The Illusion of Transparency

pokerface
Mah-mah-mah-mah-mah poker face – mah poker face.

The illusion of transparency is perhaps the most important tool the Velominatus has in their toolbox, apart from having some measure of competence, being Casually Deliberate at all times, Looking Fantastic, and being able to dish out and endure heaping helpings of The V.

Cycling is suffering, and one of the most crucial lessons we have to learn is that we are rarely the only one who hurts. When the pressure is on or the group is heading uphill, every rider in the bunch is dying a thousand silent deaths. The rider on the front, while doing the most work, does enjoy a slight psychological advantage of being responsible for the pain disbursements, but they are suffering perhaps more than anyone else. Because everyone is momentarily cohabiting in the hurt locker, those riders who are best able to give the impression that they are in fact at ease maintain a distinct advantage over the others; there is nothing more demoralizing than feeling like a pig on a spit while the rider next to you is smiling and talking about the amazing view.

It turns out that as a species, we are really bad at judging other people’s emotions by their facial expressions, and generally over-estimate how good we are at it. In other words, everyone has a poker face and everyone sucks at reading them them. This plays into our advantage as Cyclists because it means it’s not all that hard to hide your suffering from other riders or, in fact, make them believe you’re suffering even when you’re not.

The most common tactic in this area is to keep your facial expression neutral and your pedaling smooth and relaxed despite how hard you’re pushing yourself. This takes lots of practice, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Another tactic is to look about the bunch casually, take in the scenery, or futz about with your kit; this builds the impression that you are so completely at ease that you are distracted from the heavy work at hand.

My favorite approach is to engage in casual conversation during the hardest parts of a climb. There is a real art to this, because all that talking will get in the way of the most important element of climbing: your breathing. But you can work around that problem by being the one driving the conversation; you can choose your words to make sure they are short so you can continue to breath even as you’re speaking. The best thing to do is to fake an interest in the rider personally and ask them loads of questions. Seduced by the opportunity to talk about themselves, their ego will step in and force them to answer your questions at length, sending them into a spiral of accelerated hypoxic fatigue. It’s all bollocks, of course – you could give two shits about where they went to school or what their view is on the protests in Kiev – but they won’t catch on because they suck at reading your facial expressions while you carefully regulate your breathing and prepare to drop them. At which point you feign surprise that the pace was high enough to cause any damage.

Its gotten to the point where I don’t even realize I’m doing it. The more I’m suffering, the more likely I’ll be to strike up a conversation. And, should my Too Fat To Climb ass be successful in somehow dropping my companions, I’ll gulp in air like a rabid monkey at the top to make sure I’ve fully caught my breath by the time they catch back up so I can make idle conversation about how nice that climb is and how much I love that road and its so amazing that when I moved here I thought that was a tough climb but now I hardly even notice it and I’ll probably install a 42T because the 39T just feels so small.

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70 Replies to “The Illusion of Transparency”

  1. @PedallingTom

    Great post. Except for my continual need to focus on Rule #6 and The V when suffering. In truth I try to do this but I’m not sure of my success.

    @gregorio

    A couple of seasons ago I thought I’d ramp up my Casually Deliberate coolness quotient. While passing another rider on a 14% grade I quipped, pain is only temporary. [I know…not even clever, never mind original] I blew up 200 meters further up the road. When he passed me he didn’t say a word. The silence was deafening. Since then, I keep my pie hole shut unless I have something to say.

    The key to this art is not fucking it up. You can fake not suffering or mask how hard you’re working, but you can’t fake confidence and competence.

    If you don’t have the guns to pull it off, its best to practice in private until you do rather than make a stab at it and having it backfire.

    @ChrisO

    Ha!

  2. @frank

    @PT

    I imagine if you still have it in the big ring and are braking for the hairpins, any further demonstration of capability is considered ostentatious.

    Presumably when you’re doing that, you’re riding alone with everyone else choking on your dust. So why the fuck would you be talking? Trying to psyche yourself out?

    Sorry, but my dissociative identity disorder isn’t quite that developed.

    Breaking into a lusty rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ at that point would seal the deal, I think.

  3. @frank

    @Hammer

    Whistling A cheerful tune…..

    or rather, having some ultra-fit pensioner behind you doing it while you are attacking and trying to drop him.

    Apoarently he was an ex-pro knowns as “Whistling-Bob”

    Johan Museeuw does this as well. Very unnerving!

    He most certainly does – smiles as well and then talks to you. My peripheral vision was going and he was whistling – no wonder I schlecked my chain.

  4. I tend to go in the other direction.  I’ll over-exagerate the amount of pain I’m showing, so as to lull my riding mates into a false sense of security…

  5. NEVER underestemate a fixed gear. Fixed gear riders who actualy ride (not that many here in Auckland) tend to be allot faster than they seem at first glance. I started off as a hipster on a fixie before joining the local bunch ride on said fixie. The fast riders of the bush do not like being passed up hills. The trick is to sit behind them and wait for the gear chainge. As they drop back I like to give a little glance at there face and then there (now in the granny ring) gears with a slight hint of distane. I do this on the geared bike as well.

  6. Waiting for the gear change works well if you have gears at your disposal too. Wait for their down shift before dropping it into a smaller sprocket and pushing on. To make it convincing, your push / attack / attempt to irritate the fuck out of them must be conducted seated with a rock-steady upper body to hide the fact that you are wringing every last watt out of your guns. You can get back to recovering once you’re two hairpins up the road and they can’t see you popping your lungs and eyeballs back in.

  7. @Fausto

    Waiting for the gear change works well if you have gears at your disposal too. Wait for their down shift before dropping it into a smaller sprocket and pushing on. To make it convincing, your push / attack / attempt to irritate the fuck out of them must be conducted seated with a rock-steady upper body to hide the fact that you are wringing every last watt out of your guns. You can get back to recovering once you’re two hairpins up the road and they can’t see you popping your lungs and eyeballs back in.

    Waiting for them to stand works too.

    Can’t believe this hasn’t been posted yet. Cancellara defines “illusion of transparency”.

  8. @The Grande Fondue Ai-cha-cha awesome! If I happen onto the right gear and stay down while turning, I’m thinking “don’t break the spell…” — surge if at possible. That was perfect putting Boonen on the Sword!

  9. Oh boy, do I love talking about the weather, the birds, whatever when things really get painful. Most of the sports I played while growing up involved a healthy dose of running banter. Good training for life as a Velominatus.

    When things get painful, I’ve always found the suffering of others to be very good motivation.

  10. @pink@Fausto

    Rule #90 covers it nicely I think.

    @The Grande Fondue

    @Fausto

    Waiting for the gear change works well if you have gears at your disposal too. Wait for their down shift before dropping it into a smaller sprocket and pushing on. To make it convincing, your push / attack / attempt to irritate the fuck out of them must be conducted seated with a rock-steady upper body to hide the fact that you are wringing every last watt out of your guns. You can get back to recovering once you’re two hairpins up the road and they can’t see you popping your lungs and eyeballs back in.

    Waiting for them to stand works too.

    Can’t believe this hasn’t been posted yet. Cancellara defines “illusion of transparency”.

    Seriously. This community is worthless if it can’t even post a video of one of the most beautiful attacks on the most beautiful climb of the classics season! Thanks for redeeming us.

  11. I rode home from work one day last week with a guy who is faster than me. We were riding steadily at about 32-34 kph in to a moderate headwind. At one point, as the traffic started to speed up and we had to merge back over to the near-side he started to accelerate away. I almost lost sight of him — he must have got about 200 meters ahead, obviously not wanting to take it easy (and rightly so). I worked my socks off, pushing the biggest gear I could manage and really gritting my teeth and finally, after a km or so, managed to catch up with him again. The effort almost killed me. Before I pulled alongside I took a brief moment to catch my breath and recover my heart rate, and then rode up and said “Almost lost you there,” in the most casual voice possible. He continued the conversation in an equally casual voice. I’d love to know if he had even a little bit of a poker face at that moment, or whether he is just a lot stronger than me. Equally, I wonder if he knew how hard I had to work to get back…

  12. @Adrian Well you certainly know how hard you worked. Kudos! I have drifted to the back of group rides to check on riders supposedly “off the back” to find they were not working at all. Closing the gap is one of the best road scenarios you can ask for in a workout. Kudos again!

  13. Adrian one more thing to add, because you have got me going here. I have to remember when riding with another rider that is “off” — “don’t give it away.” Meaning that there is a much greater benefit letting riders work hard without making it impossible for them to catch back on.

  14. Excuse the Velominati Lexicon auto correction that wants to call you an “Adrian” — never knew Adrian was in the Lexicon.

  15. @Adrian I ride the accordion twice a week – off, chase on, off, chase on. You also don’t get any rest if others stop, as inevitably they ride as soon as you catch up, and rightly so. What this means is you get bigger gains in fitness and faster, as you are working consistently the whole ride.

    It also means I have a rep for looking like death on a bike, as I’m in the red trying to catch at the top of all the climbs, and they are all up there smiling at the suffering they see and hear coming. Found as the fitness is coming that you are able to think more about your form, and facial expressions crossed my mind after this article. Worked on my blank poker face this morning, I like to call it the death stare.

    Chugging up a 10 percenter the thought crossed my mind that it take less muscles to smile, than it does to frown. Thusly, it takes less muscles to hold a flacid expression than wrinkled up expressions of pain. In most scientific fashion this can only mean less effort spent on purposes incidental to making the fucking bike go faster, less blood flow to the face = more to the legs, lungs and ticker. Death stare for the fucken win..

  16. @Adrian

    I’d love to know if he had even a little bit of a poker face at that moment, or whether he is just a lot stronger than me. Equally, I wonder if he knew how hard I had to work to get back…

    The most beautiful thing about that story is the mystery on both sides of it. Neither of you will ever know and with a little bit of luck, both of you wondered.

    All he knows is you didn’t drop off and you could still talk. The rest, he inferred.

  17. Sagz could do with reading this article, spent the last 5k’s of Strade Bianche showing all kinds of pain faces & then got dropped like a hot potato on the last ramp. Beautiful work from Mr Kwiatkowski, OPQS are having a pretty good start to the European season.

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