In cycling, even with all the science and the numbers, there is something mystical at work. The scientists might not admit it, but a rider can train and prepare to within an inch of their life only to find it’s all for nothing, because the key ingredient is missing.
In days gone by, when sports science in cycling extended as far as eating only the soft middle bit of your baguette because the crust was likely to slow you down, ‘the legs’ were king. Performance was partially to do with training and looking after yourself, and substantially to do with the whim of ‘the legs’.
Fausto Coppi, star of the 1950’s and one of the true greats of the sport, famously put his trust in his blind soigneur – Biagio Cavanna – who claimed to know exactly how well Coppi would be riding on any given day after nothing more than a quick feel of his boss’s legs.
He either had ‘the legs’, or he didn’t.
Even today, with all that we claim to know about sporting performance, still the most common reason a pro cyclist will give for a less than stellar day on the bike is: “I just didn’t have the legs.”
In other words, “I did my bit – the cycling gods had other ideas.”
When chatting to my five year old son recently he admitted that he’d been grappling with some slightly sketchy theory around hiccups. He was under the impression that if you had the hiccups, you had THE hiccups. That there was only one set of hiccups to go around, and once you’d managed to get rid of them it was someone else’s turn.
“I’d just never seen two people have the hiccups at the same time”, was his perfectly logical theory.
Most people I’ve shared this theory with seem to agree that the boy is on to something. This suggests that either we humans are extremely susceptible to cute sounding theories no matter how flimsy the evidence, or the boy possesses wisdom beyond his years.
My question is whether hiccup theory extends to ‘the legs’. Are the cyclists right in thinking there’s only one set of ‘the legs’ to go around? That you have to wait your turn? That the guy who has ‘the legs’ wins the race?
Think of all those riders who have really dominated; maybe for a day, or a week, or a full three week-long Tour de France. In 2011, for example, Philippe Gilbert was all but unbeatable, winning three Ardennes classics in quick succession; Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He was clearly in possession of ‘the legs’. He then became World Champion the following year, before inexplicably relinquishing ‘the legs’ and hardly winning a bike race again.
Peter Sagan now spends much of his time in sole charge of ‘the legs’, only loaning them out to Chris Froome for three weeks in July, and occasionally to Steve Cummings for an epic solo stage win every now and again.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that there are bike riders all over the world winning bike races at any given moment, but only one set of ‘the legs’…so how does that work?
It works because there’s also such a thing as ‘good legs’.
You will frequently hear riders talk about having good legs. They might even lose a bike race then say, “I had good legs, it just wasn’t my day”. Good legs will only get you so far. Good legs might win you the Tour de Langkawi or the An Post Rás, but only ‘THE legs’ will win you the Tour de France.
Clearly the cycling authorities ensure ‘the legs’ are in France for the three weeks of the Tour – it wouldn’t look good if the greatest bike race in the world was taking place while ‘the legs’ were spotted propelling some lower tier cyclist to victory in an anonymous race that no one can pronounce.
At this stage it’s not clear how ‘the legs’ pass from one cyclist to another. It’s also unproven as to whether, as with hiccups, if a teammate were to jump out and give you a shock, or you held your breath for long enough, you would accidentally get rid of ‘the legs’.
Maybe that’s what happened with Philippe Gilbert?
I also wonder whether this theory could apply to other areas of life – The motivation? The knack? The heebie jeebies?
I’ve set the boy to work on expanding his hiccup theory. I’ll keep you posted.