Ok, here’s the thing: In light of recent—and by recent I mean like the last ten years—allegations, admissions and proof of doping among the sport’s highest (and even local) levels, I just wanted to get a few of the lessons, and values that I’ve come upon along my journey from recreational cyclist to “elite bike racer,” out in the open.
I have never taken, and will never take, performance-enhancing substances; unless of course you count my own tears of pain or the bitter taste of defeat as performance enhancing. Defeat has an unlimited amount of potential as a performance enhancer, although it is often administered at the hands of cold, calculating practitioners, with little to no advice on proper administration. In countless races as an aspiring Cat 4 through 1 I wondered what the secret could be. Little did I know I was being dosed with the very tool I would need to succeed. Through years of careful observation I have learned how to administer this enhancement to myself and others and am quite proud of the achievement. Defeat is a performance enhancing substance if I’ve ever heard of one, and the cold, hard, and unfiltered truth is this: everyone is doing it.
Success in cycling is determined to great extent by genetics. However, if my own flailing attempts to battle the forces of nature and evolution can teach us only one thing, it is that perseverance and mental fortitude can count for a lot. Remember that time that Tyler Hamilton ground his teeth down riding the Tour with a broken collar bone? Oh wait, he was doped, huh? All right, remember that time that Vinokourov was attacking again, and again and again like some sort of hell-bent energizer bunny…oh, yeah that’s right, never mind. Well, remember that time you were on your last group ride and you had to win the Strava battle for the KOM at the end of that “sick epic” ride and you were so cracked but you rode until the world was getting dark and you weren’t sure what day it was, just to win an arbitrary and sort of imaginary race? Yeah, that’s what I thought; so screw those other guys and keep banging your head against that wall until it falls down.
In the words of the mediocre 90’s pop-punk band, Lit, I am “My own worst enemy”, and so are you. See, you think the key to success in cycling is training hard and taking easy recovery days, right? Wrong. It’s mental toughness and the ability to take discomfort and monotony with the composure of a Buddhist Monk. That and the ability to occupy yourself in airports and hotel rooms for long periods of time with little to nothing to do…which is why, I am told, Twitter was created. So, in preparation for the hardships and discomfort of this coming season, I have taken to turning the heat down to sub-arctic levels, eating the same breakfast every single day (forever), and have learned to pretend to like updating my Facebook status. I have also enlisted the support of my cat in the weight loss department by encouraging his licking of each and every cookie in the package so that I won’t actually eat them. Eventually through this series of negative reinforcement wherein I spend money on sweets only to have them ruined by my cat, I will eventually just stop buying the damn cookies in the first place. You see, cycling is a game where the strongest doesn’t always win, but the smartest often does. So this season I’ve decided to forgo my, “if you’re going to be dumb you’d better be strong” philosophy for a more elevated form of gamesmanship. I mean, if I can convince myself that I like social media and rice cakes, I am capable of anything.
A good friend and a great team director once told me that when you attack, you don’t look back, you just commit. Otherwise, you shouldn’t have gone in the first place. For example, the yardstick of hardness, Fabian Cancellara, attacked to win Paris-Roubaix 50-something kilos out, and didn’t turn around until he was giving a urine sample at the finish. So, despite the one obvious exception of the most famous of all “looks” between Lance and Ulrich, anytime you turn around to look at your opponents before attacking is lame…just saying. Incidentally, the only reason it was cool when Lance did it was because he was one hundred percent confident that he was about to drop everyone in the race. Now, I have no desire to open up the bowels of the Internet forums to a discussion of the Texan’s moral character. Suffice it to say that when you look back before attacking in a race, on a group ride, on the bike path-you just piss everyone off and make them want to chase you down harder. So if you’re feeling lucky, go for it, but they’ll thank you ahead of time for the heads-up, and make sure to do the other textbook hard-ass move, and that is to not even look at you when they come by.
It’s an indisputable and scientifically proven fact that bright shoes and riding without gloves make you faster and harder. Exhibit “A” from my own experience: This cross season was going splendidly while my canary yellow Mavic shoes shone with brilliance thanks to diligent post-race washings. It was like every time I looked down in a race I couldn’t help but have my mood buoyed by the sheer loudness of my shoes. How could I not ride fast with shoes that nice? But sadly, as the season wore on and life got more hectic, the shoes got dirtier and soon were sort of an off yellow dinge. Straight away my cross season went similarly pallid and I was left feeling, much as my shoes looked, bedraggled and a little worse for wear. I could barely keep the rubber side down, let alone win a race. Obviously, not wearing gloves is in a similar vein of the hard credo. As is evidenced by any number of bad-ass victories by notable cycling luminaries of hardness like Tim Johnson, Jens Voigt et all, who remembers a podium shot with gloves on? Besides, the Zen experience of losing the feeling in one’s digits only harkens back to my previous point about the discomfort and pain inherent in cycling. Which is why I have my feet in a bucket of ice water while I write this. And the window open. And there is a dragon. Ok, I lied about the dragon.
There is a myth that being good in cycling requires you to defer to one genre, one discipline, one aspect of the sport. Either you race road, or mountain, or track; maybe you do one of those and dabble in cross. Surely you can’t do more than two and maintain the level of specificity needed for today’s elites. Well, I cry bull. In defense of my proclamation, I point to the hardest of hardmen, Eddy Merckx, who raced on the road, the track, and the cross bike pretty much year round. Not only did he “race” at all these things, he crushed and won and stole people’s souls in all these disciplines. I am sure that had mountain biking been around, he would have rocked that, too. In more contemporary cycling I reference Sven Nys who arbitrarily wins on the road and the mountain bike while preparing for domination of his nation’s national pastime—cyclocross. So I scoff at the “off season” and tune up all three of my weapons..err bikes, and prepare for a full frontal assault of anything that requires two wheels. Except, of course bike-polo, I mean, really? [Editor’s note: Dan Timmerman plays bike polo. Just saying. ]
My final point, for today, is probably going to run me awry with a certain crowd, but so it goes when one offers a diatribe: I have many friends who wear scarves, although I consider them a decadent over-indulgence. I have many friends who ride bicycles, obviously. Sadly, I have some friends who mix the two. To those of you who do, I don’t judge you per se, but I do have a hard time taking you seriously when you ride by me on the road. See, the thing is, I have ridden many a winter in some bitter-ass cold upstate NY and New England winters. I have ridden in temps that froze my bottles in minutes and gave me frost nip in unmentionable areas. But despite all of that, I have never, ever, had the need or desire to cover my face with a decorative piece of embroidered, knit, or woven tapestry so called a “scarf”. This is because I take my cycling seriously, although I grant that perhaps if I was on a casual stroll to the coffee shop, and my name was Ernest Shackelton, and I was on the freaking North Pole, then I might have need of a fleece Balaclava. But still not a scarf.
So there you have it. I have never taken performance-enhancing substances, and I will never wear a scarf. You can all count on me for that.