The C word: Cycling's essential element.

“The Muur is a rendezvous with your character
 - Eddy Planckaert

At this moment, what matters?
Last month , I posted a 'wee rant', taking a poke at the advent of 'halo bikes,' and their skyrocketing super-premium prices.  It surprisingly spawned exponentially way more traffic to our little wielercafe than any other topic  posted since its inception.  Picked up by a few forums, the debate kept going for quite awhile.

Learned something.  People love to talk about the bike.  And that for many, their top-level bike is it's a sacrifice they're happy to make, a hard-earned possession, and their true passion. Challenge it at your peril! 

Fair enough.   Many who love cycling express that with a real passion for the best cycling technology, and really get joy from it.  Thankfully a high-end bicycle is one 'luxury' where the absolute best is still an accessible stretch for many who really, really want it.

I'd always thought of the bike somewhat more practically, and narrowly I admit, as a sports tool, a consumable.  More like a hockey stick, or a pair of skis: Something that's bound to get beat on, used up.   forgetting that to many, their bike is more than that.  I kinda forgot the 'aficionado principle' - something I recalled reading about some years ago in Fast Company in an article about a 'futurist' named Watts Wacker - a guy who always has an interesting take on consumer behavior, and the trends that shape it.

"More and more people (Wacker says), are becoming 'aficionados' of something in which they have an intense personal interest.  It's a way of focusing themselves in a period of change and chaos. Aficionados will dramatically overspend in one category -- wine, audio equipment, computer games -- and underspend in most other categories...."

He later in another article cited it as part of trend he calls 'downward nobility': 

 "Satisfaction and domestic contentment are the status symbols of the future. The market is supersaturated with physical stuff, so instead of depending on conspicuous consumption, status will hinge on what's scarce - spiritual experiences.  That's downward nobility, and it will become a fundamental organizing premise of the desires of humanity....Downwardly noble consumers are aficionados who overspend in categories in which they perceive themselves to be leaders and underspend in all other categories.  Status marketers will have to appeal to customers as collectors rather than as consumers. Remember: self-esteem becomes the great motivator."

Interesting, eh?  But I digress.  The motivating thought behind that halo bike rant, was not that high end bikes were too expensive, whether or not we should buy them, or why we buy them.   Let me reboot, and try again.

"An athlete cannot run with money in his pockets. He must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head."
- Emil Zatopek

For each of us who think of ourselves as cyclists - regardless of our level, shape, ability or ambition - the ingredients that comprise the dedicated pursuit of our own, personal cycling nirvana are common, and multiple.

And most of those ingredients happen to have a business joined at the hip... a revenue stream.   Each holding out the promise of increased performance, enjoyment, experience.  Wielernirvana jongens.   It's quite an industry.

Bikes, equipment and clothing quite naturally make up the biggest slice of the pie.   Then there's the growing world of personal and professional coaching, and the closely allied, fantastic data capture devices that enable them to bring the best of sports science to joe-public.  There's a whole sports nutrition business with the latest supplements, foods, drinks.   For some, there's even sports psychologists who can help you visualize dropping your nemesis and soloing in with no one else in the photo.     

But wait... there's more.   The 'experiential', like cycling themed travel and trips, and training camps in warm weather venues.  And the 'peripheral', like health clubs and gyms to keep you fit and strong through the winter.

And in our consumer culture, each, with the simple swipe of a credit card, can edge the aficionado a step up their personal ladder to self-actualization.

Now don't get me wrong here.  I'm NOT dissing these businesses.  Nor those that patronize them.  Hell, I covet stuff and experiences as much as the next guy, and have piles of 'stuff' and credit card receipts to prove it - no luddite hypocricy here.  After all, it's what makes the world, and the wheels, go round.  Plus, lots of close friends earn good and honest livings, in this good industry.  It's all good.

So what's the point?

It's not just the pros for whom a 'muur' tests their character.
Simply that in the midst of a consumerism blitz, I find it very comforting that the single most determinant ingredient to delivering the cycling aficionado his/her own cycling 'nirvana' - whatever level they're at, whether finishing their first charity ride, staying with the pack in their first race... or sprinting to win a stage of the Tour de France -  is maybe the only thing that will never be bought with a credit card.  The only ingredient where 'purchasing' -  and the means to purchase - is arguably counterproductive to the quest.

I'm talking about Character.

In devouring pages and pages of cycling magazines over the decades, I'm always amazed that there's so precious little written about it.  No surprise I suppose.  'Character' doesn't have an ad-media budget.  And nobody's figured out a business model for how to sell it.   Maybe most people just aren't that interested in it anymore.  After all, it is a bit old fashioned, character.

Yet I think it's interesting that when you pick through the lines, and really listen to the wise old pros when they're interviewed, how 'character' emerges as a consistent common denominator they tend to focus on when they talk about cycling.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and comfort. Only through trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” 
               - Helen Keller

Statement of the obvious du jour #37:  Cycling requires character.

Fortunately, cycling also builds it, helps forge it.  While you can't buy it, you can instill it over time.  Work, discipline, sacrifice and suffering all comprise the currency required to obtain it.

It's as intangible as 'form', but fortunately less temporal.  Once 'character' is in a person, it tends to stick.  And be there when tests arise.  

The cool thing about character is that it doesn't require a high VO2 Max, Indurain-esque lung capacity, or 5% body fat.  It doesn't discriminate by gender, age, ethnicity or income.  And it can't be measured by a number either.

After all these years, I'm still facinated by the 'quest for C', this intangible, key success criteria.  It is cycling. Been seeking it for decades, and never feel like I get enough.  Still get disappointed when it goes missing - both in my self (like just yesterday in a tough throw-down during a four hour 'L-B-L' ride where I got shelled by the kopgroep on a steep climb) - and when I sense its importance eroding and examples of it ever more scarce in modern society around me.

The quest for a lighter bike?  Nee meneer.   The quest for character?  That's what matters.

One thing's for damn sure: You can bet your winter booties that I'm personally not qualified to write or lecture anyone how to 'attain' character.  But I can observe it, admire demonstrations of it, and be a small reminder of it's primal importance amidst the blitz of 'stuff'.  

Way better to reflect on the tea leaves dropped by the 'old pros':
  • Cyrille Guimard in an interview bemoaning the lack of character in the current crop of French cyclists, wanting to change their attitude.  "Hinault’s version of a “fun” race was running everybody off his wheels, while with today’s generation fun has come to mean finishing in the pack. "
  • Guimard again, on why he recruited Greg LeMond:  "I'd been watching the results of the American for a while but I wanted to see what he could do." At the circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mond was 20 miles from the finish and pulling ahead of a pack of Russians when he flatted and suffered a too-slow wheel change.  Enraged, LeMond picked up his bike and hurled it at the team car. "You can understand why he did it, he saw all his dreams just being thrown out the window. That day showed me he had character." 
  • Or Briek Schotte, just before he passed away, on why Belgium hadn't had a Tour winner in 25 years.  "I don't know. I think a lot of it has to do with character and mentality.  Whenever I see Andreij Tchmil on TV, I see myself.   Tchmil, that's a guy I've never heard or seen complaining. Maybe he didn't have the sheer class of a Frank Vandenbroucke, but a very strong character. Even if he had a bad day, he never gave up.
  • Eddy Merckx in interviews often cites 'character', for example here recently, on Philippe Gilbert:  "Philippe is a rider I like.  He is 100% committed to his job. He's a rider with strong strength of character, but also enormous abilities."   
  • Hinault some years ago on who might step up to replace Armstrong,“There are Basso and  Valverde and Cunego, who won the Giro with panache,” observed Hinault. “All three of them seem to have character, and they won’t be giving anything away for free. He (Ullrich) won’t ever find it easy.
One could go on and on, but you get my gist.    If Wacker is right about us moving to seek 'spiritual experiences', then I'd submit that character,  more than purchases, provides all cyclists the key to unlocking that box.

I'll leave the last word to Freddy Maertens*:

"My first bike was handed down by my cousin Rene.  'If you can do well on a bike like that, you shouldn't have any trouble on a better one' was my father's opinion.   The bike was reasonable, but it was a cheap one.  When I go to youth category races nowadays I'm amazed at the gleaming machines I see, some of which must have cost tens of thousands of francs.  Sometimes I think they've convinced that the prize is going to go to the one with the most impressive cycle.  They seem to have forgotten that a race is not a sort of Miss Bike competition, but a matter of pedalling as fast as you can.  On that score, my dad's way of thinking was right. 

"(when I started racing), the paper round which until then I had only done during school holidays became my responsibility entirely.   It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.  I would get up at half past five in the morning and most months of the year the job was finished by ten o'clock, I had every afternoon free and could go training or compete in races.    Nowadays the young riders are too mollycoddled.  They don't get up until nine o'clock to go training, completely missing the early morning when the quality of the air is at its best.  It's no coincidnce that the best riders of all time have, to a man, come from less well-off families.   A background from 'Dallas' is no breeding ground for hard working Flandrians. "

*from 'Fall From Grace', Freddy Maertens & Manu Adriaens c 1988. 


  1. Brilliant article Eddy. It accurately separates the intangibles in the sport from the tangible consumer driven "my bike's better/lighter than yours" brigade.
    You really do know your sport. Chapeau!

  2. One of the riders that comes to mind is Sean Kelly - you just had to look at Paris-Roubaix and see how much determination and perseverance he had - which defined his character.

    What I learned as a racer is that your training is your job - so there is no 'it's raining today so I will wait and maybe it will clear up in the afternoon' - you get up in the morning have breakfast put on your cycling clothes and be out the door at 9:30AM on the dot everyday. That simple routine (7 days a week), along with diet and rest will get you results which will build confidence which in turn will inspire you even more - a very simple process that a lot of riders overlook.

  3. Eddy, $10K bikes are easy: buy Honda Accord vs Acura TL: same car, 15K difference and i did not mention cost of premium gas for Acura. Stay away from a beemer and that's two "halo" bikes with top notch components and wheels. That has always been my approach.
    As for the character...what's that again?

  4. Really well written piece. I just realized who I am :) Mr Downward Nobility - so I now feel Self Actualized.

    Roll on the commodification of carbon frames and Di2 groupsets. The sooner they are affordable for every working class kid, the better imho.

    The perpetual annual pursuit of status is for those who have never ridden at one with any bike.

  5. Thanks Bruce...and thanks for reading!

  6. You just encapsulated my philosophy in an article full of serendipity. This aficionado has two 70s racing bikes, both representing to me racers that had character. When I ride them I try to do their histories justice. One is a 1977 Flandria, Maertens average speed from his Worlds win on the down tube and the other is a 1977 Team Frisol Gazelle. I nearly dropped the computer when I saw that photograph. Where can I get a copy? Incidentally Maertens himself had De Rosa build his frames, unimpressed with Flandria's own bikes so he made sure he got his 'Miss Bike' when at last he could afford it. I have the cheap ones.


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