I Take It Back: Road Cycling Is Not Dead
Gravel may be all the rage, but nothing teaches you more about being a cyclist than riding on the road
As bicycle tires keep getting fatter, more riders keep steering them off-road in search of gravel and adventure, and Lycra gives way to flannel as the performance fabric of choice, it’s tempting to say that good old-fashioned road cycling—a riding style characterized by shaved legs, set jaws, and a general air of humorlessness—is in a supertuck on the descent into total irrelevance. In fact, it’s so tempting, I’ve even said it myself!
If the prospect of road riding’s demise doesn’t fill you with dismay, I can’t say I blame you; certainly there’s much to deride. The Age of the Roadie was a time of high tire pressures and tight sphincters, filled with sexist ads, cheating and dissembly, more sexist ads, and a fixation on the ride quality of carbon fiber that could at times border on the fetishistic. And who can honestly say they’ve been able to peruse “The Rules” in their entirety without being overcome by douchey chills?
Nevertheless, road riding is also steeped in tradition, and in this sense it’s like barn dance. Sure, it may not be for you, but at least it’s good to know there are still people keeping the old ways alive. Furthermore, the fundamentals of road riding can serve you well across all cycling disciplines, which is why it deserves a place on the list of Things That Should Never Be Allowed to Die, along with books made out of paper and manual transmissions in cars. Here are just a few vital lessons about cycling that only good old-fashioned roadiedom can teach you.
Yes, we’re all distancing socially right now, but someday humanity will once again commingle. Unless you plan to consign yourself to a life of riding alone (or worse, doing triathlons), it’s essential to learn how to ride in close proximity to other cyclists safely. Nothing teaches you how to do this more effectively than riding in a tight pack of roadies. Even if you’re not a road racer, sooner or later the opportunity to gain the drafting and social benefits of riding with others—whether it’s in that big gravel epic or just a weekend jaunt with friends—is going to present itself. If you’re properly schooled in pack positioning and paceline etiquette, it’s a lot less likely you’re going to go down, or cause someone else to go down. Indeed, pack riding proficiency is the cycling equivalent of a vaccine: not only can having it protect you, but the more people who have it, the safer we all are.
Nutrition and Hydration
You can read all the fitness articles you want, but the best way to learn about fueling and fluid management is by setting out on long road ride. Sure, this stuff is important for all aspects of cycling, and long rides are in no way unique to road bikes, but the minimalistic nature of road riding means you’ve got to strike a more delicate balance than you do on your fully-loaded bikepacking rig. Eat too little too late and you bonk; gorge yourself on the wrong foods and you’ll cramp up or puke. Furthermore, with only two water bottle cages and no place to store cargo except for your jersey pockets and maybe the elastic band of your shorts, you’ll learn how to carry on board exactly what you need to sustain yourself and nothing more. Think of it this way: there’s driving your SUV to Costco and buying enough groceries for the (perceived) apocalypse, and then there’s walking to the local market with a canvas tote bag and picking up just enough to prepare both you and your partner a lovely dinner. In terms of fueling, road riding is much closer to the minimalist ethos of the latter, only with more energy gel.
Aerodynamics and Economy of Motion
Steve Jobs famously noted that a human on a bicycle is the most efficient form in nature. (“Computers are like a bicycle for our minds,” he then concluded.)
Sure, at first glance a pack of roadies may seem like nothing more than a chain gang toiling away alongside the Highway of Futility, but when you’re part of one you realize it’s a sophisticated organism with a collective consciousness, like a flock of geese or a pack of Juggalos. As road cyclists, by tapping into our innate ability to move fluidly, communicate wordlessly, and above all share our effort by taking turns on the front of the group, we too can ultimately increase our odds of survival by moving swiftly and efficiently through our environment.
Moreover, whether riding alone or with a group, the road cyclist acquires an intimate understanding of the wind and forms a complex relationship with it. No cyclist knows better than the roadie how to use the wind to their advantage, or how to force an opponent into it, or how to cheat it. Indeed, to find a form of locomotion that requires a more profound understanding of the wind than road cycling, you’d have to take up sailing or aviation.
Maybe this is why roadies are so full of hot air.
Bike Fit And Comfort
Proponents of an upright cycling position will often cite road bikes as the epitome of discomfort—and of course they’re absolutely right. Certainly no upright bicycle will position you to cut through the wind as you would on a road or time trial bike, but there’s also no reason to subject yourself to such a position unless you’re in a really big hurry.
That said, even if you’re not a racer, becoming accustomed to a road bike position does have another advantage: if you can get comfortable on a road bike, then you can get comfortable on anything. It’s the same thing with formal wear: some people put on a suit or a gown and they walk around all stiff like they’re in a suit of armor, while others manage to comport themselves with a natural elegance and grace. Figure out how to ride a road bike for a few hours without your lower back hurting and your crotch going numb, and you’ll be squarely in the latter camp.
Road bike tires may be getting wider, but they’re really not that wide. The same people who decry the road bike position also point out the absurdity of riding a bicycle with narrow high-pressure tires that can easily send you flying if you encounter so much as a pebble. At the same time, there’s something to be said for being able to descend at 40 mph on a contact patch the size of an M&M while zipping up your jersey and rummaging around in your back pocket for a CLIF BLOK—especially when you’re also doing it without disc brakes.
Road riding is all about grinding out the miles. No stopping to regroup or admire the scenery, no “safety meetings,” no breaks save for perhaps a quick coffee at the turnaround point or a pee by the side of the road.
Oh sure, you might argue there’s no fun in that either, but there’s plenty of time for that after the ride—after proper cooldown and recovery, of course. But by then you’ll be ready for bed.