25 January 2015

Check Your Pressure!

I took Physics in my junior year of high school.  That was, oh, let's say some time before the first Star Wars movie came out. So, I admit that I've forgotten much of what I learned that year, and that some of the basic tenets of that branch of science have changed since then.

But I'm pretty good at detecting male ungulate excrement, if I do say so myself.  And I've been told I have a sense of humor.  (I don't know how anybody could think that!)  So, very few things uttered by famous people have made me laugh as much as New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick's explanation of the under-inflated footballs used in the American Football Conference's championship game.  

 Inflate a bicycle tire

Now, in all fairness, the pressure--or, more precisely,lack thereof--in the footballs probably had little or no outcome on the effect of the game, which the Patriots won in a rout.  The Pats--and I say this as someone who isn't a fan--were clearly the better team in that game.

Still, you have to wonder what Belichick would be doing if he weren't a football coach.  Can you imagine him as a science teacher?  Or a minister?  A lawyer, perhaps:  He might win cases just by confusing people.  He's the only person I've ever seen who can channel Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon at the same time.

I'm mentioning him, and the "Deflate-gate" "scandal" because it got me to thinking about how many controversies there have been in cycling over doctored equipment.  While the two-wheeled sport has not been without such incidents, given bicycle racing's 130-year (give or take) history and the number of events held during that time, there actually have been relatively few controversies about equipment.

Some might argue that there seem to be few such scandals in cycling because they're overshadowed by doping.  Fair enough:  a Google search of "bicycle racing scandals" turns up a lot of entries about substance abuse--and, of course, Lance.  However, I think that the presence of drugs in cycling might now be overstated:  The incidents of doping attributed to Lance (and some of his peers) were a decade in the past by the time he had that now-famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view)  interview with Oprah.  

Still, whether or not you accept that cycling isn't as "dirty" as has been alleged (I think that it's a "cleaner" sport than it was, say, a decade or two ago.), you have to admit that drug scandals aren't the reason why we don't hear more about scandals involving doctored equipment.  There are a couple of good reasons for this.

One is that cycling's governing bodies have, for the most part, fairly stringent regulations about equipment.  For example, the Union Cycliste International decrees that no bike ridden in a road race can weigh less than 6.8 kg (14.99 pounds).  Some have argued that this weight limit is too high, given today's technology.  But I believe that most people--whether they are racers, fans, coaches or the sport's administrators--agree that there should be a "floor" for bike weight, whatever it is.  After all, I don't think anyone wants to see a sport in which technology matters more than the physical conditioning or tactics.  At least, I wouldn't want to see such a sport.

The Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai is another governing body that tightly regulates equipment used in bike races.  The NJS, which oversees keirin track racing in Japan does not allow riders to use bikes or components that it hasn't approved.  What's interesting is that NJS-approved equipment isn't always the lightest available.  However, it stands up to the stress and abuse of track racing and the training involved in it.  NJS officials explain that such regulations help to ensure the safety of the riders as well as the integrity of the sport, on which considerable sums of money are wagered in Japan.

What I've long found interesting is that, even in the absence of regulations, racers ride remarkably similar equipment.  So, while the UCI has a weight limit, it doesn't specify which components or frames can or can't be used.  Even so, nearly all of the riders are spinning wheels made by the same three or four manufacturers and are pumping on cranks and shifting gears made by the about the same number of companies.  Still, the equipment used in today's peloton is far more diverse than it was in the days of Eddy Mercx, when nearly all of the European pros were riding bikes equipped with Campagnolo components.

One reason for such uniformity in equipment is, of course, that Campy was making the most reliable stuff available at the time, and nobody wants to lose a race because of equipment failure.  At the same time Campagnolo had a near-monopoly on the equipment preferences of the European peloton, Japanese racers--even greater in number than their European counterparts--were using SunTour derailleurs.  

So, in brief, most racers and coaches have figured out that there's little, if any, benefit to using altered or unorthodox equipment.  Still, they should check their tire pressure! ;-)

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