Merleau-Ponty à Vélo

A Brief Foray into the Phenomenology of Cycling

Umberto Boccioni, “Dynamism of a Cyclist,” 1913

“We have learned again to sense our bodies; we have discovered, beneath the objective and detached knowledge of the body, this other knowledge that we have of it because it is always with us and because we are our bodies. It will be necessary to similarly awaken the experience of the world such as it appears to us insofar as we are in the world through our bodies, and insofar as we perceive the world with our bodies.”

AS THE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN took hold in Maine last spring, I took to my bicycle. It was mid-March, still cold and sometimes slick, especially in the morning. But the gym was closed and my indoor cycling class had been canceled. My only choice was to dress up and hit the road.

For the most part, I rode into the countryside north and west of Portland, where the roads are quiet and hilly. Portland is busy, but it doesn’t take long to escape to farms and fields and woods and places with old white churches and very English names like Cumberland, North Yarmouth, New Gloucester, Pownal, Dunns, Foggs Corner.

Getting accustomed to riding on the road after a winter’s break takes time. Not even the most sophisticated indoor trainer can replicate exactly the experience of riding a real bike on a real road. In March and part of April, I focused on regaining my legs and aerobic capacity while getting my butt accustomed to sitting on the hard, narrow saddle for hours at a time.

As the weeks went by and the weather warmed, my rides grew longer and more determined. I felt comfortable on the bike for more than three hours at a time. By early May, my cycling season was in full swing. And so was the spring, always glorious in Maine, but especially so in this time of pandemic angst. For the next few weeks, I drifted in that magical zone of cycling where the riding is almost effortless and the landscape offers a nearly endless array of things to see, smell, hear, absorb — a dreamy, rambling sensory spectacle in which I felt joined to the bike, the road, the landscape.

During these idyllic rides, I found myself thinking as well as looking. I thought about my writing, my reading, about the looming presidential election, about what I would cook for dinner. Lost in thought. Lost in sensation.

That can be a problem if you are riding a skinny-tire bike on roads freshly beaten up by frost heaves and snowplow blades. The holes are frequent and have been known to consume car tires. After hitting a few (without incident) I resolved to pay attention. But inevitably, my mind would wander again. Which caused me to think about thinking. What part of me, I wondered, wanders off like that, away from the bike and the holes in the road?

More time passed, and I started paying more attention to how fast, not just how far, I was riding. Perhaps that’s because there is only so much sight-seeing and random pondering one can do. But there is, too, something about cycling that encourages this migration of purpose. As my time in the saddle and my fitness increased, so did my appetite for speed. It was as if the bike, the movement, and my body were part of some deeper, evolving design.

Speed on a bike is mostly derived from the power that one can deliver to the pedals. The capacity to generate more power comes in part from fitness and technique, but it also (and always) requires greater effort. In cycling, this is known as perceived exertion, sometimes quantified as the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

Exertion and power increases produce dramatic effects in the body. The quadriceps burn, breath quickens and deepens, the heart rate climbs. After several minutes, the entire body feels stressed, though only the legs, heart, and lungs are engaged directly. In the hyperbolic lexicon of cycling, this state of general distress is known as “suffering.” On the RPE scale, suffering begins somewhere around eight or nine on a 10-point scale.

The result of discomfort is speed, and the sensation of greater speed is immediate. I hear it in the sound of the tires on the road, in the air rushing past my head, arms, and chest. I feel it in my butt and hands as the bike reacts more quickly to the unevenness of the road. And I see it in the jumpiness of my vision and the changes in my visual field as objects enter and recede more quickly. At extremely high speeds, as on a long mountain descent, these auditory, tactile, and visual changes are amplified, sometimes beyond the threshold of fear.

The sensations of physical discomfort and speed interact with one another constantly. Indeed, in the moment they are not really separate sensations at all, but aspects of a unitary, global sensation. I cannot generate more speed without immediately generating physical stress. And I know that more stress will almost immediately entail greater speed. Except in descending, where gravity rules, stress is speed and speed is stress.

The ability to endure long episodes of discomfort and suffering is a requirement of going fast on a bike. And for that, lots of practice is required, in longer and longer bouts of pain. Coping also requires intense and persistent concentration. As soon as I begin to think about something other than my body on the bike on the road, I sense a drop in speed. Whatever part of my awareness was formerly available to wander around in the landscape is now consumed with coping. Stress pushes my attention deep into my body, beyond thoughts and words.

The power, stress, speed relationship is constantly and powerfully informed by technique, or how one rides the bike. The better the technique, the more power and speed with relatively less stress. One of the most fundamental aspects of cycling technique is a form of corporeal schizophrenia. The legs are furiously engaged, while the rest of the body — from the pelvis to the top of the head — remains perfectly still. Any upper body movement — swaying, rocking, even grimacing — comes at the expense of the legs. As I apply more power to the pedals, I simultaneously concentrate on keeping my upper body quiet — face neutral, chin up, eyes forward, shoulders down, hands securely but softly fixed low on the bars, elbows gently bent, back flat and torso centered. Ideally, only my legs move.

As for the legs themselves, good technique requires efficiency. The pumping motion is straight up, straight down. Any sideways, looping movement lessens force, which lessens power, which lessens speed. In optimal pedaling, the feet and legs remain engaged during the entire 360-degree pedal stroke. As one leg descends, the other sweeps back and upward, kicking over the top of the stroke as it becomes the descending leg. Most of the power is generated on the downstroke, where the big muscles dominate. But the lifting motion contributes to power while relieving the big muscles of some of the burden. Over many thousands of revolutions, the savings add up.

Finally, there is cadence, the rate at which the rider completes a pedal stroke. The ideal cadence varies with a rider’s experience, strength, and conditioning. But all riders have a “sweet spot,” usually between 90 and 110 rpm on flat or modestly hilly terrain, where turnover is most efficiently aligned with the resistance of the gears, the road, and gravity. You know you’re there, in this zone of greatest sustainable power, when your feet and legs sense momentum in the pedal stroke.

To develop and maintain the right position, pedal stroke, and cadence, your body must learn to assume positions, shapes, and motions that are neither natural nor intuitive. You go from “the body that is now” — the body that is being coaxed toward good form — to the “habit body,” one accustomed to good form and needing no coaxing to perform. With hundreds and thousands of hours of practice on the road, the habit body assumes more responsibility for good technique.

There is a hitch, of course. Good technique becomes more difficult to maintain as stress and discomfort rise. When I work harder, my technique erodes. My hands become tense and grippy. My arms become rigid. I start to sway in the saddle with each pedal stroke. My head moves around. My jaw tightens into a grimace.

The only fix is to concentrate deliberately on the fundamental elements of technique, to call them back into explicit awareness. My “body in the moment” has to take over from my “habit body.” This, too, is a weirdly schizophrenic exercise, a kind of jujutsu. I must focus on good technique while also telling myself to calm down and breathe. It’s difficult to manage my distress without being — distressed — about it. I focus on the things I know I should be doing while trying, at the same time, to keep that very focus from exacerbating the problem.

Sooner or later, suffering prevails. Everything falls apart. I struggle to continue. The smallest hill seems impossibly long. I’ve “cracked,” “bonked,” “hit the wall.” The curtain has come down on technique, power, and speed. Professional riders crack spectacularly; the rest of us just bonk and limp home.

Natalia Gonchorova, “Cyclist,” 1913

IN SUMMER, I often rode with a friend of similar ability, and on weekends, his daughter and son-in-law came along. Since they were younger, stronger, and faster, we sometimes formed a paceline, where one rider follows directly behind the other.

Pacelines are made for speed. The lead rider breaks the air and creates a vortex of low pressure just behind. If the next rider is close enough — less than two feet or so — she feels pulled along, holding speed with less effort. This “drafting” effect is amplified slightly for each rider down the line.

Riding at speed in a paceline is demanding and risky. The challenges of fast solo riding are compounded by the need for a highly developed sense of where you are in relation to the rider just in front and anything on the road around you. The trick is staying close to the wheel ahead without touching it, which brings immediate disaster and potential injury to the entire line.

Maintaining that small gap at high speed takes practice, concentration, and trust in the riders ahead and behind. At 20+ mph (40+ for professional riders) and only a foot or two from the wheel ahead, there is little room for error. The rider in front of me could slow down, speed up, or swerve to avoid something in the road, and my reaction must be instantaneous. Riding in a paceline is not so much a series of separate reactions as it is a stream of small, inter-related adjustments to changes occurring at every instant in the line.

These adjustments require a remarkable feat of proprioception and kinesthesia. With my eyes glued to the rear wheel and back of the rider in front of me, I see the variations in speed and direction as changes in depth. Other senses weigh in. I hear the tires on the pavement, the air whooshing past, and sometimes the riders ahead telling me things about the road. My body’s contact with the bike — hands, butt, feet — tells me still more about motion, road surface, and direction. Indeed, the bike extends my sense of touch: I feel the road through the wheels. Sensations derived from sight, hearing, and touch are translated instantaneously into small movements of my hands on the brake levers and adjustments of cadence and power by my legs and feet. It is a full-body enterprise, requiring the synergistic unity of all my senses and movements and the joining of my senses with the bike, the road, and the riders ahead and behind.

And yet, as I ride, I am not explicitly aware of this achievement. I know it’s happening (if it weren’t, I’d be lying in a heap of limbs and bike parts), but I float on top of it, never having to bring my full attention to it. I see the feat only when, say, I try to reconstruct what it takes to ride in a paceline at 20 mph.

Roberto Marcello Baldessari, The Cyclist, 1915.

LIKE MOST OTHER SPORTS, especially endurance sports, cycling has been transformed in recent decades by the heavy, relentless mediation of engineering, physiology, psychology, and digital technology.

First, there’s the bike. Today’s racing machines represent extraordinary advancements in materials science and engineering. Carbon fiber technology has transformed the bicycle frame, which is lighter, stiffer, and more responsive than earlier steel and aluminum versions. Road bikes offer up to 24 positions in the gears, giving the rider many more points of leverage on the terrain. And the best derailleurs, or shifters, are now electronic and wireless; a rider needs only push a button on the brake levers to change gears. Brakes are more powerful, too, which is especially important in descending. And wheels, also predominantly made of carbon fiber, are lighter, quicker, and more nimble in the turns. The result of all these changes is more speed for the same quantity of energy expended.

Then there’s the physiology of cycling, which now drives training, nutrition, and rest regimens for high-level competitive cyclists. It is a vast technical field, the heart of which is the cell biology of metabolism — how, and how efficiently, muscle cells turn oxygen and glucose into energy, and how well and how long those cells respond to very high energy requirements. Oxygen and glucose get to muscle cells through the bloodstream, and so the cardiovascular system is the other key component of cycling physiology. Increasing the capacity of muscle cells to produce energy and of the heart and lungs to deliver more fuel to cells is what permits cyclists to generate more power and ride at higher speeds for longer periods.

Cycling has also secreted a thick overlay of psychology. Given the importance of coping with stress, it’s not surprising that a great deal of that psychology is devoted to how the mind manages the body under pressure. The management has several modes: exhortatory (Don’t give up! Focus! Faster! There’s no way you’re not finishing this climb!); accusatory (Toughen up, weakling! You’re pathetic!), and therapeutic (Be calm. Relax. Concentrate. Breath.). Whatever the message, the general assumption is pure Descartes: the mind is in control, or at the very least has lots of influence. It’s the captain of the ship. With or without the help of psychologists, all cyclists have attempted some version of these mind management scenarios, with varying degrees of success.

Last but not least, virtually every aspect of cycling performance can now be digitally monitored, charted, and assessed against an ever-expanding list of measures. The essential device is the bicycle computer, and the measures include heart rate, power, speed, cadence, distance, elevation gained and lost, total kilojoules (or calories) expended, and time. From these basic elements, all sorts of algorithmic combinations can be derived: V02 max (maximum rate of oxygen consumption), functional threshold power (average power that can be sustained for one hour), normalized power (average power stripped of random variations), training stress score (the training load of a single workout), and intensity factor (the ratio of normalized power to functional threshold power). And on and on.

Bluetooth technology and cell phones permit all of these data to be shared on apps that connect individuals and groups of riders. In principle, everyone in the cycling world could know how far and fast and well you biked yesterday afternoon. In cycling as elsewhere, social media have made even the most private experiences potential objects of public consumption.

Octave Lapize cresting the Col de Tourmalet, Tour de France, 1910

IN MY SUMMER SEARCH FOR SPEED, I found myself paying closer attention to my cycling computer, and in particular to my average speed and heart rate. I also closely monitored my heart rate and speed as I rode. As time went by, I saw clear improvements. My average speed increased steadily, and I was able to sustain higher heart rates for longer and longer periods. I was learning to cope. I can’t say that I enjoyed the stress, but I relished knowing that I could endure it. I became a better rider, and I felt better, too — on the bike, the sensation of greater capacity and strength; off the bike, the happy background buzz of fitness.

Somewhere toward the end of the summer’s enthusiasm, I also bought new wheels. Lighter, quicker, faster. And expensive: one of the downsides of the search for more speed.

Looking back now from the cold days of mid-winter Maine, I wonder how much the technology figured in my improvement. The computer provided focus during my rides and ways to assess things afterward. But I might have seen the same level of improvement by focusing on perceived exertion and how I felt during and after rides. Without the mediation of technology, I might have found another, more direct means of knowing my body, technique, power, and speed.

I wonder, too, about how the rapid evolution of cycling science and technology have changed the nature of the sport itself. Today’s elite cyclists, supported and guided and prodded by the latest turns of materials science, physiology, psychology, and digital technology, are doing extraordinary things at the outer limits of human ability.

And yet. I think of those wonderful old pictures from the long history of the Tour de France, where riders struggle up endless mountain climbs on rocky and muddy roads, spare tires draped over their shoulders and bags of supplies hanging off their bikes. No support vehicles. No sports psychologists. No bike computers. But with every crushing mile, profound and moving encounters with the boundaries of corporeal possibility.

What I know for certain is that at the outer limits of coping — after many grueling minutes of fast, flat riding, or near the end of a long mountain climb — the engineering, biology, psychology, and technology disappear. No one commands, no one obeys. There is only a body on a bike on a road.

***

Acknowledgments, citations, references:

I am grateful to the exceptional French cyclist Guillaume Martin for his inspiration and the title of this essay. His book, Socrate à Vèlo: Le Tour de France des philosophes, was published by Grasset in 2019.

The opening citation is from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 213.

The ideas of available awareness, “the body-in-the-moment,” and “the habit body” are from Jorella Andrews The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019).

Thanks to Sally Baker for her expert editing.

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2014–2017.

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