When my mind, body and performance told me that my racing days had stuttered to an end I reluctantly accepted the inevitable decline. If never a star performer, cycling had dominated my life during those years and still has influence, if in a different way. The bicycle has become part of my life rather than my life, something that previously defined me.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to start again. Advances in knowledge of the human body and training to ever greater athletic performance means that, by trickle-down process, the club level performer can benefit. However, I missed all that. Power cranks, Strava and bespoke training delivered by people with impressive-sounding degrees came at the end of my (amateur) career. Might I have been a better bike racer with all this modern stuff? Perhaps, but who knows? If a little stronger and fitter, maybe my results would have been the same in comparison to my actual achievements owing to others benefitting from the same sports science as myself.
Dr C.R. Woodard, a regular contributor to Cycling, wrote a seminal little book called Scientific Training for Cycling. I had a copy as a schoolboy in the early sixties. He set down some simple principles to guide the aspiring racer from the largely haphazard training of the time to something more structured. Looking at the book now, he was close to the mark – a simple lifestyle, meticulous training, sensible diet and balanced exercises – and, if not scientific in quite the way recognised today, it was going in the right direction.
My early ideas on training came by osmosis from club mates and reading about what the stars of the day did, or claimed that they did. Charles Pélissier ran the training camp sponsored by derailleur maker, Simplex, in Monaco, attended by Tom Simpson and Shay Elliott amongst many others who made successful professional careers. My copy of the thoughts of the great champion on training published by Simplex became dog-eared owing to much handling.
Gradually, my thinking crystallised into what was best for me after much trial and error. However, cycling training books started to appear in abundance during the nineties and I just had to read them - a bad move. Everything became confusing with this star or that star offering different methodologies, trying to put across a unique selling point that would set their book apart from others. Eventually, almost every training book on my bookshelf disappeared in an almost ritualistic act of destruction. That is, apart from a couple that survived for nostalgic reasons. A cathartic feeling swept over me with this wilful, expensive, act.
But old habits die hard and I am unable to keep my nose out of cycling magazines. However, their tendency to write sometimes in academic terms suggesting the downloading of data from sources not designed for the non-professional’s eye, is clinical and cold.
Cycling has always carried a romance that attracted me in the first place. Unfortunately, the sheer enjoyment of riding a bike for its own sake has become uncool. Technology has overcome natural talent, the body regarded as a machine.
Eddy Merckx is the best racer ever. With well over 500 victories it is an assertion difficult to challenge. Merckx was exceptional but he stifled racing during his career with an insatiable desire to win. However, and I admit to a selective view, the title of the greatest cyclist ever does not belong to him. Fausto Coppi is the man owing to his innovation and flair. Guided by his trainer, Cavanna, he really made things happen in cycling, the most pitiless of sports, and socially in being the touchstone of Italian rebirth after the war.
Here is an example of romance as distinct from the corporate feel and lack of spontaneity of contemporary cycling. In 1946 Coppi wanted to win Milan-San Remo. Following several thousand kilometres in training Cavanna had him riding 250 kilometre sessions to complete his preparation. For the first 150 kilometres he would ride alone at a brisk pace but not so fast as to exhaust himself. A number of Cavanna’s amateur riders would join Coppi at this point, their job to attack him continuously for the final 100 kilometres whilst he had to respond to each attack. Cavanna’s orderly method relied on knowledge and experience. No one understood Coppi better than Cavanna and Coppi won La Classicissima by 14 minutes from Lucien Teisseire. Romance captured and stimulated my love of cycling. It has never gone away.