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I was getting a niggling new bike warranty issue sorted at my local Triumph motorcycle dealer (as much as a 400km round trip can be regarded as ‘local’) when one of the local Harley guys turned up for ‘smoko’ to chat over important issues like carburator adjustments with the guy busily tinkering (and swearing) over my faulty starter realay switch – when he turned his attention to my black on black, black is still black rather than white-is-the-new-black fashion statement making of contemporary mercantile modernism – jet black Triumph Tiger: ‘…must have a good power to weight ratio, that’.

That’s a curious feature to focus one’s opening reaction to a machine such as this. It’s surely better than the usual line that car drivers extend by way of observation to their fellow delusional devotees: ‘ow fast can it go?’

Which got me thinking. Here we have a fellow-devotee observation that cuts right across all the machined artifices of marketing-driven superficiality to get right down to the essential core: it is indeed all about power-to-weight ratios for machinery such as this. Especially when the observation was delivered so deliberatively over the painstakingly moderated process of rolling a roll-your-own cigarette to be taken as a statement of anarchical contempt to all the No Smoking! signs displayed so prominently above his head.

One concept I was not going to discuss with my grizzled, leather-layered, motorcycle Harley-Man interlocutor was that, perhaps, such an observation might apply even more emphatically to any bicycle he might choose to inspect. I mean, the big-engined anarchical predilections of the true born-to-ride warriors-of-the-road are not ordinarily drawn to machines wherein engine displacement relates to the power of one’s legs instead of the cc’s pushed by their pistons. He didn’t strike me as the cycling kind.

But it’s true, you know. A top-end racing bicycle is indeed a statement of perfection when it comes to ratios of power-to-weight. I started to wonder. What takes the eye of a cycling enthusiast when they first see a racing bike on display? For me, the first impression is one of power; emphatic performance; a tool of power to weight ratios as justification for all the mega-priced parts delivered through the raw purpose of its design. Could there ever be a purer statement of an intention to climb a performance peak? There’s nothing here that is consequent to alternative intentions; right down to the carbon fibre seat. The racing bicycle is a statement of pared back, sleek engineered performance perfection; wrapped in the mystique of its maker’s heritage, and all the glories of riding the Col du Tourmalet.

Go on, pick one up. Hang it on your little finger to convince about its ultra light weight. Contemplate a rider like Mark Cavendish. Make the match and watch the fury. Power to weight.

Now, technically, my motorcycle is probably going to still outperform any bicycle-rider combination you might choose to represent the case. Technically, according to the calculations scrawled across the back of my envelope, my Tiger can produce a power-to-weight peak of 359 watts/kg. When Cavendish pushes 1,600 watts across the finish line, his ratio is about 235 watts/kg. But! And here’s the thing. Those watts are all his. He’s the piston. He’s the power. Any old pot bellied fool can gun my Tiger to its limit. The motorcycle’s power is captured entirely through the power of its design; rather than being the outcome of that wonderful synergy cyclists unleash as legs and carbon combine.

Which makes me wonder why it is that so many people simply can not see and wonder at the bio-technical perfection that a bicycle can unleash. They usually can’t see what it is that I see straight away. Unlike their first reaction to a big capacity performance motorbike (and yes, I am intentionally not discussing the mangy dog dimension of cars – those things, to me, are simply repulsive in every way). Why not? What’s going on?

Answer that and, I believe, you will find the mother load of psychological insight into what it is that so persistently enthrals the human race with the artificial satiation of that sense of physical accomplishment that, today, only cyclists, runners and like-minded athletes can understand. Once upon a time, back in the days when we lived in caves, if you could not run, leap and otherwise physically excel, you didn’t eat. Nowadays, we rely on the artifices of the marketplace to satiate those primal sensibilities to excel. We consume that need through watching sport; and fantasising physical empathy with the players we observe as we nurse that tinny on our bulging gut. We observe with an empathy frustrated, for circumstances complex, varied and invariably unconsidered to any great degree, and tell ourselves that, but for the sake of choices deliberately made, ‘there also could I go’. And we’d be right. We withdrew from the world where the possibilities to explore the limits to our own power-to-weight are unlikely to ever be tested. Sadly. Tragically.

So many of us don’t see the statement of power that a racing bicycle makes because they have never experienced the mind-body power that has always been entirely theirs to command… They’d rather quench primal urges of this kind through the second-hand side-stand of piston power.

So, that’s probably why so many of us don’t experience the immediate hair-tingling thrill on seeing a top-end bicycle racing machine. We don’t want to see. We don’t want to be reminded of the choices so many of us have made to offload our primal physical aspirations to the crutches of oil-fired motivation or consuming the performance of others on TV.

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One Response to “Power to Weight”
  1. Jay says:

    Good read, very well written. Long live the bicycle!

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