Jun 8, 2011

It doesn't really matter


My first adult road bike was a 2006 Fuji Roubaix RC from Performance Bike. It had an aluminum frame with carbon chainstays/seatstays and fork, and Ultergra drivetrain. I still remember the feeling of getting on it for the first time, pushing the pedals and feeling the acceleration that was unlike anything I ever felt on my mountain bike or the hybrids I rode as a kid. It was the bike on which I fell in love with the sport, it was the bike on which I had my first crash and it was the bike on which I honed my wrenching skills.

After a couple of seasons, however, I wanted something more, I wanted carbon. I heard it was more shock-absorbent, stiffer (though I still didn’t have a clear understanding of exactly what “stiffer” meant) and a more comfortable ride. So I began hunting for a frame online until the 2008 Orbea Onix caught my eye. I built it up with Dura-Ace, Nokon cables, carbon cranks and as much bling as I could afford at the time, thinking it would make me go faster. It took me months to get all the components, as I was trying to find deals on everything that went on that bike. To this day, it is my most frequently ridden bike and I love riding it.

At the time when I built it, I was happy with it, but I felt that as I put more miles on it, as I become better, fitter and a more sophisticated cyclist (whatever that means), I would want something better, something new, something different, perhaps something to make me even faster. But recently, I came to realize that in fact, my thoughts on this topic are moving into a totally different direction.

The more I ride, the more I race and the fitter I get, the less I care about what I’m actually riding. With each passing day, I’m becoming more and more convinced that what I ride has absolutely no effect on how much I enjoy the actual process of riding my bike.

I ride for fun, and I race for fun, and no amount of money, carbon, titanium or anything else will make a ride more fun. The only thing that makes a ride more fun is having the fitness level to be able to do it, to hang in there. That’s what really matters – the right leg, the left leg and the engine. The rest, it doesn’t really matter.

I think there are two schools of thought with regard to bicycle riding and racing. One the one side, there are cyclists who will spend as much money as they possibly can afford to make their bike more aero, lighter, stiffer, you name it, to improve their performance. On the other side, there are cyclists who will train harder every single day to improve their performance regardless of what they ride. The two schools of thought clearly intersect because without training, a superlight bike won’t serve its purpose. But just because both sides of the issue are in play, doesn’t mean that one can’t predominate, and it often does.

For example, I’ve sworn off buying components because I think they will improve my performance or will make me faster. Yeah, there are things I’ve considered, like oval chainrings most recently, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel that I’m at a level where that will make a dramatic change in my performance. When something breaks, I’ll replace it with a part that will work and will be reasonably priced, regardless of whether it’s a few grams heavier – it just has to do its job well.

I think this philosophy is circular. It starts with a total newbie, untrained and just entering the cycling world. This individual is ready to throw money at a bike just to make it faster because it is a quicker gain of performance (and arguably easier) than training. This is a good description of me when I was going from my Fuji to my Orbea.

As I became more experienced and fitter, I continued to move along the circle and stopped thinking about the fact that the guy next to me in a race is riding a Specialized that might be 2lbs lighter, or that the guy I’m racing in a TT has the Shiv when I’m on a mid-last-decade Airborne. I know that if I need to be competitive, the first thing I need to do is train and change my body, and when I’ve exhausted the levels to which I can bring my fitness - meaning I’m as fit as I can possibly be at my age – perhaps then I will once again consider “buying watts.” But I’m very far off that target right now.

Which brings me to the closure of the circle – professional riders. These are guys who have arguably done (I’m not getting into a doping discussion here) what they can to make their bodies perform at the highest possible level and when seconds are at stake, it may matter what bike they ride or what componentry they use. But even those riders never lose sight of the fact that their bodies are far more important then the machines they ride. Even though as professionals, they often need to have the best tools available to them to do their job well.

As far as race performance goes for me right now, it doesn’t really matter what I ride, it is first and foremost about fitness - that's what really matters! 

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