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January 25, 2016 6 comments
A Life in the YearCorrespondence Sports Cycling Bicycles Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus punishes Sisyphus for his avarice and cunning by condemning him to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. The notion of punishment by arduous, never-ending and ultimately meaningless toil is not confined to Ancient Greece. In traditional Chinese folklore a miscreant named Wu Gang faces the divine punishment of forever chopping down a self-regenerating osmanthus tree that grows on the moon. The cycling equivalent of these mythical tortures is the Year Record. The thought of getting on a bike, riding for more than twelve hours only to get up the next day and do it all again, and again and again for a whole year makes me shudder. I'd rather fly to the moon with my felling axe. [caption id="attachment_15994" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Sisyphus by Titian"][/caption] For Sisyphus and Wu Gang, never-ending toil is punishment for moral transgressions. Nobody is forced to take on the Year Record, so perhaps Year Record cyclists have more in common with Naranath Branthan, a character in Keralan folklore who chooses to spend his days pushing a large stone up a hill and rolling it back down again, laughing like a madman. You'd have to be insane to want to ride more than 75,000 miles in a year, right? But here's the thing, Naranath Bhranthan is actually a holy man on a spiritual quest. He has merely taken on the guise of a lunatic. Since it was established in 1911 by Cycling magazine, only a handful of cyclists have combined the physical stamina and psychological drive to take on the Year Record. The heyday of mile-eating was in the 1930s when bicycles and roads were much improved but the car had not yet taken over. In 1939 the Year Record was put 'out of reach' by Tommy Godwin, a British racing cyclist whose reputation as cycling's ultimate mile-eater is unsurpassed. Not only did Godwin ride a unimaginably large distances (an average 205 miles a day with many days in excess of 300 miles) but suffered crashes, illness and two freezing British winters. He carried on through the outbreak of the second world war, air raids, blackouts, food rationing and the threat of being conscripted hanging over him. Godwin's total of 75,065 miles - 205 miles a day - that was the target for the two challengers who set out in January 2015. So demanding is the challenge and so meagre the rewards, that you might expect riders to conform to a particular personality type and share a similar background in cycling. But the two challengers couldn’t be more different, both in temperament and cycling pedigree. In the UK there was Steve “Teethgrinder” Abraham, a balding, softly spoken yet quietly determined 44-year-old warehouse worker, audaxing supremo and Brooks sponsored rider. Across the Atlantic in the United State was Kurt “Tarzan” Searvogel, a tousle-haired, charismatic, larger-than-life, 53-year-old American software engineer and accomplished ultra-racer and triathlete. Different though the men are to one another, both are a world away from the young, gifted, underweight and overpaid ranks of the professional peloton and I soon came to imagine Kurt and Steve as an pair of ageing, bare-chested Mexican luchadores with colourful face masks and dazzling skin tight leggings. [caption id="attachment_15929" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Each man to his own: Steve "Teethgrinder" Abraham (left) and Kurt "Tarzan" Searvogel (right)"][/caption] Just as with the Transcontinental Race, the Year Record is not an easy bike race to watch and much is left to the imagination. The 'action', if you can call it that, is spread out over a entire year and consists mostly of day upon day in which almost nothing discernible happens (other than the miles piling up) until sudden and unexpected moments of high drama threaten to derail one of the riders. Perhaps the most calamitous of these was when, after four months on the road, a moped driver crashed into Steve and left him with a broken ankle. Astonishingly, he continued, riding one-legged on a recumbent tricycle while his injured foot healed. For his part, Kurt had a heart scare, grew saddle sores the size of baseballs, was run down by cars and broke several of his bikes. Through it all he managed to remain good humoured on the regular Facebook videos filmed by Alicia Snyder, his partner, support crew and all round wonder-woman. Towards the end of the year the pair married and on their wedding day Kurt made time for the ceremony by shortening his daily ride to a mere 188 miles. [caption id="attachment_15922" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Sponsored by Brooks England, Steve rode a B17 saddle. Unlike Kurt he was not troubled by saddle sores"][/caption] It's hard to imagine how such an interminable sporting event could ever be brought to a live television audience but since each rider is equipped with a satellite tracker it was possible to while away the hours following them in real time on the web. Data from each day's ride was published on Strava and internet forums and social media soon began to buzz with cheerleading and DIY punditry. Jo Wood, professor of visual analytics at the City University, London, and himself a long-distance cyclist, harvested the huge volumes of data produced by the riders and produced some stunning data visualisations that shed new light on the stories of their rides. [caption id="attachment_15916" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Data visualisation by Professor Jo Wood showing progress towards Tommy Godwin's Year Record (click to view interactive version"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_15917" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Heat map for roads ridden by Steve Abraham in 2015, by Professor Jo Wood"][/caption] Having spent just over half of all hours in the year riding his bike, at a moving average speed of 17.1 mph (27.5 kph), Kurt passed Godwin's record, with five days to spare. This gave him enough time to set a new record of a 76,076 miles (a nice numerological touch: 1776 is the year of the American declaration of independence). Kurt is now the tenth man to hold the Year Record and there are those who have said that with modern equipment (Kurt rode both upright and recumbent bikes), smooth asphalt roads, the warmth of the Florida sun and a camper van to chase tail winds, he had it easy compared to his predecessors, and that he does not deserve to take Godwin's crown. But just as Godwin sought out every possible source of advantage available at the time, including commercial sponsors, support vehicles to pace him, fix his bike and organise food, drinks and lodgings, so he would expect anyone challenging his record to do the same, as long as it's within rules and the spirit of the record. I also suspect Godwin would be pleased someone had finally bettered his record and might wonder why it took 75 years to happen. [caption id="attachment_15918" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Kurt and Alicia's camper van, showing the all important target mileage. Image via Kurt Searvogel"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_15989" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Kurt's road to the Year Record, by Professor Jo Wood (click to enlarge)"][/caption] In the end, injury and illness cost Steve dearly and he finished 2015 on 63,565 miles, far less than his goal but still the fourth highest annual mileage of all time. Having started a concurrent second record attempt in August, Steve vowed to ride on in 2016, but requiring an average nearing 220 miles a day for six months, he called off his challenge last week. In doing so Steve discovered that the only thing tougher than riding a bike all year to break the Year Record is riding a bike all year to not break the Year Record. Steve, who rode a steel touring bike through two British winters with no support vehicle, has since said that if he has another tilt at the record, he'd like to go the 'full Team Sky route'. With Kurt and Steve now enjoying some well-deserved time off the bike, two new riders are making their own challenges on the Year Record in 2016. London-based New Zealander and former elite racer Bruce Berkeley started his year in the warmth of the Australian summer, putting in some impressive performances while Nottingham-based Kajsa Tylén has set out to better the women's year record, set by Billie Dovey in 1938. She's already ahead of her target of 81 miles a day. So what are we to make of the resurgence of mile-eaters taking on the Year Record? In its hundred year history this uniquely challenging event has attracted more than its fair share of oddballs and eccentrics, each with an unnaturally high tolerance for physical suffering, sleep deprivation and pure, unadulterated tedium. Should we look on with awe at their fortitude (I'll admit to strong sense of relief that it's them and not me banging out the miles day after day)? Or should we pity them for failing to come up with a more imaginative and worthwhile way to spend a year on a bike than the cycling equivalent of a giant hamster wheel? Shortly after Tommy Godwin rode 75,000 miles in a year, the French philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. In it, he describes the absurdity of mankind's search for meaning, unity, and clarity in the face of a futile, unintelligible and Godless world. Camus argues that in the grand scheme of things our own lives have no more meaning than an eternity spent pushing a boulder up a hill. We are all Sisyphus. If that sounds rather depressing, Camus finds in the human predicament a source of hope not despair. He holds up Sisyphus as a role model for how to live a good life in a meaningless world. Embracing the ultimately pointless outcome of his labours, Sisyphus is freed of a search for meaning to find satisfaction in the very act of pushing the boulder, of turning the pedals. "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart," concludes Camus, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."