The Whale Shark is the biggest nonmammalian vertebrate* on the planet, rivaling the dinosaurs for size. How do you feed yourself when you’re that huge without loading up on carbs all the time? Easy, you swim around with your mouth wide open for 22 hours a day and hope enough food swims in there to take the edge off the hunger pangs. Cyclists face a metaphorically similar challenge when it comes to loading up the lungs with enough air to support our ravenous hunger for more V.
While the civilized person doesn’t normally wander about with their jaw agape as though missing a chromosome, the Velominatus – the most civilized of Cyclists – always rides with a slack jaw. Better for gulping down air while helping yourself to heaping portions of The V.
The sad reality is that when riding uphill, one can either suffer or one can climb off. There is nothing in the middle, no Option C. There may be some (perceived) degree of control over how intense the suffering is, but one of the most important discoveries a Cyclist will ever make is that riding uphill at a moderate pace is almost as hard as riding uphill à bloc. The question becomes one of sustainment of the effort; how much oxygen can be supplied to the blood so the muscles can keep firing. The answer is that you can be as strong as Hercules but if you don’t concentrate on your breathing to get as much air into the lungs as possible, it won’t be very long before Scotty is calling up from the engine room with some bleak news.
Enter the Whale Shark breathing technique: open you mouth wide, and hoover up as much air as possible as you make your way uphill. Ullrich was a champion of this approach, dropping the jaw like the loader on a tractor, cramming air down the hatch and into the furnace. His fellow countryman Tony Martin has taken over the mantle with possibly the most realistic Whaleshark impersonation I’ve ever seen. But this is a technique as old as the sport itself; even the most casual browsing of a photo archive will show riders from all eras riding with their mouths hanging wide open.
The idea here is improve your breathing while avoiding looking like a yawning chimp. Here are a few pointers.
- While you should never ride with your mouth closed, the Whale Shark should be reserved for times when you’re actually riding hard. Unless your name starts with Thomas and ends in Voekler.
- Jut the bottom of your jaw forward like you have an underbite. The underbite helps scoop up more air.
- The muscles in your face and neck are not helping you ride faster; keep them relaxed partly to conserve energy but also to maximize airflow into the lungs.
- Like eating before you’re hungry and drinking before you’re thirsty, start the Whale Shark before you get short on breath in order to keep those oxygen levels topped off from the start.
- Resist the temptation to start breathing more quickly as you start to redline the motor. Quick breaths are shallow breaths, so keep the breathing deep and rhythmic.
*Nonmammalian vertebrate? Do we need that distinction? Are there any competing nonmammalian invertebrates? I’d hate to run into a 21 metric ton bug.