Wednesday, 6 March 2013

monkeys, elves and fickle form

There are things in cycling which can be quantified, balanced and measured. You can put a number to watts, to weight, to kilometers and calories, to gradients and drag. Riders obsess over these numbers, they try to maximize some and minimize others. They look for the magic ratio, the mix which will give them the edge over their competition, be that on the way to the café or on the road to Paris.

The most important factor in racing, the sine qua non of “good legs” (I’m not going to fall for the half translated “good sensations” nonsense) isn’t watt’s or weight or cadence. It’s form, form isn’t fitness, it’s something more ephemeral and hard to quantify. It’s not a metric it’s a mood.  Like obscenity you can’t define form, but you know it when you feel it. When one has form, the pedals feel light, the turnover easy and the corners flow without need for braking. Shoulders easily relax and the drops feel moulded to your palms. everything is easy, light and fast. racing makes sense and flows.

Form isn’t the same as fitness; fitness is the sum of the numbers. Ride this much, weigh this much and you can be fit. Form is tangentially related to fitness, it’s a necessary precursor but not a sufficient cause. One cannot have form without fitness but one can have fitness without form.  Fitness is how hard you push on the pedals but not how smoothly. Fitness might tell you how much your legs will hurt, but not how much that pain will affect you, or how it’ll turn into results.

Unlike fitness, form is’t something you can predict. Spending hours looking at a powermeter, wearing a little strap around your nipples. Climbing in big gear and sprinting in tiny ones will bring the body to fitnesss. After a few years of racing you learn what the specific combination is that makes you fit, that gets you to the line of your first races with a big enough engine and a small enough ballast to be there or thereabouts at the end. But form is illusory.  Years of training diaries yield not the slightest clue. I fool myself that it’s a lucky penny or s tattered old charm pinned inside my jersey, mainly because, after failing to find a scientific explanation, these make as much sense as anything else.
Good form changes the way you think as well, it's like you have a slot machine in your head, sometimes 2 or 3 symbols line up and you give it a try, riding off the front just because you know that it won't take its usual toll. Sometimes all 4 line up, and you don't know why, or how, but it's the time to go. It's not any harder than any other attack but it's th eone that sitcks and you know it'll stick before you launch it. all the symbols line up and you hit the jackpot. But if asked again you wouldn't know what you did to get there.

Like some kind of spandex wearing elf, form is mischevious, for every day that you have great legs in a race, there are three when you’re out on your own feeling like the king of the bike. But come the next time you pin on a number the elf was wandered off to help someone else and you’re back in the spot where every gear feels one tooth too big or too small and your saddle feels too high AND too low during one 4 hour race.

The only thing I can say for sure about form is that it rewards persistence, keep at it and keep pinning on a number (Maybe with your lucky gold pin….) and one day, you’ll clip in off the start and you’ll feel like you could walk on water. The challenge then is to hide your form, and your feelings until the right moment. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing of all, but when you get it right, good legs, good tactics and good luck. That’s what gets you through the days when the monkey’s on your back and you’re chasing that mischievous elf.

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