How To Ride A Bike Like A Legend
Mr Eddy Merckx, France, 1975. Photograph by Offside/L’Equipe
Five expert tips to help you cycle in style.
Chances are, you think you know how to ride a bike. You probably learnt on a second-hand Raleigh with stabilisers as a child. Maybe you passed your Cycling Proficiency Test back when they were a thing. Even now, you might dodge traffic twice a day to and from work on your trusty single-speed Bianchi. But ask yourself this: do you actually know how to ride a bike?
This is a question posed by the Velominati, a secretive cycling society that dubs itself the “keepers of the cog”; it seeks a New World Order of sorts, only this revolution is about the turning of bicycle wheels. Its 2014 book, The Rules, is a distillation of cycling’s code of conduct – not the legal conventions of how to ride on the road, rather the (previously) unspoken but widely observed etiquette of the professional or at least very serious cycling circuit. For riders drinking the Mamil Kool-Aid from a single regulation-sized, downtube-mounted bidon (that’s a water bottle; rule number 52), it is a framework for how to behave.
Now the follow-up, The Hardmen, provides further context. Contained within are anecdotes and case studies from the top tier of the sport, from modern icons such as Ms Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead), the reigning Commonwealth champion and the first Briton to win a medal at the 2012 London Olympics, to legends of the sport, notably Mr Eddy Merckx, “the greatest Cyclist of all time” according to the Velominati (its capitalisation on “Cyclist”). “Eddy was the Prophet,” says Mr Frank D Strack, who co-wrote the book as part of the Velominati. “He trained harder, he raced harder and raced more days than any other rider of his era – and probably any rider since. That’s why he’s the winningest rider in history. By a mile. His style on the bike defined how a cyclist should be positioned, how they should pedal, how white their socks should be, how impeccably their machine should be maintained.”
Here are five pointers to help make your next ride a bit more, well, legendary.
It never gets easier, you just go faster
This line is borrowed from the American three-time Tour de France winner Mr Greg LeMond, aka Le Monster. It is also rule number 10 of The Rules. “As David Millar says, your quality as a cyclist is measured by your ability to suffer – not any other factor,” says Mr Strack. “The question has always been, ‘what is the physical limit of what can be done’?” In a sense, therefore, you’re always battling your body, as the following tip from The Hardmen illustrates: “Aerodynamic drag is your greatest foe and your body is the greatest transgressor in this department. Stop catching wind with your chest. Photos of Merckx, [Mr Roger] De Vlaeminck, [Mr Francesco] Moser all show them with elbows bent, back flat, torso pulled low for maximum efficiency through the wind.”
What goes up…
“Steep climbs strike fear into the cyclist. Steepness means suffering,” according to the Velominati. “The best climbers exert monumental control over the impulse to make the suffering end.” But sometimes even the best climbers – grimpeurs, the kings of suffering, as they are known – need a little encouragement, if that’s what you want to call it. The Hardmen recalls the 1976 Tour de France, when the eventual winner Mr Lucien Van Impe employed a new coach, former racer Mr Cyrille Guimard, whom in turn brought with him some maverick ideas – including driving the team car right behind Mr Van Impe, sounding the horn and threatening to plough into him unless he made an attack on the next mountain ridge. “Had Lucien Van Impe not had Guimard offer to run him off the road, he would never have won the Tour.
…Must come down
Rule number 85: “Descend like a pro.” More specifically: “All descents shall be undertaken at speeds commonly regarded as ‘ludicrous’ or ‘insane’ by those less talented.” If you struggle at climbing, the descent is your opportunity to regain some ground. Great climbers tend to be physically smaller, and carry less weight. With descents, those with more bulk are at a natural advantage. Make sure you take it, as rouleur (good all-rounder) Mr Eddy Merckx did. “He is said to have designed his frame geometry to favour stability while descending at speed over quickness while climbing and sprinting,” says Mr Frank D Strack. “Sean Kelly and his infamous descent off the Poggio to win Milan-San Remo in 1992 is another great example of descending at ‘ludicrous’ speed.” For further guidance from the book: “Brakes are generally not to be applied, but if absolutely necessary, only just prior to a corner.” Rule number 93 adds: “Descents should hurt, not be a time for recovery. Recovery is designated only for the pub.”
Don’t let a bit of rain put you off
Rule number nine: “If you are out in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.” Accept that there will be times that you get cold and wet. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t prepare for it. The Hardmen provides the example of Team 7-Eleven, who overcame an epic snowstorm to claim victory in the 1988 Giro d’Italia, making rider Mr Andrew Hampsten the sole American winner in the event’s history. “The 7-Eleven management did not panic when they awoke on the morning of the stage to… hear that over a metre of snow had fallen high up on the Gavia. Many of them, being based in Colorado or the American Midwest, knew a thing or two about snow and promptly bought up all the cold-weather gear they could find in local ski shops.” The Velominati suggests that if in doubt, cyclists should ask themselves “Is it Hampsten cold?” “If the answer is no, then see rule number nine and get out training.”
Dress the part
“At Velominati, we refer to something called Fournel’s Theorem – named for the Cycling author Paul Fournel – which states ‘to look good is already to go fast’,” says Mr Strack. “Kitting up and looking fantastic is the first step of riding well – it is a subliminal cue for how you are going to feel about riding your bike.” This explains why there are more rules pertaining to appropriate attire on a bike than almost any other subject: shorts should be black (rule 14), even with a leader’s jersey (rule 15); leader’s jerseys should only be worn if you’ve led the race (rule 16); unlike with football, wearing team replicas while riding is frowned upon, but if you have to, make sure you at least match your team kit (rule 17); no baggy shorts and jerseys on a road bike, no Lycra on a mountain bike (rule 18); only wear a cycling cap while actually cycling (rule 22)… It can get complicated, so if you take anything away, take this: “Don’t dress like a rodeo clown for your next ride. Shaved legs would be nice and maybe a pair of crisp white cycling socks, not too tall, not too short, like Goldilocks. That unfortunate tattoo on your leg – get that taken care of, as in, removed. Never desecrate the legs.”