Professional cycling – life on the sharp end

The last piece I wrote (on my Facebook page) was about saddle adjustment.

I wrote that fore and aft adjustment was important to avoid a whole load of undesirable symptoms.

If the saddle is too far forward you end up sliding onto the nose and taking a lot of pressure on your perineum, and on your hands and arms.  It’s difficult to ride on the drops and to stay aero, and the bike is twitchy and unstable.

So why do a large number of professional cyclists ride like this?

When I started cycling in the late 1980s professionals rode perfectly fitted, made to measure bikes.  Most of them rode low and flat backed, they sat on the back of the saddle and they held their handlebars on the drops, they sat still and went in a straight line however hard they were working.  Most modern pros, in contrast, perch on the front of the saddle, hold onto the hoods, wiggle around all over the road and crash because they lose control on straights and sweeping corners.  Their bikes may be aero but their positions are usually anything but.  If they do hold the drops it’s for a few seconds at a time.

So why is that?  They must think about these things.

I think there are a number of reasons.

In the days of metal frames riders rode bikes that were custom built to their specific geometry – in many cases by their favourite frame builder and decorated to look like their sponsor’s.  Since the advent of moulded, monocoque, carbon-fibre frames every professional cyclist rides an off-the-peg frame provided by his or her sponsor.  Initially this caused a few problems and there were a large number of ultra set back seat posts and custom stems in evidence as riders used to custom geometry tried to get their familiar setup.

Before long, however, new pros coming into the peloton had never known custom geometry having come through the junior ranks on stock frames.

Of course some riders are fine on off the peg frames as the geometry suits their morphology.  However as in most sports certain body shapes are better for cycling than others.  As the legs do the mechanical work and the torso is ballast there’s a natural tendency for top flight cyclists to have relatively long legs, and in particular long femurs.  If you have long femurs you need to sit a long way behind the bottom bracket to avoid sliding forwards when you pedal.  To sit a long way behind the bottom bracket you need a shallow seat angle.  With the seat a long way back you have to be quite lean and flexible to ride with low handlebars.  Whilst most professional cyclists are lean and flexible, most of the people who buy top of the range, off the peg bicycles (i.e. the key market for bike manufacturers) are not.  More likely they’re middle aged men with short legs, long bodies, the flexibility of a desk jockey and, maybe, a bit of extra midriff.

The reality of the bicycle marketplace is not that the MAMILs ride the pros’ bikes, but vice versa.

So why doesn’t it matter?  Surely performance is everything.

What matters is performing in professional bike races …and there are a few factors that make professional bike racing quite different from any other form of bike racing – or any other form of cycling.  And also quite different from what it was just fifteen or twenty years ago.

Nowadays there is simply no requirement to time trial on a road bike.  This once essential requirement, to be able to break away and ride solo for a long time, is a dying art.

‘Thanks’ to radios, television in the team cars and GPS timing, professional cycling is a numbers game:  times, distances, numbers of riders, power.  The team mangers have all the information that they need to control the racing.  Only the weather is beyond their control.  Interesting things happen on wet and windy days.

Yes, but the riders still have to go fast for a long time!  Surely a more comfortable, stable, aerodynamic position would still be better…

I think so, and indeed there are still a few riders in the peloton who ride ‘on the back of the saddle’:  Vincenzo Nibali, Jasper Stuyven, Greg Van Avemaet, Mikal Kwiatkowski, Amy Pieters and Luis Leon Sanchez to name a few.  However the on-the-nose position is pretty powerful – and in the world of pro cycling power counts.  Two of the key requirements are to be able get up gentle hills REALLY fast and to bridge gaps quickly – both of which require immense power.

In the days before power meters cyclists paid a lot of attention to their training speed.  Staying low made a big difference.  These days they look at their power.

Other key requirements for professional cycling include lighting fast reactions, nerves of steel, a high pain threshold and a burning desire to be successful.  They can cope with discomfort and twitchy bikes, and think of crashing is an occupational hazard.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to.

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