Thursday, September 08, 2016

Speed at all costs

A triathlete friend of mine is making her final campaign at full Iron Man  distance, in November.

Endurance athletics serve a therapeutic purpose for her. She has also worked as a professional trainer and event organizer, because she wants to share the benefits that her obsession has brought her.

For this last big race, she asked me whether she should invest in a state of the art time trial bike. But the budget she set would not get her a bike at the quality level of her venerable Serotta.

The arms race behind the bike race goes unacknowledged.

A lineup of TT bikes featured on illustrates the most evolved wind-cheating machines to enable a well-trained rider to go slightly less pathetically slowly compared to any vehicle people are actually impressed with. An absolute nightmare to work on, these ultra-sophisticated machines will set you back thousands of dollars -- in some cases upwards of $10,000 -- to get the full wind tunnel tested package of aerodynamic benefits. And you will still get dropped by a rusted-out Nissan that burns a quart of oil in 50 miles and costs a third as much. Much less than a third if you bought a really expensive bike. Or some twit with an e-bike will come tooling past you, vaping.

When Greg Lemond unleashed the aero on Laurent Fignon in 1989, it made aero bikes socially acceptable. It launched the movement to quit making bikes that looked like they were made by meticulous artisans and more like something engineered by the military-industrial complex.

At first, aero enhancements consisted of streamlined helmets and removable aero handlebars. Bike frames still had round tubes! And lugs! Rider position made a huge difference, established by the clip-on aero bar.

Soon, of course, bars were specifically designed and bikes were specially constructed to adopt each aerodynamic enhancement allowed by the governing authorities. This was also the age of the triathlon, where very little cycling tradition weighed down the innovators, and a free-spending population of willing test pilots purchased the latest implements to gain whatever advantage they could.

In any arms race, whoever develops a weapon first enjoys a clear advantage. Once everyone has the widget, that becomes the new level playing field, forcing further advancements to gain a new technological edge. At the same time, the old ways have been obliterated. When the competition is unlimited and existential, the rising tide of technology represents advancement for the whole species. This is also true in non-military contexts. Take transportation, for instance. Ships evolved sails. Sailing ships evolved through various shapes, swifter or more efficient for their given task, until powered vessels set a new standard in speed and maneuverability. On roads, the bicycle initiated the age of mass-produced personal transportation, but the automobile and its variants soon eclipsed pedal power.

Since we're only racing against each other on our bikes, we could set the standard anywhere we want. Does it really make a difference if average time trial times are a minute or two faster now than they were 20 years ago? It doesn't make the event any more exciting to watch, just more expensive to conduct. When everyone has only the slickest bike they can afford, the margin of victory could be in the wallet, not in the training, skill, and determination of the athletes. Or, if everyone has equally slick bikes, the equipment disappears from the equation. Everyone could be on Raleigh Choppers, or vintage Schwinn Paramounts.

The time trial position is not comfortable. The bikes are not versatile. Some are more aerodynamic than others, in ways that may be hard to tell by looks or price tag. And, as I said, they're absolute nightmares to work on. Humans have their urge to excel. There are worse things to blow money on than the pursuit of a few seconds over 40 kilometers. But if all the expense is just to be equal, the problem is artificially induced.

Economies run on induced problems. And maybe the aero bike of today will lead to the pedal-powered personal aircraft of tomorrow. I doubt if even that would spawn an industry strong enough to shape whole political systems and the course of nations, the way internal combustion has.

For now, my friend has to make the best of the equipment she has, with a snazzier back wheel and a new aero helmet, because she lacks the coin to place a much heftier bet on a bike that will turn heads in the transition area. The spacelanders
 she'll be sharing the course with present an intimidating army. The ones that live up to their advertising will actually confer an advantage upon their well-funded (or tapped out) riders. How much of an advantage is hard to say. And is it worth it? That's even harder to say. Ten grand for the ephemeral satisfaction of standing on a podium that will be gone forever, ten minutes after the award ceremony? Or maybe just to achieve a personal best time, down in the anonymous wad of barely differentiated finishers? Look! Here comes that vaping guy on the e-bike again.


Steve A said...

When it comes to triathletes, I agree with "The Bike Snob" who opined that SOME triathletes are cyclists, but others merely ride their machines because they don't have a choice in triathlon.

cafiend said...

"Real" cyclists who wish to be competitive in time trials have to submit to the new technology as well.