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Cycling: Amateurs & Professionals

May 13, 2011

In the wake of Weylandt’s crash at the Giro, the Cycling Tips blog posted a thought-provoking piece on the dangers of professional cycling. The essay concludes with:

As we saw yesterday, it doesn’t take dangerous roads and poor conditions to end in tragedy. Cycling fans love to see a good crash, but when you see a rider laying helplessly on the road (think of the images of Jens Voigt in 2009) it’s not so entertaining anymore. I think we should pay tribute to these athletes who risk their health and lives every time they go out and race for our entertainment and get paid very little for doing it.

Which got me to thinking again about the risks inherent in cycling. I don’t look forward to watching crashes. While my heart rate climbs watching a good sprint finish, it’s the eagerness of watching the trains set up their sprinters and then the all-out drive to the line. And I’ll cheer for the breakaway to stay away. But I mainly love watching elite riders climb. So much excitement and drama: who has the legs? Who has the heart and will? This is entertainment and it is dangerous. Riding daily across more kilometers than I’ll typically manage in a week is hardly controlled conditions, which can reduce the amount of risk posed to professional cyclists. But they’re pros, right?

The difference between a professional and an amateur is repetition. DIY projects around the house are undertaken once; it’s probably generous to refer to myself as an amateur in this regard. A professional electrician, for example, repeats the same work over and over again, thereby achieving a certain facility with the task. It’s the same with cycling. Professional riders put in thousands of kilometers of training and then thousands more over the course of the season. They know how to train properly and great attention is taken to an infinite number of minute details that will enhance their performance, but in the strictest sense it simply comes down to them riding more.

But there’s also this. While more training hours optimizes fitness levels, bike handling skills, etc., it also increases expectations. While an amateur cyclist or racer might be disappointed with a poor performance or result, for the professional this is work and livelihood. As a result, greater risks are an intrinsic part of the professional cyclist’s distinction from the average rider or fan. Among the Velominati’s Rules, there is the following assertion:

RULE 64: Cornering confidence generally increases with time and experience.   This pattern continues until it falls sharply and suddenly.
Add in an earlier rule:
RULE 10: It never gets easier, you just go faster.
While professional riders are by definition more experienced bike handlers, one might assume that cornering confidence continues to push the limits. But physics has its own laws that even the world’s best cyclists are unable to overcome. I don’t mean to turn this into an apology for the foolhardy, but rather to note that the pressure to perform and confidence in their trade and individual skills can exacerbate the risk of crashing.
There’s also a curious contradiction to the quantity breeds quality argument, especially when it comes to the manner in which professionals ply their trade and amateurs enjoy their sport. I ride predominantly from home. My routes typically start and finish in my driveway. I am fortunate to have a number of options in terms of loops and rides, but I know my roads fairly well. I can attack my local descents, because I have become familiar with the nuances of its turns; or I can be a little cautious or pick a particular line to avoid potholes I know are there. While professional riders will often do reconnaissance rides in anticipation of key races—and are likely quick studies—they’re also quite frequently “riding blind.” On most roads, this hardly matters, but sometimes a turn or a wall or some deviation in the pavement can pose a problem. And when speed and risk are already high, this can be dangerous.

Lest this blog start to turn into a sobering argument against cycling or some clarion call for some vague notion of safer riding conditions, let me stress that I live very firmly on the amateur side of this conversation. You could spot the difference between me and a professional cyclist immediately. Not just kit, bike, aura, sun tan, and the fact that I outweigh most cyclists by a healthy margin, but it also comes back to their capacity to assess risk and set aside the fear; I’ll need to unpackage fear in a future post, but it is something that impedes my riding development and improvement while simultaneously serving as an exhilarating aspect of the experience. Another paradox…
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