Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rollers and Souplesse

My friend Luke posted some very interesting comments to my recent post about rollers. He writes:

I've heard one can get a better workout on a trainer by doing intervals w/varying degrees of resistance. But I like my rollers, if for nothing more then to say that I can ride them. And that must count for something.

Indeed. It’s amusing to hear riders from beginner to “beyond category” smoothly slip references to their rollers into their forum posts and conversations. I bought rollers instead of a trainer last fall for two simple reasons: 1) My fitter told me they would make my legs learn better form (when used with a modicum of consciousness); and 2) I couldn’t afford a good fluid trainer, and wasn’t interested in the magnetic or wind trainers. (Rollers cost less than trainers.)

Yet often, when I mention them, I get more credit for being old-school and authentically souplesse-oriented, than I ever expected. I thought they were the poor man’s trainer, but no, my friend. No. It seems that, in the road cycling ethos, one gets credit for building smoothness and economy into one’s form, especially if it involves 100-year-old technology. (Rollers haven’t changed much since the turn of the 20th century.) This is one of the reasons I love being a roadie: That whole old-world, European belief that beauty comes first, and from it flows all other important things. Things like speed, for instance.

I do think the rollers have made me a better rider than I would have been had I just hammered on a trainer last winter. “Better” in both tangible and esthetic ways: My pedal stroke is smoother, rounder, and more efficient. It uses more of the muscles in my core. But I am also more still on the bike. I have a long way to go in this department, but I love what little I have learned so far.

This stillness is the very first thing you notice about a dangerous rider. Even from a distance, you can tell if a cyclist has it. If so, I know there is power under the hood that you had best respect. It’s a deceptively lazy-looking grace. Everywhere above the waist, you’ll find a kind of lank ease that you can’t quite put your finger on. The lines are smooth. Arms curve slightly on the way to the bars. Spine curves upward and gently forward. The shoulders are relaxed and back. The face is calm. There is no rocking side to side, no strain showing anywhere. Below the waist, the legs turn simply and powerfully, neither flailing nor slowly grinding.

If you’re not looking closely, you’d never know there was effort involved. Don’t be fooled; nothing is wasted. If you dialed it up to pass him from behind, he would toast you in about 300 yards, and, curse him, he would still look like a ballet dancer relaxing on a divan.

More about rollers anon. I’ve got lots of time right now to think about them. If you go ahead and post some comments listing your favorite ways to keep roller riding interesting, I’ll try to incorporate it all. Let's all work together to make base period a little more communal and fun, eh?

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