As an asthma sufferer, albeit one who hasn’t had many problems in the last 8 years or so, I recently had a routine check up at the local GP practice. Taking a peak expiratory flow test, I recorded a breath volume – essentially a derivative of lung capacity – about 1/3 below that of the average 18 year old of my height.
A peak expiratory flow (PEF) test is undertaken on a peak flow meter, with a sliding dial which moves further up the measurement tab the harder you blow. I remember from reading It’s Not About the Bike that Lance Armstrong went off the scale in a PEF test, blowing the dial to the very end of the meter despite having just finished his first session of chemo. Now I know what you’re all thinking, but however you look at it and whatever you think of the guy, Lance’s athletic credentials can’t be disputed. For reference, I got the dial up to about halfway.
Lance is by no means the only cyclist with extraordinary lungs. Miguel Indurain, for example, had a lung capacity measuring 8 litres, which is 30% larger than that of the average man. 30%! Larger lungs means you can simply breathe in more oxygen. More oxygen means more oxygenated blood, which in turn means more red blood cells. More red blood cells means a higher aerobic threshold. Any cyclist with a basic knowledge of a ramp test or a time trial knows what this means. Simply, you can ride faster for longer. Other methods of obtaining more red blood cells include altitude training, or taking performance enhancing drugs such as the red blood cell booster EPO, showing the natural advantage possessed by riders with enormous lungs. It’s hardly surprising that Big Mig was such a dominant rider.
This suggests that in the same way as Usain Bolt has an incredibly rich supply of fast twitch muscle fibres and Jenson Button has reaction and reflex times dwarfing those of standard people, the best cyclists are physiologically perfectly matched to the sport we love. The one downside to this discovery is that I now realise that my poor lung capacity renders me as unsuited to flying up mountains with Froome & co. as Dawn French is physically unsuited to the High Jump. Okay, maybe not quite that unsuited, but the point still stands. Whilst it is impossible to ignore that dedication and application are of fundamental importance in obtaining athletic success, that genetics play a massive part in selecting our sporting champions is also undisputable.
Half Man, Half Bike
by William Fotheringham
I imagine that almost everyone who has had the slightest interest in cycling would know the name of Eddy ‘The Cannibal’ Merck, and if you are like me, also know very little about him beyond that he is often quoted as the greatest racing cyclist that there has ever been.
William Fotheringham’s book certainly addresses this lack of knowledge and through extensive research and interviews, gives the reader a very detailed account of not only how he earned such a lofty title, but also why, what could motivate someone to claim 445 victories? Compared to Lance Armstrong, for instance, which tally below 100 (now following recent events, are several less!).
The introduction inside the cover describes it well:
‘His triumphs only tell half a story that includes horrific injury, a doping controversy and tragedy…..’
The author ‘…..goes back to speak to those who were there at the time and those who knew Merckx best. The result is this extraordinary and definitive story of a man whose fear of failure would drive him to reach the highest pinnacles before ultimately destroying him.’
We learn that his desire to win is an accumulation of many factors that have influenced him throughout his life, even the terrible aftermath of the Second World War has its part to play in shaping his character and popularity, even though he was born in 1945. This inherent fear of failure causes him to race without any regard to riding defensively, it never enters his mind to sit back and relax a little, conserve his energy, even with an apparently insurmountable margin over his rivals.
For example, during the 1969 Tour de France, he was already leading by over 8 minutes, but Merckx hammered a further 8 ½ minutes out of his nearest rivals during a 85 mile solo break in the Pyrenees, his reasoning was ‘just in case’ something went wrong, todays riders would just keep safely in the peloton and not risk over working themselves.
Another difference with the racing of today is the number of races he entered, some years as high as 151! He never treated a race as training, if he was on the start line it was because he planned to win. What surprises me even more is that he seems to be constantly fighting against injury and illness throughout his career.
His dominance guaranteed his place in history and his stardom, but as is often the case it came at a price, after a while he made racing too predictable, the fans and especially the other riders didn’t want him to enter, in their eyes he ‘killed cycling’ by taking all the wins and prize money. The fame also meant that his private life was constantly interrupted with media and fan demands, his household received around 50 phone calls a day, most dealt with and filtered by his Wife and not all them were pleasant.
This constant pressure, both created by himself and externally, eventually took its toll on his body and mind. It was not his way to pick a few races and just take the appearance fee, only the best performance would do, he must be capable of winning. So when this was no longer possible he retired, finding it difficult to adjust without the racing that had been such a large part of his life.
The book is a very good read and very well researched, it must have taken years of searching and organising to get the interviews and trace his life story.
I highly recommended it for anybody interested in cycle racing.
Now I know why he’s called the greatest, do you? Get a copy if you too want to know the story behind this unique man and cyclist. Merckx gets our Star Buy rating.
Don’t forget to enter our competition to win a Hardback copy of the book! Click here to enter!
Closing date: 24/09/2012.
Merckx – Half Man, Half Bike
Yellow Jersey Press (Random House) & Vintage Digital
Available in Hardback, iBook & Kindle
RRP £16.99 (Hardback), RRP £9.99 (iBook) RRP £16.99 (Kindle)