We all know the best road riders have a significant capacity to hurt themselves. A desire, even. A productive one. As with Antarctic explorers, SAS trainees and Justin Bieber fans, there’s a yearning to push their bodies and minds as far as possible into horror. It’s this determination to suffer that brings them out the other side with stunning results. Apart from in the case of Beliebers, where all they get is a nagging sense that at the heart of things lives a clawing emptiness.
- James May: “Most cyclists are just people riding bikes. And they’re a bit hopeless.”
- Aero is bunk (unless you're racing)
This I understand. This desire to push I understand. I slump on the sofa watching YouTube clips of World Cup racers and I think, “You and me both, pal. I get it.” And then I have another Hob Nob biscuit.
But recently I’ve discovered there’s another layer to the suffering. How? Because after years of mountain bikes, I’ve finally started riding road bikes. Now I’m seeing it from the inside. And there are certain things that really stand out if, like me, you’re new to it. Mainly, it’s that the roadie desire to suffer is as mechanical as it is physical. It’s embodied in the bikes.
My epiphany took place during a rainswept ride on dirty country lanes. Dropping into a steep Welsh combe, the braking noise from my lovely Mavic wheels was heartrending. The oily roadspray had mixed with grit, mud and rain to form a paste you could polish diamonds with. The brake pads gathered it up and squashed it into the rims and the bike screamed the unbelieving screams of the tortured. It made me want to cry.
And then I sped through the hedge at the bottom of the hill because the brakes had made noise instead of slowing me down, and a farmer and nine dogs were glaring at me from a rusty Toyota Hilux. Crying was off the table, instead I waved and made that farmerish greeting noise that’s like ‘ayyuh butt’ and shouldered back through the hedge, trying not to limp.
How can roadies stand it? How can you stand the Surround Sound destruction of your beautiful lightweight wheels? It’s like four belt-driven sanders on a work of art. It’s a noise I now remember, but had obviously buried, from my early mountain biking days. But mountain biking rapidly adopted discs, while road riding resisted. Sure, there were issues with weight, but as discs improved and downsides diminished, the resistance remained — for over a decade. The switch really began early last year.
I can only conclude that ‘real’ (I’m not real) roadies hate their wheels lasting as much as they hate their brakes working. Unless you’re on the drops — I’ll thank you to not cut me up until I’ve switched to a racing crouch, Mr Lorry Driver — the physical leverage you have on the levers is incredibly low. Combine that with the low power, zero-feel nature of cheap rim brakes and newcomers have plenty of time to wonder why nobody’s bothered designing levers to work with, say, human hands. They have time as their brakes: Time in the air. Time in the road. Time on the ward.
Road biking actually adopted electronic gear-shifting before proper brakes that don’t kill wheels. That’s odd. And while I've never understood the benefits of mountain bikes shaped like road bikes, I’m now not sure I understand the benefits of road bikes shaped like road bikes either.
Sure, the pros need to instantaneously warp four feet sideways during a 60mph sprint without even leaning over, but I don’t. I’m more likely to be doing 30mph somewhere near a bus, at which speed the whole plot’s so short and steep I can genuinely steer by moving just one knee and both eyes from left to right. It’s borderline unstable at all times. Why is that a good thing for an entry-level road bike to be?
I know why. It’s because cycling itself is borderline unstable. It’s because roadies like to suffer. So I suppose, if you’ve spent big on beautiful carbon wheels to go with your acetylene torch-like rim brakes and ‘let’s crash!’ geometry, the pain is only more exquisite still.
Not convinced? The evidence is everywhere. For instance, while mountain bikers use acceptable-in-public words such as ‘baggy shorts’ and ‘liners’, the Kings of the Tarmac Mountains have altogether trickier conversations. I tried to find some padded lycra shorts that ended below the knee the other day (perfect for winter), and just couldn’t do it. None of my search terms were working.
Eventually I followed the navigation on The Popular Online Shop You Think I Mean (other shops are available) and discovered why even Google couldn’t figure out what I meant, and Google watches me while I sleep. It’s because roadies don’t call them shorts. They call them knickers.
If I want full-length ones, they’re called tights. And if I want shoulder straps then I need to wear a bib. Is it not enough that the clacky low-heel shoes and saggy lycra is already creating walks that make other people hold their children close? You do realise that the following occurs every weekend?
[SCENE. INTERIOR. A BUSY CAFE. A CYCLIST APPROACHES]
“Your coffee and velvet cake, Dave. Budge up so I can sit down. Oh, I like your tights. Are they new?”
“Got them last week.”
“I’m not wearing knickers anymore either, Dave.”
“I know. The wind is icy.”
“Oh, Dave — you’ve got cake on your bib. Here, let me…”
[THE CUSTOMERS LEAVE]
Still. Maybe the bizarre dress code, the multi-hour grinds where your skeleton slowly collapses beneath you, the hostile geometry and the fundamental resistance to progress is actually what makes road bikes so addictive.
The result, after all, is a ride where there’s really little to enjoy beyond pedalling. And so you do that. To be honest I’m really getting into it. In mountain biking I live for the descents — they can be huge fun. On a road bike, I’d rather just climb. It’s also fun. Well, not fun, but while it’s not really pleasant or enjoyable it’s a positive feeling. Well, not positive, but it’s not really not un-negative.
Look, here’s my final offer: it’s nice when the unpleasantness lasts for slightly less time because I’ve got stronger. How’s that?
OK, there’s plenty I’m trying to avoid in this, my inevitable descent into roadiness, because I’m not a masochist. I generally don’t ride more than an hour at a time. I’m not planning a 100-mile sportive. I don’t ride two abreast with over-competitive ‘mates’ on winding roads and I don’t bulge out of my lycra far enough to be accused of it when I’m alone.
Actually, I’m still wearing mountain bike gear (though I do take the peak off my helmet), so will surely be lynched by smooth, thin men who look like Etixx-Quick-Step, but aren’t. Oh, and get this… you’ll love this. Ready? I’m using flat pedals. On a road bike.
Enjoy the comments.