Francesco Moser knew how to pedal. optimizedcyclingsolutions.com
Some people find contentment planting one training shoe repeatedly in front of the other. Others get their jollies thrashing through chilly waves. I can’t see running or swimming as anything other than a chore but put me within leg-reach of a pair of pedals, any pair of pedals, and I’m happy.
Ideally those pedals would be the ones on my road bike on a sunny Saturday morning but really anything is better than nothing. I get a perfectly decent hit from the heavy old fixed I ride to work, a spin bike at the gym … frankly even a pedalo will get my calves twitching under the right circumstances (those being: any circumstances)
Why? Partly because pedalling is something I can do at least half well. I spent 38 years of my life being incapable of sport, then I found one I could do. Being able to push a crank powerfully is therefore deeply satisfying.
But mainly I like to pedal because it just feels right to me. It reminds me of what the great Northamptonshire and England cricketer Frank Tyson wrote, about reveling in “the glad animal action” of fast bowling; deriving satisfaction from the physical deed itself, irrespective of its result.
On a good day, a pedalling rhythm can become almost self-hypnotising and the smoothness of your movements – or souplesse, as the French say – is almost soothing; drawing you towards the pedal-nirvana of the veloupte (decades of cycling heritage will produce some fine vocabulary).
Even on a bad day, you have the harsher joy of forcing out the pace when it hurts. Cyclists are supposed to like suffering and to some degree most of us do. Again, show me sand dunes to run through or a kettlebell to carry and I will quail. But give me a hill to ride up and the thought of stopping just because it hurts won’t even occur to me. I might slow down when the lactate becomes indistinguishable from lava … but the pain is part of the point, so I won’t stop.
The capacity of bike pedalling to complement one’s mood is truly marvellous. The frown brought on by a taxing day of work won’t last long on the bike. When I used to work in an office, I’d typically pull away from the kerb at the end of the day, on my shabby commuter, with my rather hefty backpack and find an immediate pang of quiet delight and relief as I flowed down the road. I usually started steady and contemplative and often stayed that way; the sense of self-determination that comes from moving deliberately through London’s streets, claiming a space on the road, is strong and worth enjoying. Or I might have needed the catharsis of a rampage down the embankment blue-route, drafting riders on better, lighter bikes (bastards) when I can. Either way, the person that arrived at home was calmer, more open and more alive than the person who left the office.
Perhaps this all amounts to a bike-specific version of mindfulness. I’m aware of my body’s movements without really thinking about them; noticing the turn, the speed, the flow …
Of course there’s pedalling and there’s pedalling. Having spent far too long cluelessly trying to push my cadence up over a hundred because that’s what the pros do, I was delighted at a friend’s suggestion that, particularly on a long ride, the smart thing is to vary your stroke on the hills, so different bits of you get tired while other bits recover.
So now when out on the country roads I take the climbs in sets of three. First one is a Froome (I know, I wish, literally). Lots of revs, not much gear. It usually feels smooth and controlled. I might stick my elbows out and stare at my headset for added authenticity.
The second one is in homage to Francesco Moser who strengthened his legs by tackling hills in as high a gear as he could grind at around sixty rpm without getting out of the saddle. All the stress is on your thighs. It’s a slow motion churn.
And the third one is a Pantani. Albeit not quite because I don’t hold the drops, but it’s an all-body out-of-saddle attack. Like a fighter pilot lighting the afterburners, standing on the pedals is an energy-inefficient way to boost power, but it does bring much needed relief to the legs. And of course it’s a whole different pedalling experience. balletic if you’re in form, more like bike-wrestling if you’re not. But still pedalling…
The athletic benefits of ringing the changes, like crop rotation for your body, probably make it worth doing but the conceptual benefit is greater still. You get to pay your very own humble tribute to your cycling heroes and meditate on the sensations produced by your approximation of their distinctive pedaling styles.
Pedalling can be carefree, absorbing, absent-minded, painful (in a good way), painful (in a bad way) fluid or tortuous, but it never fails to make me feel lucky and, ultimately, happy.