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Are we cycling or just chasing numbers?

Updated: May 2

It’s not exactly a shock admission that I like performance data. I always have. My first two bike races were about a fortnight apart. They were both time trials, so I spent most of the intervening time looking at the split times and the margins to other riders in the first ride, trying to work out what they were doing differently and what I could learn from it. I’ve never really stopped.

There are plenty of people who are better and more detailed in their analysis than I am, but it was still the cornerstone of my racing. The questions were always, what’s bad, and how do I improve it? And of course what’s good, and how do I improve it as well?

It isn’t a view with universal support. Not long ago, sprinter Sam Bennett said in an interview that, “It [cycling] has gone so scientific now that I feel that I’m not riding a bike anymore, I’m often just chasing numbers.”

It’s a little unfair to pick on Sam, he’s just the guy that mentioned it most recently. I’d also be pretty confident that as a very successful World Tour pro, he’s well aware of where he’d be finishing in races if he’d ignored the numbers for a whole career. But I understand what he means – it’s almost an aesthetic thing, about how you want to ride a bike. If the first thing you loved about cycling was simply that feeling of flying, you might reckon that it’s not something that’s enhanced by downloading the ride afterwards and going through it with your coach.

I’ve always looked at it a little differently. I love that feeling as well, and I think the most essential part of it is the sheer efficiency. Just how well does a bike translate the puny amount of power that a human can produce into speed?

And I tend to go from there to wanting to know how I can do this as efficiently as possible. One of the most fascinating things I ever did on a bike was the early version of velodrome testing. It’s something, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, that’s got a lot more refined, but the basics are the same. If I rode as consistently as I could, lap after lap, I could see from my coach’s timing feedback that if I pulled my elbows in I went a tenth of a second a lap faster. If I tucked my head down, another tenth. Stretch out on the bike, and the same again.

It was so simple. I could just see in real time how much difference things made. I would download the data files and do the maths. But there was a more direct education in the way you could change something and in 30 seconds see what effect it had on how fast you went. “Scientific” cycling is just more sophisticated versions of the same thing.

What’s certainly true is that it can be overwhelming if you’re presented with too much of it at once. No matter how switched on you are as a rider, you can only process so much. Once or twice I’ve seen riders learn for the first 30 minutes of a testing session, and unlearn for the next two hours.

Riders do better if they’re properly involved in the process. Wind tunnels in particular carry the risk that the aerodynamics and coaching staff in the control room make the decisions while the rider is still in the tunnel. Then the rider just gets told bluntly what to try next. I’ve experienced it as a rider, and as a coach I’ve been also guilty of this once or twice – especially when time is running short at the end of the session and the testing up to that point has raised more questions than answers. You’re scrabbling to make someone faster, but not really taking them along with you.

Usually the more closely a rider is involved, the more they understand what’s important and what’s not. And, unsurprisingly, the better they’re able to apply it in the real world. If you can see, as I could in those early track sessions, exactly how much difference a body position or a hand position makes, and that difference is expressed in something that makes sense, like watts, or speeds, or in time or distance saved, then you properly understand what’s happening.

There are time trial riders who will alter their body position at different speeds, as the compromise between power and aerodynamics changes. That only happens effectively when a rider understands it for themselves.

There’s another issue in here as well. That’s simply to ask what the alternative is? You can’t take the “science” away again because it’s not stuff, it’s knowledge. We know you can’t take it away because our governing body, the UCI, has tried – most notably with the Athletes’ Hour-Record of the 2000s, which attempted to wind the technology back to the 1960s and 70s. Riders had to use a dropped bar track bike with spoked wheels, no aero helmet, and so on.

What they couldn’t do was take away the testing processes. Athletes’ Hour bikes and rider positions were far faster than their 1970s equivalent because by the 2000s we knew more about the process of improving any set up and had better ways to measure the things that mattered.

A real positive is that it’s become much easier, and much cheaper, to find things out for yourself. My first power meter cost £2500, in 2002. (Something around £3750 today.) It was difficult to use and not as reliable as you’d like. You can do a lot better for a few hundred pounds today, and you can get much more advanced tools than just a power meter. If you take your time you can learn a huge amount about what makes you work on a bike, even with no expert input at all.

If you’re racing, clearly you have to take it seriously. Whether you like it or not, you can’t ignore it. But I think the same goes for any riding. Put simply, why would you not want to do it better?


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