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David L. Stanley

Seasons of the Bike Part 4
Spring: The Season Starts, Every Race Matters

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David Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in Velo, Velo-news.com, Road, Peloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). He blogs regularly for Dads Roundtable. Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Olympics' 50 Craziest Stories and Cycling Heroes.

Spring used to be a gentle time in professional cycling. Late February’s Etoile de Besseges and the Het Volk in early March were the harbingers of cycling’s season. Racers in the 1950s and '60s often started the season in less than stellar condition and “rode into shape” in the season’s early races. In that era, spring training consisted of easy long mileage days with teammates in a warm climate. Form was found, not by the dictates of wattage, but by races in March and into early April. “Racing into form,” it was called.

Het Nieuwsblad

Ian Stannard (left, and race winner) and Greg van Avermaet are a pair of wet, cold, muddy riders who have just finished 2014 Het Nieuwsblad, formerly known as Het Volk.

No longer. Each rider has a training plan, cross-checked and referenced to his season’s plan, set out in hours, kilometers, watts, terrain, and zones. Where once cycling teams were sponsored by men who loved cycling and owned businesses, cycling is now a corporate marketing sports business driven by measures of sponsor exposure. Sponsor images, from January to season’s end, are tracked and may well determine if a corporation’s ROI is adequate to continue the business relationship.

There is an adage in baseball that you don’t know what kind of team you have until 40 games into the season. With 162 games on schedule, baseball executives will wait ¼ of their season until they pass judgement. Cycling does not allow for that sort of bedding-in process. With teams and sponsors in flux from season to season, WorldTour points on offer from mid-January forward, and spots in the Grand Tours in dependent upon those points, the cycling business model insists that when the season starts, every race matters.

Inclusion in the season’s major invitational events is mandatory for continued sponsorship. As a rider’s individual 7th place rather than a 4th place might keep the entire team out of a Grand Tour, nothing can be left un-monitored. British scientist Lord Kelvin said it first in 1883. “What one can measure, one can see (understand).1

It wasn’t until Dave Brailsford, the British Cycling Federation, and Team SKY introduced the concept of ‘marginal gains’ to the peloton that this concept came to full fruition. Today, little is left un-measured and un-seen. The seeds of measurement are planted in fall, they germinate and grow throughout the winter, and the flowers bloom in spring.

Christophe Riblon

Christophe Riblon ready to start a stage in the 2012 Etoile de Besseges. Brrrr.

How important are ‘marginal gains?’ Imagine that you drink three cups of coffee per day, each with one teaspoon of sugar. Eliminate this annual intake of ten pounds of sugar and you’ve just chopped five pounds, effortlessly, from your body. Marginal gains are not always marginal.2

It is the races of spring that have formed the sport. The Grand Tours today may hold the limelight, but it is the now notorious races of spring that brought the sport to millions of fans in the Ardennes, in the Northern plains, and the Low Countries. It is the races of spring that inspired the regional pride that saw each race’s rebirth after two horrific wars. It is the races of spring that are the backbone of the sport.

The race distances are colossal; if driven by car one might need 4 hours to cover the 260 kilometers of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The temperatures are more suited for ski racing than cycle racing. The men are often assailed by rain and freezing rain, snow and sleet. Hard by the North Sea, even on dry days, the air is cold and wet and harsh on the lungs.

Roger DEcock

A wet, but joyous Roger Decock wins the 1952 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Note the crowd is bundled up against the cold and rain.

There is no rest from the wind. When not battered by head winds, the peloton is forced to find shelter in the lee side of the lead riders by the push of a crosswind. The gravel sprays in your face. Near the gutter, the margin for error is gone. One moment, one blink, and the wind propels you into a ditch filled with rainwater and bovine excrement. Wind; the hills that never cease.

Yet the hills also wait. The bergs of Northern Europe are sheer and abrupt, mushrooming up from the farmlands of Northern Europe. The Kapelmuur, which features in several classic races, rises 110 meters over its one thousand meter length. The punishing cobblestoned Muur has several sections which boast a 1 in 5 gradient.

Should one survive the distance and the weather and the hills, your reward is the cobbles. First laid during the post-Napoleonic era, these cobbles more closely resemble large loaves of homemade bread than the carefully laid paving stones which adorn your neighbor’s driveway. Racing over these cobblestone sections at 25 miles per hour is akin to a ride over a horribly potholed urban road at 50 mph on a motorcycle with a flat tire.

Except it’s worse. Your hands go numb and lose their ability to control the bars. Your shoulders and neck bounce as if you are a human bobble head. Your bum feels like someone has beaten your backside with a cricket bat. Your lower back goes into spasms. For a race like Paris-Roubaix, you get to race 27 of these sections for a total of 35 miles of the race’s total distance of 155 miles.

Why race in the spring? To prove you are the strongest of the strongmen, the hardest of the hard men. It is to prove that nothing, not wind or sleet or mud or hill or stone will keep you from the attack, to inscribe your face on everyone’s mind so that thirty years from now, fans in pubs will still speak of your epic attack, and your legendary win.

It is spring and every race matters.

Footnotes

1. Often credited, inaccurately, to financial wizard and management guru Peter Drucker. Drucker’s quote, “That which can be measured can be managed” is plenty darn useful today.
2. 4 cal/gm of sugar. 4 gms sugar/tsp = 16 cal x 3 tsp=48 cal/day
48 cal/day X 365 days = 17,520 cal/year.
Approximately 3,500 cal/lb, ergo, 17,520cal/3,500 cal =5.006 lbs

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