You've probably seen them. Any time after 5 o'clock, Hill Road is a prime cyclist-watching location. On their mega-bucks bikes, they roll up in their spandex and look serious about cycling. Some of the best spots are at the stoplights where they have to pause.
The cyclists Boise Weekly talked to guessed that about 60 percent of the people out on the road are folks who enjoy taking a long, relaxed ride for the pleasure of it. The other 40 percent on the road are training for races and could be considered more serious about cycling.
There isn't much to distinguish the extreme from the mainstream anymore. Every sport out there has made the shift from the outer edges. The shift happened with skateboarding, rock climbing and snowboarding. Even road cycling used to be something only hard-core athletes did. Now it can be difficult to distinguish those who are pleasure seekers versus the riders who sacrifice something to participate in the sport. In the cycling world, what features are there that set the hard-core riders apart from people out for a quick evening ride after work?
Cyclists can be pretty average-looking, but among the top riders in the world, they are hiding some heavy ammunition. Their hearts are three times as big as the typical person's, their lungs have a capacity five times over the normal adult male and they can maintain an average speed of 22 mph over the course of a 60-mile ride, in spite of wind or road incline.
Mike Cooley is one of the cycle kings of Boise. He is co-owner of the three George's Cycle shops in town, and he promotes and sponsors riding events, clinics, groups and teams in the Valley, including the ubiquitous George's Cycling Team. According to Cooley, becoming a professional rider is about what you're willing to give up.
"It takes some serious discipline to pass up every sweet that comes along," he says.
One of the George's team riders, Bill Crum, isn't rail-thin, but he isn't a brick either.
"I used to be in really great shape—or so I thought," says Crum. He and his wife Sonia both ride, and Sonia has helped Bill to stay on a balanced diet of mostly non-processed foods for almost 20 years.
"I had success right away in racing, because I can sprint. It got me a little addicted. I went from being a 200-pound football player to being a 160-pound cyclist. The leaner and stronger I got, the faster I got," says Crum.
"At the highest level, it's strength to weight ratio," said Cooley. The best cyclists find a balance between how much they weigh and how fast they can push the bicycle. For Crum, a portion of his passion for cycling comes out of how efficient the human body can be on a fine piece of machinery. "The freedom of it," he exclaims, "to be able to cover 60 miles on your own power. That's incredible."Crum wasn't always about taking long rides, though. When, at age 30, he first got into the sport, he tried time trials.
"State time trial championships were never my cup of tea. It's just a race against the clock," says Crum.
In time trials, the idea is to push as hard as you can endure over a shorter ride, testing the physical limits of power in a tight window of time. The muscle focus is different and makes for a different kind of cycling.
"It's slow twitch vs. fast twitch muscle fibers," said Crum.
Ultimately, he found what he was looking for in the extended rides and the tests on longer stretches of road. In a race, cyclists use one another to advance, and Crum remembers learning the fine details of riding close to other cyclists. Riders rely on one another to succeed. Pulling in close behind another rider and letting him or her break the headwind can save a rider 30 percent of the energy that might otherwise be expended.
"It's like a slingshot," explains Crum. The drafter takes that 30 percent savings and whips it into an advance to the principal rider. Draft off enough riders and you might find yourself leading the pack and going from drafter to draftee.
Drafting on other riders isn't necessarily a free ride. "That drafting thing, you want to get cocky and no one will work with you. If the pack decides that you're not going to win, you're not going to. Cycling is so hard that you don't want to give people a reason not to like you," said Crum.
There are other harsh aspects to cycling that go beyond the psychology of bonding with fellow racers. A rider who is not comfortable with the jostling that goes into vying for a top spot can cause a pileup. The possibility of meeting the asphalt is ever-present. Minimizing the consequences of a fall motivates cyclists to do something that people outside the sport may find a little strange: they shave their bodies.
If the thin and lean look that cycling sculpts doesn't get your engine going, how about men who shave? Cyclists often shave their legs and, in some cases, their arms and chests. Does body hair really have enough drag that it warrants the razor?
"It isn't about aerodynamics," said Cooley. "If you've ever gotten road rash, you know that pulling that bandage off your legs with the hair is excruciating."
Road cycling can seem like a lonely sport. But for Crum, cycling has led to close friendships. "You get those long stretches where you can ride side by side and get to chatting," says Crum. "I do it for the friendships now."
Soft words from someone who could be considered a pretty serious rider. It might be hard to distinguish Crum, someone who rides competitively, from those just riding recreationally. But if you ever wonder if someone is more serious about the sport, look for the lean body and shaved legs and then get on your road bike and see if you can keep up for the next 20 miles.