On Going Fast

As I was combing through some of biking-related headlines the other day, I happened across Levi Leipheimer’s victory (over Astana teammate Alberto Contador) in the time trial stage of the Castilla y Leon. The course was a flat but windy 28.2 km (about 17.5 miles) stretch of road. Levi won the stage in 33:17, giving him an average speed of 50.8 kph — that’s 31.5 miles per hour.

Sweet Jesus that’s fast.

If you don’t think so, find yourself a cycling computer (or get yourself a GPS unit/iphone app), find the flattest stretch of road you can and pedal as hard as you can. You may hit 20, 25 or even 30, but as you do this, pay attention to how your body feels (likely not good). Feel the wind pushing back against you. Realize that any minor mistake or overcorrection means that you will be dining on a mouthful of pavement. And remember it has only been ten seconds.

Riding a bike that far and that fast, if nothing else, takes a giant set of marbles.

The appeal of the time trial speaks to the fact that there’s something alluring about speed that is deeply ingrained in our culture — it’s the reason NASCAR races persist in their popularity and why we all watched Phelps chase gold in Beijing.

As Benjamin Barber argues in his (extremely interesting) book, Consumed, this obsession with “fast” speaks to a growing impatience in our society, and on some level I agree with that — we have no patience for things that should be slow, like food or classic novels. But on the other hand, some things are better fast, and cycling is one of those. The quest for speed represents a constant evolution in the fight against physics, against mechanics, and against ourselves. Time trials are about the pushing of boundaries and limits, about doing battle with time itself. Since we can never control time, we might as well see how little of it we need.

It’s why bikes once made of steel are now made of cabon fiber, why we wear ridiculous, skintight clothing and why professional cyclists live lives of such discipline — because every cog in the machine counts when you’re counting fractions of a second. I once read in an interview with Lance Armstorng, back in his Tour de France glory days, that during the long training/racing season, running from March to October, that he allowed himself to have two Amber Bock beers — two. I’ve had two beers in the course of writing this.

The speed of cycling in general, and the human-induced bombast of the time trial in particular, are what keep me coming back to the sport. It reduces cycling to its purest form, and one of the world’s most basic narratives: man versus self. It is a flat road, a sub-15 pound bike and your innermost demons. And as an aspiring writer, I find those to be the most thrilling, revealing stories of all.

[closing note: I know it gets really old converting metric measurements to American units, as I did in the first paragraph, but it’s a reality of a sport that remains the second most popular sport in the world, behind soccer. We did not invent this, and we do not control it. Deal.]

[Levi Leipheimer defeats teammate Contador to win the Castilla y Leon time trial, via VeloNews]


2 Responses to “On Going Fast”

  1. 1 nick
    March 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    brad is ordering a rig from http://www.republicbike.com, we’ll have to set up a review. what happened to that article?

  2. March 26, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Awesome! I’m excited to check it out — you can find the link in the “Recession Edition” Link Rodeo in the Archives (or search). Let me know when it’s in!

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