When a cyclist’s elastic snaps

More about the beautiful machine and those who ride it

Graeme Fife has the ability to draft pithy paragraphs that describe some of the traits of mind and character of people like me, people for whom the bicycle is a metaphor that reveals character. In addition to the one I quoted in an earlier review of this book, four more deserve attention.

This first of these paragraphs states a characteristic of older cyclists: that even though we are slower than we used to be we still push as hard as we ever did. In the middle of the paragraph, however, Fife refers to a physical frontier that some people cross: the time when “the elastic snaps” and we have to stop. Fife says that for the cyclist this frontier is physical, not mental, implying that in our minds we would keep pushing even though our bodies won’t let us. As I turn eighty, however, I am experiencing what may be a mental frontier: that the desire to keep pushing (on the bicycle and in other aspects of life) is diminishing. And the possibility of crossing this mental frontier leaves me anxious.

To an outsider, it may all seem a bit silly, childish, unnecessary. Well, so what? We thrive on pushing ourselves to the limit and as far beyond as the limit is elastic and will give. When the elastic will give no more and snaps, we stop, that’s all, we have to stop, there is no choice, and the day we stop pushing ourselves we have crossed forever a frontier which only physical failing can keep at a distance, not mental. The great running trainer (of Herb Elliott et al.) Percy Cerutti had his men running up and down loose sand dunes, for stamina. He joined them, even in his 70s, and was wont to say: “You may go faster than me but you won’t go harder.” (p. 327)

This next paragraph continues the discussion of going harder, ever harder. Even when one considers significant gearing down, “the sense of gratitude that we can still go at all” is very important. This condition I hope never to lose.

That in my view, is what we’re here for: to go harder, ever harder. There is, too, the uncomplicated sense of gratitude that we can still go at all. For, nothing much gets done in the comfort zone. Risk, chance, exploration of what others timidly call impossible, are the gearing ratios of our momentum” (327).

I agree with Fife’s assertion, in his third paragraph that for some of us cycling is an obsession. Relatively benign, I hope, but the obsessive quality is there.

And saying that Richard [a friend of the author’s] is not a cyclist is no disparagement, simply that in his enjoyment of the bike there is no trace of obsession, and it is obsession, of whatever intensity, which defines us. Our life embraces the bike—the idea of it, the fact of it, the significance of it, the freedom it imparts, the joy, the pain, the inexhaustible delight—and without the bike the life would be, in an essential element, incomplete. That is cyclist. (p. 332)

I agree with one other observation that Fife offers his readers: that the bicycle is a beautiful machine. An even nicer adjective was proposed by S. S. Wilson in an essay published in Scientific American (March 1973). Wilson describes the bicycle as “the most benevolent of machines.” In the paragraph below, Fife makes one other observation that should lead us all to shout our approval as he describes the human body as an even more wonderful machine, driven by an even more wonderful computer.

Top men in the Tour de France, club riders elite and lower rank, club time-trial casuals, advocates of the beautiful machine of all stripes,…we all ride the same fragile machine, and its rhythm and simplicity are closer to the beat of our heart than can be any more powerful, engine-driven conveyance. For the beautiful machine is driven by another beautiful machine, the human body, an engine controlled by the most complex computer ever created: the mortal brain and the immortal spirit. (p. 299)


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