Friday the 13th

Cyclists are a superstitious breed; they do a lot of strange things a lot of the time. If you hang around enough start lines, bike shops or even just your fellow riding partners, inevitably you will catch a glimpse of their true quirky selves at some point. The upside down ‘lucky’ number 13 (as seen here) is but one example of the kind of superstitions which will likely come to light. The thinking in this case being that if you were the one to pull the dreaded number from the pile then you’d better make the best of it and turn it upside down before pinning it on (and remember to always pin from left to right, starting at the top.) Well, today being Friday the 13th, that most superstitious of days, we thought it would be good to take a look at some of the others we’ve heard of. Interestingly, there are two more of these Fridays this year, one in April and another in July (gasp), so why not enter some of the more interesting cycling superstitions you’ve about (perhaps they’re your own) in the comments section below? Rapha will then pull together some of the better (stranger) ones and revisit them in April and July.

Former Rapha Condor Sharp racer and Rouleur writer Tom Southam chimed in with a few thoughts of his own to bring a pro’s view on the subject.

Tom had lived this life for so long that it was inevitable he would have a list of crazy things that professional cyclists do to reduce their chances of crashing, or to set their minds at ease before the start of that long grueling event known as the stage race. His remarks were well thought out but, rather suprisingly, more focused on the amateur cyclist on his rise to the top than his former professional peers. Could it be an attempt to disguise how crazy pro riders really are?

Tom says:

There are probably fewer superstitions among pro riders than there are among the amateurs; that’s where it’s really bad. When you’re making your way up the ranks, a lot of learning is done by just listening to older guys then trying to apply all this pro behaviour to make you faster. 

A good example of this is the thing about wearing a stifling amount of kit, no matter how hot it gets. This is a massive thing for a lot of amateurs – and I have to put my hand up and admit I was one of them. You’d head out training on a 25C day with leg warmers, long sleeves, a hat and just sweat like an idiot. There were a few theories that had apparently come ‘from the top’ and then percolated their way down. There was a theory that you would either catch a cold if you weren’t properly wrapped up, or that you could damage your knees if you let the tendons get cold. Or even, that if your legs felt cool air, then your body would think you needed to layer them with fat to stay warm – so it would send fat cells there to insulate and you would end up with fat legs. 

That’s partly a French thing. The French are always worried about getting fat legs instead of simply being worried about going fast on a bicycle. I have seen a lot of very slow, very ripped riders in that country.

The ones who really take it too far are the Spanish. In 2003, the European Champs were held in Athens, in August. On a near-40C day, I once saw the Spanish team training before the race in full leg warmers and long sleeve tops.

The brilliant thing was that, years later, when I was pro myself staying in Madrid, I was out with a couple of guys, Pablo Lastras and Pavel Tonkov. It was about 20C and sunny so we’d stripped down to shorts and short sleeves. We passed an amateur guy going the other way, wearing every piece of kit he could find. Tonkov just looked at me and said: “Amateurs. Where do they get the idea you have to wear all that? Some idiot must have told them that’s what the pros do?”

Being warm is reasonable, overheating to look the part is idiotic.

Other beliefs are those we’ve heard over the years (some as recently as this morning). The good ones tend to stick with you. They quickly pick up a head of steam and assume that legendary status that we’re all looking for. Because, after all, who among us does not want to find that simple trick that transforms us from being an everyday sporting cyclist into a hard-hitting Eddy, Jens, or even a Jacques? Who knows if any of these are even true? It makes them all the more effective in finding a place in our hearts and minds.

Never:

– Race on new bartape (Adam Myerson).
– Shave your legs the night before a big race.
– Bring your wife or girlfriend along for the stage race (i.e. no sex).
– Race on a brand new, unwashed chamois (Chris Jones).
– Pin your number from right to left, always left to right.
– Bathe during a stage race.
– Ride green bikes (Bob Roll).
– Climb with your bidons in their holsters (Anquetil).
– Race with a new saddle (at least one ride first).
– Climb in even gears as they are for cement mixers (Andy Hampsten).
– Eat ice cream while in competition (John Herety).
– Race a bike or helmet without at least one scratch on it (drop if you have to).
– Train in shorts, that way you know when you’re racing (Southam).
– Sleep in air conditioning during a stage race (Armstrong).
– Eat the soft center of the bread for fear of diarrhea.
– Stand when you can sit. Or sit when you can lie down.

This is, frankly, a list that could go on and on. The other thing worth noting is the trinkets you see riders wearing. The copper bracelets dangling from wrists and the jangling necklaces that swing during those long extended climbs through the Pyrenees. The caps sometimes worn forward, sometimes backward. Brim up, brim down, take your pick. Keep an eye out as this year’s Tour progresses. Who will be wearing the same odiferous base layer day in and day out in a bid not to upset the gods of karma (and who has yet to discover the merits of merino wool)? Apparently Jens Voigt has a special pair of sunglasses he only wears when he knows he’s going to go for the win. Rumor has it that his win-rate is near 100% when he wears them. Which has, by now, planted the idea in your mind: ‘What glasses? I must have them.’

Tom Southam has a response to this kind of juju:

I always really fancied having some neat trinket that I could put my faith in as a lucky charm, maybe a necklace or something like that. A lot of guys have something like that but sadly two things stopped that. One reason was that nothing like that was ever given to me; the other being that my first coach banned lucky charms pretty much in the first conversation we ever had. His thinking was that one day you’d forget it or lose it and as a result would start the race already beaten. 

Whatever you need to make yourself feel better about your racing and training, we say do it. When I try and think of those things I do – whether it’s keeping my glasses on my person at all times, or never riding my bike without a base layer – I can’t think of one that gets in my head sufficiently before a race that it irks me to the end. Usually, when the race kicks off those nervous ticks disappear. But I know that they are out there. My fellow Rapha Continental rider Cole Maness refuses to shake hands with anyone wearing gloves. And I have seen them at the races (it must be a peanut butter sandwich – no crusts! – 45 minutes before the start). So, I can tell you for certain that such superstitions do exist. But what I want to know, on this 13th day of the year is, what are yours?