Cheating?

Hiiiiiigh tech

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Every time I buy a new bike it’s a little lighter than the last one. Paying for less carbon? Who’d a thought?

The exercise of bicycle upgrading, because it’s always an upgrade, lends itself to a disturbing question. Is it cheating?

Upgrades mean buying speed that people with less money can’t afford. It doesn’t make me better intrinsically, just (a tiny bit) faster. What’s the difference between buying that kind of speed and buying drugs to go faster? A friend here in the South Bay has an 8-lb. bike and he goes uphill very quickly. When you’re on his wheel gasping for air, it’s hard not to wonder why you shouldn’t cover the differential with drugs or a motor. Is there an ethical difference?

A guy I have a lot of respect for, an F8U fighter pilot who now competes in the “mature” 85-89 tri-dork category, emphatically says there is. “Yes, there is an ethical difference. We have rules for competition and WADA has a list of substances and methods that are prohibited.” He adds, “In parallel we have rules for bicycle technology.”

His argument is that fair competition is what’s in the rules. Follow them and you’re playing fair. Issues of price and cost and wealth? Why stop there? In order to have a truly level playing field we’d have to also consider limits on training so that people with greater financial constraints who have to work longer hours aren’t handicapped vis-a-vis the wealthy semi-retiree.

The problem of course is that he’s limiting the discussion to organized competitions that follow the WADA code. Our local group rides, as far as I know … don’t.

I don’t agree that the issue of buying faster stuff or using drugs is one to be decided by rules. I think the resolution lies with what each person is trying to do within the context of the activity. For example, even though there are no rules against it, using Viagra to enhance sexual performance doesn’t appeal to me. What my body is capable of, or not capable of, is enough. If the other person is unhappy, well, she has options that, as the Bob Seger song says, “Don’t include me.”

Although I’m not 85, I have been racing sanctioned road races for the entirety of my adult life, have been first a (very) few times, and have seen that rules don’t provide much guidance. They have always been broken with impunity and easily so, and now they are rendered meaningless by available drug and equipment technology, all easily concealed, or worse, allowed by the rules.

So the question is “What are you in it for?” Simply speed? Or simply going faster than the next person? Neither of those is simple.

I see zero difference between drugs and expensive equipment and private coaching and trust funds and motors in the daily riding of a bicycle. They are all means to an end and they are justified or ruled out according to the end.

In my case the end is silly and, while not simple, not terribly complex either: I want to beat as many people as I can in sanctioned road racing regardless of age or gender using moderately light equipment, electric motors in the form of an e-transmission, healthy diet, about ten hours of riding a week, experience, cunning, and skill. Those last six things receive more than 99 percent of my time and money. They are available to almost anyone, and the cunning/skill departments are still in vast need of improvement.

For me, the benefit to racing is intrinsic and therefore it depends on intrinsic qualities. How tough? How smart? How quick the recovery? How well did you assess the course and the competition? It is sad and empty when any part of my race, or for that matter my ride, boils down to whether or not I tinkered with or purchased a particular piece of equipment. Hence time trialing isn’t really bike racing, at least to me. It’s a complex computation combined with a complex purchasing matrix, with a big dollop of fitness on top. The drama of “machine against the clock” died a long time ago, and aero equipment hasn’t revived it. More and more, it has come to resemble motor sports, where the machine plays a much greater role than the meatbag piloting it.

In my lifetime of racing, this opinion has been the minority view. Most people compete in order to win and that is all. Not winning, more than anything else, is why people quit racing, or why they migrate into categories/events where they “stand a chance of winning.” Absent the victory or at least its promise, racing holds nothing for them intrinsically. Strava and its categories reflect this desire perfectly. I only know a handful of people road racing today who were doing it when I started, although there seems to be no shortage of people who hop in for a season or two until they realize that the ceiling is low and it will never raise much at all.

I accept that people use a completely different recipe and often wholly different ingredients. Some of those people I still beat no matter what the cocktail. Others are far beyond my reach. Still others never were within it. Consumerism and the economics behind developing and selling technology, as well as the amplification of “success” on social media continue the trend of emphasizing the external and demeaning the intrinsic. You can always post a photo of a trick bike, but it’s much harder to capture the satisfaction at finishing 25th in a mind-bendingly tough road race.

My best equipment … wasn’t equipment.

And my best wins … weren’t wins.

END

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