Cycling’s Top Ten Influencers of the Past 25 Years — Good, Bad and Ugly | Part 1

Perhaps it’s the close connection with Bike magazine, which turns 20 this year, or maybe it’s that we recently put to bed our Summer issue, which explores some of our sport’s romantic past, and it could even be Gary Boulanger’s ode to Dave Stohler that has me reminiscing. Suffice it to say, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic and have begun to think about the people, products and developments that have shaped cycling over the last quarter-century. They’re subjective, unscientific and listed in no particular order. Read ‘em and wonder.

The Internet: Without a doubt, the ease with which we’re able to read about, view photographs and/or watch live bike-racing has helped tend to the insatiable cravings of bike-racing junkies all over the world. Admittedly, I was stoked that throughout the month of May, I was able to tune in to channel 400 and get my daily Giro d’Italia fix. And, on any given day or for any given reason if I felt I needed more, there were three-quarters of a go-zillion websites with the deeper dig—not to mention the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds of fans, media, teams and riders alike.

The internet should be called Operation Information Oversaturation. It is to bike racing what Cinco de Mayo is to tequila: It gives too many people the chance to over-consume. Most people I know that drink too much tequila become a) sick, b) belligerent and/or c) insufferable pseudo-experts on the history and manufacture of tequila, and are all too eager to instruct others on the proper strategy and technique of its consumption. Many people I know who consume too much internet bike-racing are exactly the same way.

Though it’s entirely likely that I’ll have reason to comb Twitter this afternoon for a clue as to which pro is planning to forgo the bagel for a glazed donut tomorrow morning, I can’t help but think it wasn’t so bad to be a fan of the sport back before this age of too much information. When I stare at the old photos in my collection of coffee-table books on cycling, I am afforded the privilege of imagination, wonder. Operation Information Oversaturation has a tendency to rob us of that same opportunity. At least, that is, when we allow it to.

Clipless pedals: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who raced with toeclips and straps who’d argue that riding with a Binda strap across the top of your foot was better than a Boa. Those who never had to experience the un-numbing of a foot after it was released from a pre-sprint-tightened toe-strap needn’t wonder what they missed.

Clipless pedals paved the way for warmer shoe-covers, more efficient power transfer, advanced, comfortable shoe design and increased safety. I will stand by my position, though, that even with modern fitting systems, gauges and positioning marks on today’s cycling footwear, setting up cleat-position on a pair of old leather-sole, lace-up cycling shoes for clip-and-strap pedals was a much easier task.

Team radios/ear buds: This will be the point where I’m likely to be compared with the old geezers lining every café in Belgium—crotchety bastards who annoyed me so much as they rambled on and on about the riders of the day being softer, somehow lesser athletes than those of the geezers’ time. “Times change,” I would tell them. “You are tested by and spoiled by the customs of your own era.”

For the record, I don’t see the need to compare Vincenzo Nibali with Fausto Coppi, because times change—and I understand that the cycling of 25 years ago had a different face and finesse than the cycling of today. Still, a bike racer with an ear bud and unlimited direction from a dude in a car seems to me to have more in common with Man o’ War than with Eddy Merckx.

Without a doubt, bike racers have to make split-second, unassisted decisions over the course of every race—even when wirelessly connected to the directeur sportif—but radios have only served to diminish the importance of each rider’s race-craft. What makes road racing so special is that it not only rewards strength, endurance and speed, but also intuition, cunning and creativity. I’m not enough of a curmudgeon to pretend those radios have altogether erased the sport’s intelligent side, but I also refuse to believe they haven’t dumbed it down by a couple of notches.

Helmets/Eyewear: For the upcoming issue of Paved—which is probably being cut and bound as we speak—our friend Stevil wrote an entertaining article in praise of “hairnet” helmets. And to help us illustrate the page, he loaned us an old Cinelli from his collection. What for me felt like old hat (pun intended) was completely foreign, shocking even, to my coworkers. “You raced in one of those?”

Along with owning up to the fact that I used to use a sewn-up bunch of padded patent-leather straps to protect my brain, I felt forced to admit to them, and to myself, that while I’d always raced sans helmet in France, where they weren’t required, I did wear a hairnet for Paris-Roubaix. Serious protection from the cobblestones, eh?

Technically, Jim Gentes’ first Giros found their way into the world in 1985, which means so-called modern helmets have been around for more than 25 years, but it was Greg LeMond who really started the revolution.

Images of LeMond in his iconic Oakley Factory Pilots became the inspiration for an entire category of sunglass. Non-prescription eyewear was anything but popular in the early ‘80s peloton. As soon as riders and entrepreneurs began to eye up LeMond’s Oakleys, the cycling-specific sunglasses became commonplace. By the early ‘90s, the image of a bike racer wearing shades was the norm, and those who raced with naked eyes were considered careless.

Despite giving Giro its first Tour de France win back in 1989, LeMond’s helmeted head was not copied quite as quickly. In 1991, the UCI mandated the use of so-called hard-shell helmets in professional competition. It was an extremely unpopular ruling, to say the least. Not only was the pro peloton of that day completely comfortable descending the Alps and sprinting down the Champs-Elysees helmet free, most crash-hats left something to be desired. The birth of new helmet companies was almost as abundant as cycling eyewear ventures, but just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should. Riders boycotted races in protest, and the mandate was repealed before the ’91 season really even got going.

Today, even the term bike-racer conjures an image of a helmeted and bespectacled athlete. And why not? Modern helmets weigh less than those old leather hairnets and are more comfortable. Riding with performance eyewear is not only more comfortable than going without, it’s easier see through lenses than through tears. And most of today’s pros really don’t know about races without hard-shells and eyewear anyway. And though I managed to survive countless crashes with only my hair to protect my skull, I honestly can’t imagine toeing the starting line without a proper lid and pair of shades.

But still, there are some photos from the past—gaunt, pained faces completely unobstructed by helmet and glasses—that tell a story that really couldn’t be captured today.

Training, specialization and lighter schedules: Sure, there are three things here, but they’re basically three sides of the same coin. Mention rider-specialization to people from the Merckx/Hinault/Moser generation and you’ll likely be treated to a few lines of the Crusty Old Chorus. “In my day, we raced uphill—both ways…”

Even if we can all wrap our brains around the sport’s evolution, I don’t think there’s a bike-racing fan out there that wouldn’t enjoy watching one rider win cobbled classics as well as grand tours. Is it a wonder Peter Sagan, grabasstic gaffes and all, is so popular? The cycling world is hungry for another grand champion—we’ve grown slightly bored with five-time Tour winners.

For all but perhaps a select handful of potentially non-existent mutants, survival in today’s pro peloton requires a healthy dose of focus on one’s own strengths. It means marking individual races as goals and training specifically for them. In real-world terms, it means the tough get tougher, the skinny get skinnier and no one races as much as they used to…in my day.

I campaigned 120-140 races per year, so, viewed via my limited perspective on years with only about half that number of races, the notion of a lighter schedule is frightening. It seems like you’d be riding alone most of the time—probably really hard—and staring at a bunch of numbers on a small screen.

Nevertheless, the average age of a professional cyclist is almost 28—and there seem to be more guys closing in on 40 than there were a couple decades ago. The old-school method of banging on a boatload of base miles after a relatively sedentary winter, and then racing one’s self into shape, probably took its toll on many of us.

There are certainly other factors that have added to the modern professional cyclist’s career longevity, and I’ll get to a couple of those in Part 2.

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