I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.
25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.
Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.
It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.
Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.
Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)
I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.
Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.
Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.
Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.
(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)
At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.
But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.