by Bart Egnal
In one memorable scene in Gerraint Thomas’s book, The World According to G , he describes training on Tenerife with his Sky teammates. After a hard day doing interval training, riding up and down a volcano, he and his teammates spin back to the hotel, passing by tourists having pizza and beer on a patio. Longingly, the riders stare at the club riders tucking into their carb-heavy meals after a day of riding. The pros dream of the day when they can retire and do the same. Thomas’s book is filled with such anecdotes, all of which drive home the point that to be competitive as a pro, you wage a constant battle of the bulge.
This focus on weight makes sense: when the road goes up, the draft’s effect is limited and unwanted pounds act as anchors, dragging you to the back of the bunch, and then out the back. That’s why for pros, figuring out how to train and keep weight off seems to be as important a skill as moving up in the bunch. (Remember Tyler Hamilton’s suggestion to chase sleeping pills with lots of fizzy water after a ride to keep from snacking before dinner?)
But what doesn’t make sense is that club racers, many of whom I race with, seem to share this same obsession. And I’m not just talking about getting a lighter bike – the very definition of diminishing returns – I’m talking about the agonizing pursuit of a smaller waistline in the name of performance.
Here are things I’ve heard (or maybe at times, even said myself) on group rides: “I need to drop 15 lb. before race season!” “I’ve cut booze out in the months leading up to the provincial race series,” “My secret is to go to bed hungry and the weight just drops off.” Now, if you’ve also been known to indulge in such aspirational thinking about your size, take a deep breath and say the following with me: “IT DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL!”
Today I live in a flat province, Ontario, and so do the people I race with. Blue “Mountain” boasts a whopping 452 m of elevation. Yet even this HC (hors catégorie, for those of you new to the WorldTour), epic col does not feature in any sort of provincial race, although, in 2015, the hilly Grey County road race has become a qualifier for the amateur world championships. The hilliest climb of the O-Cup season is the Effingham hill, and it ascends a steep but short 60 m. For the past few years, the finish hasn’t even been at the top of the climb.
It’s not like my old crew in Vancouver is racing up Mount Seymour or Cypress. Oh no. The majority of the road-race circuit takes place in the great plains of Langley, where the climbs are similarly brief and race fitness trumps being wafer-thin. Just grit your teeth up the 1.3-km climb of 3.3 per cent on the Aldergrove race course and you’ll be fine – assuming you did your interval training over the winter, that is.
Remember: in short climbs, losing weight doesn’t make much difference for your climbing speed. In Jim Gourley’s book Faster , the author looks at how fast you go uphill on a 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-lb. bike. His conclusion: a bike that is 2 or 3 lb. lighter will not make you significantly faster on a short climb.
Sure, if you’re over the weight limit of your carbon wheels, it may be worth skipping a few brewskies and doughnuts. But if you’re already at a healthy, but not Froome-like, size, you can quickly gain much more speed by focusing on aerodynamics. Racing in a masters category? Wear a skinsuit in the race. The aerodynamic gains will vastly outpace anything you’d get from being 5 lb. lighter. Plus, everyone knows that the opposite sex digs body-hugging Lycra, right? (That’s what I keep telling my wife at least.)
But most important, there’s no pro deal coming. We are amateurs – passionate, committed amateurs. For those of us who race the provincial circuit, it’s unlikely that we’ll be getting a phone call from Cannondale’s general manager Jonathan Vaughters any time soon.
How has this epiphany shaped my cycling? I try to enjoy the sport without having it become an obsessive, all-consuming lifestyle in which my eating habits annoy my family and those around me as I pursue a fruitless quest for marginal gains.
So take my advice: not only will you go just as fast, you’ll enjoy that extra croissant more than you enjoy being “race weight.” Make pastry and espresso mandatory additions every long ride. You may not fly up that Cat. 7 climb quite as fast, but you’ll be happier when you crest the top.