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. Casually humming or even singing an annoyingly catchy tune can work a treat too; especially if the rhythm matches your cadence but not that of the companion you’re trying to bury!

  2. 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”

  3. Talking to riders in the peleton also activates that most dangerous of racing body parts: the brain. Leading to thoughts such as “how in the hell is this dude talking to me? I must suck.”

    The problem, as you point out, comes in delivery though. In my attempts at speaking, there are too many gasps and heaving in between the words for anything I say to make sense.

  4. I need practice – I’m good at enduring pain – but no good at hiding it.

    More Laurens Ten Dam than Richie Porte (I wish!)

  5. My wife only uses the casual conversation / humming / whistling on a climb technique on me when we are on the tandem.

    She can hide her suffering to the point where it hardly seems she’s working at all…

  6. Eating and drinking or taking of a gilet/jacket next to someone suffering is always a good way to turn the psychological screws, but my personal favorite is riding no hands and cleaning your sunglasses on your jersey.

  7. Excellent read – next time someone tries to talk to me on a climb I shall ignore them, the cunning foxes!

  8. @Isaac

    Eating and drinking or taking of a gilet/jacket next to someone suffering is always a good way to turn the psychological screws, but my personal favorite is riding no hands and cleaning your sunglasses on your jersey.

    Yes, it does. First time that I elected to reach down for my water bottle while just being off the front in a fast group, I thought “to make sure they see this” and “not to act hurriedly at all.” And when they do not see me (over a hill or bend in the road) go stark raving mad lathering at the mouth — until the do see me again, then resume.

  9. You’re talking about the monumental chink in my armour. Honestly, I can suffer but am completely shite at hiding it. I seem to ride with an almost permanent rictus grin on my face.  Homework to do.

  10. 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.

    @Hammer

    pissed myself over that one!

  11. @Gianni

    @Nate

    This is how it’s done:

    http://www.sonuma.be/archive/merckx-et-hinault-un-tandem-%C3%A0-l-heure

    That’s beautiful. It must have bugged Le Blaireau to be riding behind Eddy all that time.

    It seems to take Le Blaireau a little while to settle into being the stoker; there are some funny expressions that run across his face at first.  According to the French text, the Cannibal was visiting Le Blaireau in Brittany, so presumably that’s the host’s tandem.  Letting the guest be up front is probably only the gentlemanly thing to do in the circs.

  12. The image of Gianni looking back, while drawing on a cigarette…transparent as it gets.

  13. @VeloSix You’re right in that it’s not about being social with your opponent. But consider the nuance. The idea is to feign interest and control the conversation, not monopolize it. That way, as Frank suggested, with a few well paced questions they are lured into talking themselves blue in the face, and you ride them off your wheel when the psychological impact is most potent.

  14. @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!

  15. How many references to tandems can a post featuring a photo of hard bastidz riding the stone feature?

    You guys have surprised me this time. Even if the tandem does also involve Merckx and Hinault. Seriously.

  16. @frank The drilled bar set negates the tandem. And the awesome musicians from the Three Amigos override the tandem.

  17. @Gianni

    Baldato, Ballerini, Tchmil, LeMan (‘s foot and calf).

    Would be interesting to record audio of a race going down the pave and isolate all the chain slap’ going on.

  18. @frank

    How many references to tandems can a post featuring a photo of hard bastidz riding the stone feature?

    You guys have surprised me this time. Even if the tandem does also involve Merckx and Hinault. Seriously.

    The article was about talking.  See, I actually read it.  I didn’t really pay too much attention to the picture.  (Surely I am not the only one who has noticed how the Keepers surreptitiously change the lead pix with no comment or warning.)

    Meanwhile,  how can you complain about the video?  The Prophet and the Badger riding a bike, Badger making faces and asking Eddy about the hour record, and both looking Fantastic in their own manner.  What more could we want?

    @chipomarc

     I’m jaded up on Amphetamines

    That is either some awesome new terminology, the best iPhone spellcheck nonsequitur ever, or both.

  19. @Isaac

    Eating and drinking or taking of a gilet/jacket next to someone suffering is always a good way to turn the psychological screws, but my personal favorite is riding no hands and cleaning your sunglasses on your jersey.

    Until someone attacks while you’re doing it.

    Kudos if you can maintain composure while you casually re-place the sunglasses/fold the gilet neatly before calmly bridging the gap, perhaps with a small sigh of pity at their futile self-destruction.

    More likely however it will result in an unseemly scramble to shove stuff haphazardly in the jersey, clench the glasses in your mouth and burn the last match desperately trying to reach the last wheel. Negative V-points in that scenario.

  20. One of the more satisfying moments during my Italian trip last year was being politely asked to “Stop fucking talking” as the gradient started to  bite.

  21. 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.

  22. @Optimiste

    @VeloSix You’re right in that it’s not about being social with your opponent. But consider the nuance. The idea is to feign interest and control the conversation, not monopolize it. That way, as Frank suggested, with a few well paced questions they are lured into talking themselves blue in the face, and you ride them off your wheel when the psychological impact is most potent.

    True, some people are especially keen on telling you all about themselves, so a few brief, well place questions to get them started is a quite the craft I’m must learn.

  23. The other part of this is how to pass people on climbs when you aren’t riding with them. Obviously once you pass someone you must actually die and fall off the bike before you let them pass them again.

    Part one of this is how you pass them. Either you sit back, get your HR down, then fly past and get a gap, or you pass them slowly, with a cheerful “how’s it going” as you go past.

    Once you are past, then you need to look relaxed and calm. This is where the smooth pedalling comes in. Short of a heart attack one must keep that smooth pedalling going.

    The biggest problem is looking back. Clearly actually looking over your shoulder is a sign of weakness (unless maybe you do it COHO style). I’m pretty sure this is why hairpins were invented – that way you can casually glance over and see how your vanquished (?) opponent is going as you go around.

  24. I got dropped by a guy in cutoff jeans riding a fixie last week. My only consolation was that we passed a lot of other cyclists before I blew up. Full credit to him – he might have broken every Rule, but the V was strong in him.

  25. It’s my “indoctrination into hating people experience” that people generally only listen to one thing while your talking to them, or someone near them.   They are listening for you to take a breath, because they have already composed their next thought, and are only listening for you to breathe or pause so they can take over.   They have no interest in adding depth or complexity to your conversation, they just want to be the one talking instead of you.

    I am going to go out today and practice my enabling….

  26. @The Grande Fondue

    I got dropped by a guy in cutoff jeans riding a fixie last week. My only consolation was that we passed a lot of other cyclists before I blew up. Full credit to him – he might have broken every Rule, but The V was strong in him.

    There is balance in the world.   While in Austin, TX (how the hell did Austin become part of Texas?) I saw all hipsters and only one cyclist.

    I watched as a fully decked out in his hippie best, get off his fixie to push it up the small hill downtown going under an overpass.   One would think you could carry enough speed coming down the other side to at least coast halfway up the next side.

    Nope, I’m a fucking pussy, I will push this up the other side.   Or maybe he didn’t want to mess up his 50’s rock-a-billy hair style….

  27. 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.

  28. @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.

    Schadenfreude… finest word in the English language.

  29. @The Grande Fondue

    I got dropped by a guy in cutoff jeans riding a fixie last week. My only consolation was that we passed a lot of other cyclists before I blew up. Full credit to him – he might have broken every Rule, but The V was strong in him.

    I take great joy in dropping carbon craplets upon my ancient Bottecchia fixed-gear, and I laud him for his insouciance.   That said, I can’t bear to get on the bike without at least attempting to Look Fantastic, and cutoffs don’t qualify.

  30. All a rider needs to be deeply annoying to surrounding cyclists is to be riding a couple percent below their limit. A couple years back on Blood Sweat & Gears I found myself on the steepest climb, holding back a bit to stay near a friend, and spinning alongside a college team rider who was short on fuel but not breath. We rode the pass chatting easily about area rides and cycling in general, picking off and pissing off riders all the way up. Highlight of the day.

  31. This. This is a old and magical trick that was taught to me back in my HS cross country and track days. I remember the conversation our track coach having with us like it was yesterday: him standing there, smoking his 5th, 6th cig during our workout “now on this next 400, I want you guys to keep relaxed, smile a bit, and chat about your history class.” Once we had it down, it worked wonders at meets. Going to pass an opposing team member on a steep hill, slow down a bit, ask them “how’s it going? Nice little course you have here”. Very demoralizing, and just one trick that had our CC team undefeated for 4 years.

  32. @ChrisO

    @Isaac

    Eating and drinking or taking of a gilet/jacket next to someone suffering is always a good way to turn the psychological screws, but my personal favorite is riding no hands and cleaning your sunglasses on your jersey.

    Until someone attacks while you’re doing it.

    Kudos if you can maintain composure while you casually re-place the sunglasses/fold the gilet neatly before calmly bridging the gap, perhaps with a small sigh of pity at their futile self-destruction.

    More likely however it will result in an unseemly scramble to shove stuff haphazardly in the jersey, clench the glasses in your mouth and burn the last match desperately trying to reach the last wheel. Negative V-points in that scenario.

    Yes, getting caught out like that is perhaps due to the hubris of making too big a display.

    If, on the other hand, you pull it off before the attack goes, then spot fucking on.

    The reasonable would probably state that as part of being Casually Deliberate in this case would come the notion that you are able to read the race and only eat/take off kit when there is no imminent attack coming.

    Top points for timing it such that you finish the futzing about, pay the rider you just crushed mentally a kind farewell, start moving to the front and casually slip onto the back wheel of the rider attacking right at the moment s/he makes their move.

    @Nate

    I didn’t complain about the video, I complained about the number of references made to tandems.

  33. @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.

  34. @The Grande Fondue

    The other part of this is how to pass people on climbs when you aren’t riding with them. Obviously once you pass someone you must actually die and fall off the bike before you let them pass them again.

    Part one of this is how you pass them. Either you sit back, get your HR down, then fly past and get a gap, or you pass them slowly, with a cheerful “how’s it going” as you go past.

    Once you are past, then you need to look relaxed and calm. This is where the smooth pedalling comes in. Short of a heart attack one must keep that smooth pedalling going.

    The biggest problem is looking back. Clearly actually looking over your shoulder is a sign of weakness (unless maybe you do it COHO style). I’m pretty sure this is why hairpins were invented – that way you can casually glance over and see how your vanquished (?) opponent is going as you go around.

    Never look back. Ever. But you can look to the side (to casually admire the scenery) and use your peripherals.

    Another good approach is to come flying up, hit the brakes when you reach them and then have a little chat about how nice the day is oh and that’s a nice bike they’re riding how do they like it oh really I’ve never heard that and I’ve wondered about those bidon cages are they as secure as the fizik cages yeah that’s great ok well enjoy your day!

    And then casually accelerate to 2x the speed and duck into the nearest pub as soon as you’re out of sight.

  35. @VeloSix

    It’s my “indoctrination into hating people experience” that people generally only listen to one thing while your talking to them, or someone near them. They are listening for you to take a breath, because they have already composed their next thought, and are only listening for you to breathe or pause so they can take over. They have no interest in adding depth or complexity to your conversation, they just want to be the one talking instead of you.

    I am going to go out today and practice my enabling….

    It really is incredible. I do this during heated meetings at work: when I see the person I’m debating with doing this (normally indicated by them stopping their subtle reactions to the points you’re making and their mouth moving every time they anticipate you stopping).

    I will stop mid sentence and calmly say something like, “I can clearly see you’ve stopped listening and are just waiting for me to stop so you can make the point you have already decided to make, so why don’t you go ahead so we can continue the conversation productively?”

    This has not once had the result of them making their point, but instead results in them either encouraging me to continue or asking how I knew they’d stopped listening.

  36. @antihero

    @The Grande Fondue

    I got dropped by a guy in cutoff jeans riding a fixie last week. My only consolation was that we passed a lot of other cyclists before I blew up. Full credit to him – he might have broken every Rule, but The V was strong in him.

    I take great joy in dropping carbon craplets upon my ancient Bottecchia fixed-gear, and I laud him for his insouciance. That said, I can’t bear to get on the bike without at least attempting to Look Fantastic, and cutoffs don’t qualify.

    There is an enormous chasm between a fixed-gear and a fixie. One is a tool for training, the other a hipster’s gimmick.

    @Dave Wright

    All a rider needs to be deeply annoying to surrounding cyclists is to be riding a couple percent below their limit. A couple years back on Blood Sweat & Gears I found myself on the steepest climb, holding back a bit to stay near a friend, and spinning alongside a college team rider who was short on fuel but not breath. We rode the pass chatting easily about area rides and cycling in general, picking off and pissing off riders all the way up. Highlight of the day.

    This.

  37. @scaler911

    This. This is a old and magical trick that was taught to me back in my HS cross country and track days. I remember the conversation our track coach having with us like it was yesterday: him standing there, smoking his 5th, 6th cig during our workout “now on this next 400, I want you guys to keep relaxed, smile a bit, and chat about your history class.” Once we had it down, it worked wonders at meets. Going to pass an opposing team member on a steep hill, slow down a bit, ask them “how’s it going? Nice little course you have here”. Very demoralizing, and just one trick that had our CC team undefeated for 4 years.

    As demonstrated kindly by Vince Vaughn.

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