"The guys that do best are the ones who know how they're finding the next step, even if they don't know what it is yet."
more years ago than i care to remember, when i had yet to adopt the way of steve jobs, i bought myself a computer that i might further my budding career as a graphic artist. since doing so would undoubtedly require the ability to design booklets, leaflets, programmes and the like, i acquired a copy of what was once known as aldus pagemaker, subsequently purchased by adobe and re-named accordingly.
though i had some faith in my abilities with pen, ink and occasionally gouache, computers were a whole different kettle of green tea. i wasn't quite incapable in the pixel department, but there were arcane aspects of pagemaker with which i was less than familiar, ultimately entailing a phone call to adobe customer support. in an effort to be cruel to be kind, the fellow to whom i spoke, after sorting out my miscomprehension, pointed out that i was about to head down an electronic road for which there was likely no end in sight. the sooner i recognised this, he went on, the better equipped i'd be to deal with the consequences.
only partly chastened by this mild reprimand, i took his advice, which, over the years, has proved more correct than he likely knew at the time.
michael hutchinson is a very fast man on a bike, decidely quicker than most of us, but one exhibiting what most would class as possibly an unhealthy degree of obsessive compulsive disorder. what could be offered as his saving grace is that he seems to be as aware of this as you will be by the time you finish reading faster. thankfully, in the light of the complex science involved in many of the chapters, michael is also a rather humorous fellow, rescuing what could have easily become a densely written scientific treatise appealing to the few rather than the many.
the obsessive part parallels that alluded to in my opening paragraphs; the more you know, the more you want to (need to) know. and the faster this knowledge might make you on the bike, the more compulsive the quest to find out if there is more out there in the big bad world that could improve on even that. michael introduces the book in a chapter entitled an accidental athlete by admitting to having spent the better part of his year sleeping in a tent, inside his bedroom.
"I sleep in it because it simulates high altitude. It's the equivalent of 3,500m, further up than Europe's highest mountain pass."
if you have been fortunate enough to read michael's previous book, hello sailor, concerning his life on the open wave, conditioned by an early career as a competitive rower, you will be aware that cycling was not his first choice. in fact, any sort of athletic exertion was never a part of becoming an academic lawyer. "I taught slightly left-wing civil liberties and human rights courses to first-year undergraduates..." during this time he'd begun a light regime of competitive cycling events and discovered he was rather good at it.
fausto coppi's allegedly offered training advice consisted of "ride a bike, ride a bike and ride a bike.", a philosophy i'm more than happy to adopt, but one that simply won't cut the mustard nowadays. the current state of the art with regard to our understanding of human physiology as it relates to sporting endeavour is explained at length in chapter two. if i might at this point quote from an e-mail i received from michael "if you're still kindly disposed towards (the book) after you've read the chapter about molecular biology..."
i didn't study biology even at 'o'-level, so my frame of reference when it comes to reading about the more complex aspects of this branch of science is somewhat lacking. at this point i was grateful that not only is michael hutchinson a man with a healthy sense of humour, but also an accomplished writer. a combination such as this makes wading through thirty pages of relatively complex biological science a far less onerous task than it might at first appear. the author, i might suggest, is faster's secret weapon. though at least partially aimed at others with a similar quest for such advanced knowledge, to maintain even vague notions of appeal to dullards such as myself, there has to be not only a something else, but a very interesting something else. it's a factor that michael has achieved with words to spare.
"The practical upshot of this is that, given the limited supplies of carbohydrate you've got, the faster you're riding, the smaller the fuel tank. I can only assume this is nature's idea of a joke."
the thread running throughout faster is essentially an explanation of why professional riders and serious amateurs are so much faster than the rest of us, more concerned as we are with bicycle trinketry than with words such as mitochondria, pericardium and membrane. it also addresses why the majority are never satisfied; many are simply not happy to live with what they've got. though there may well be genetic factors preventing the acquisition of even more speed, few will rest comfortably in such knowledge. there has to be something else out there that hasn't been fully explored.
so, if you're you and me, happy with our steel frames, thirty-two spokes and less than featherweight brooks leather saddles, in the words of the shakesperian actor, where's my motivation? plainly this is not required reading; or is it?
it would be an odd book about cycling that failed to make mention of the very vehicle that allows us to travel at our own idea of fast in the first place. interestingly, considering the ludicrous amounts of money invested in bicycle technology, and its seemingly desperate need to identify with formula one motor racing, michael's wry sense of humour has entitled the chapter free speed: the technology
"Like everything else about bike racing, it's a process, not an outcome. There is never a solution, only the next step, one that in time will come to look comically wrong."
aside from the healthy dose of dry humour throughout ("The further you ride, the more you can eat. If you get it right you can eat like a black hole and still end up with the physiology of a hatstand.") faster is another chapter in michael hutchinson's autobiography, and though he might not enjoy the public profile of justin beiber or julio iglesias, we surely ought to be thankful for such mercies. though a science class is rarely the principal objective of finding a suitable cycling book to read in the bath, if all science were presented in this fashion, maybe we'd all beg to differ.
"You were a mesomorph, an ectomorph or an endomorph. A mesomorph looked like Zeus. An ectomorph looked like Michaelangelo's David. An endomorph looked like a beanbag chair with a face and a bad haircut."
ultimately,faster is one of those books that comfortably exists on several levels, each one more or less apparent depending on your own degree of obsessiveness with science, luck, or both in equal quantities. i confess i reached the last chapter without ever feeling i'd been lectured to, but i figure i learned a lot. and i laughed a lot too.
an obsessive read.
faster is published by bloomsbury on 27 march. michael hutchinson will give a talk on the subject of his book on tuesday 6 may at the bloomsbury institue, 50 bedford square, london. tickets are £10 (£6 for students). bloomsbury institute
tuesday 25 march 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................