative effort. In the working world and even at home, teamwork and co-operation will benefit both the individual and community.


Our highly specialized vocations allow us to do one thing, while someone else does something else important, and so almost no time is needed to put food on the table – this is a modern co-operative innovation that took agrarian societies millennia to realize. Living in villages connected to other villages by roads is another trick unique to modern society that we take for granted, yet without the company of others the sukkel for food and basic necessities would dominate our days. In cycling, staying in the group has profound benefits. Ask anyone who has labored alone on the long road against the wind, having to deal with cramps, punctures and other mishaps all by himself.

Natural Instinct

To see the co-operation of cyclists in action is to see something beautiful. On the first loop of the OFM (on the Thaba Nchu road) colorful flotillas of synchronicity SSSSHHHHHHIISSHHH by one another on opposite sides of the highway. Each large group is essentially its own organism, a cyclopede of wheels and legs. The message is obvious: if consumers and surburbanites realize they are part of a larger organism, like cyclists in a peloton, the entire system becomes more functionally efficient.

Short Term Contracts (like Renting or Car Hire)

While even the everyday rider will experience fierce competitiveness of other riders, for the bulk of a race the imperative to co-operate is even fiercer. Riders will often book a place in a line and curse and spit, prod and push when their ‘spot’ is taken by someone else. Riders who have never seen each other before suddenly work together, talking to each other, shouting and swearing if co-operation isn’t adequately rendered. It’s essentially a short-term scenario of close co-operation for an anonymous crowd of individuals. All they have in common is a common destination and whirring wheels between their hamstrings. But once again the benefits in terms of energy saving are real.

We All Sing Together

Perhaps cycling’s greatest lesson is that it instills a very real sense of community amongst its members. The rider needs to depend and be very aware of those around him or her, and must also realize others are depending on there being a co-operative effort too. If a surbanite builds high walls and instills the best alarm system, but a neighbor does not, the surbanite is just as vulnerable as the neighbor. To apply a cyclist’s co-operative strategy to this case: a neighborhood watch paid for by the community it protects benefits everyone. The wealthy helping out the poor benefit the entire community. Cycling uniquely places the teenager, the strong 20-something, and the old Oom in the same group, and allows them the opportunity to challenge, co-operate and compete.

Gearing and Leverage

Gearing and leveraging on a bicycle is something like compound interest. Over a period of time, the effects (and possible benefits) are significant. Cycling is one of the most technically complex sports. There are many factors to consider besides how to function in a rapidly changing peloton. There is aerodynamics, engineering (position and angle of saddle relative to the pedals), work rate (cadence) and also gearing. Gearing also has to do with efficiency, but when gearing is used more specifically to enhance leverage, well, then efficiency is no longer the priority, power is. Someone said: “Give me a long enough stick and I can move the world.” Leveraging gears and muscles – which implies an intimate understanding of oneself and one’s machine – will mean the difference between winning the sprint, or staying in touch with a group of stronger riders, as opposed to the worst case: being dropped. The same concept can be applied to leveraging one’s savings into investments, including into property. It may seem like a gray area, an insignificant cloud of subtlety, but small refinements here have powerful long term effects.

All or Nothing Competition

Cycling is not just about “Good morning Sport, after you.” It happens to be also fiercely competitive. The competitive nature of cycling is often under-estimated. The ongoing doping scandals at the Tour de France demonstrate to what extent the Professionals are reluctant to give up even an illegal advantage. But even amateurs risk life and limb simply to hang on to a bunch, even if it means finishing a race nowhere near the podium. In a Carnival City race an older rider was so close to my wheel that he fell when I moved to a better slipstreaming position. Just before this I’d observed: “Why is everyone so quiet; why is everyone so serious.” Everyone was concentrating hard at 65km in the B bunch. Older riders were doing their best to hang with the stronger guys, but a constant erosion was taking place. The will to remain in contention, even if that simply meant staying with the bunch, is powerful. The Argus is filled with thousands of average riders compelled to be as competitive as they can be on one day in March.

Information Overload

More than any other sport, the information from a heart rate monitor, cadence meter and speedometer on a bicycle can be overwhelming. There are Watts to consider, average speed, average heart rate, cadence, and the powerful impacts of wind and altitude. All athletes have to be savvy in terms of technological innovations. Which light, aerodynamic materials? Which nutrients and when? Devices that accurately record progress. Efficiencies can be fine-tuned by measuring and responding to changes in performance. A good rider knows which levels of exertion to apply in training and racing.


Bicycling inculcates a valuable sense of balance in the individual, which brings us back to the bicycling mindset.
The basics of cycling involve ups and downs, inevitably punctures and breakdowns – and how to get over these with minimum strain and maximum enjoyment. How to fly without falling? Isn’t this what life is all about? Cycling well means balancing a host of important psychological skills: anticipation, using and conserving momentum, executing strategy and most important – developing a thriving economy, whatever the energy constraints may be.

While Lance may have inspired millions to ride their bikes, it’s also true that cycling’s time has come. In the same way that the world has become smaller and flatter thanks to the internet and cheap air tickets, the world has never been more intricate or fast paced. The only way to stay in touch with these changes is on your bicycle.

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