Malcolm Gladwell Rides A Bike... ...But He Doesn’t Have To Like It
AN AVID CYCLIST TAKES ON THE BEST-SELLING AUTHOR AND AVOWED RUNNER TO SEE WHOSE SPORT REIGNS SUPREME.
GO TO ANY BIG URBAN PARK - New York’s Prospect, or London’s Richmond – and you will see two groups of wiry people in synthetic fabrics: cyclists and runners. Cyclists will often be found clustered in packs, as much for conversation as wind blocking, spinning by at 30km/h. Runners more frequently exercise alone, at a fraction of the speed, earbud cords trailing from their heads like some insectoid apparatus. Tempers occasionally flare when one party crosses into the territory of the other, but usually the scene hums along with the quiet energy of shared purpose.
As an active cyclist – more than 56 000km in seven years – I would regard runners, as I whizzed by, with curiosity. Their faces often seemed contorted in pain, their motions sometimes ungainly, their pace plodding. I could almost feel the blunt force traumas rippling through their bodies with each step – as I glided by, cushioned by carbon fibre, rubber, and Italian leather. One runner in particular intrigued me: an older man, barefoot, with his hair cropped short and his face frozen in a serene mask, giving him a monk-like aspect; appropriate, I thought, given the penitential nature of his endeavour. I would pass him many times, running against my direction, and our eyes would meet briefly. What did he make of me, I wondered – did my pursuit seem as unappealing to him as his did to me?
On the surface, little would seem to separate cyclists and runners, high in aerobic fitness, low in upper-body strength. Yet I often have the sense that cyclists are from Venus and runners are from Mars (or vice versa). One does one, or one does the other.
Cyclists do not go out of their way to disabuse others of this notion. On Strava, when riders post a run, it is not uncommon to see comments like: ‘Is your bike broken?’
What puts someone on the running or cycling path? A lifestyle choice? Pure accident? Differing personality correlates (as a psychologist might say)? Dodgy knees, or fear of a high-speed crash?
All this speculation was merely academic to me until one day late last summer, when a friend emailed to ask if I wanted to run the New York City Marathon to help raise funds for his bike advocacy group. I instantly dismissed it – why would I want to run 42.2km when I could scarcely rouse the desire to run four?
“C’mon, you’re fit,” he cajoled. That’s right,
I thought, I am! That I was ‘bike fit’, not necessarily ‘run fit’, did not trouble my conscience, for my athletic vanity had been awakened. I said yes. I was crossing to the other side. I was going to become a runner.
It didn’t take long for my new relationship with running to turn dysfunctional. Midway into my second run, I felt something give way in my left calf; the sensation felt like tearing a baguette in half. The muscle tightened, pain flooded in. So began a sordid dance of rest, seeming recovery, and reinjury.
Hoping to salvage my flagging marathon hopes, I booked an appointment with New York University’s Sports Performance Centre. On a capacious floor brimming with diagnostic equipment, treadmills, and a view of the East River, I met Heather Milton, a clinical specialist exercise physiologist. She put me through a battery of treadmill tests. My takeaway from her findings: basically, I was running like a cyclist. I was ‘overstriding’, my cadence was too low, my trunk was leaning. “You’re squeezing your shoulder blades together,” Milton said. “It’s using a lot of energy.” My calf muscles were tight, my core strength lacking. The sole piece of good news was that my VO2 max, or the amount of oxygen the body can draw upon during vigorous exercise, was high for my age. Cycling had gifted me that.
And then, one day, I heard the writer Malcolm Gladwell talking on Lance Armstrong’s The Forward podcast. Gladwell, known for books like The Tipping Point and Blink, which have helped popularise once obscure research from social science and psychology, was an accomplished runner in his youth and has recently returned to the sport. A few years ago, sidelined from running with an injury, Gladwell had taken up cycling; and, he told Armstrong, he found it excruciating. Where he had once viewed cyclists with ‘slight disdain’, he was now ‘in awe’ of how difficult it was. “Jesus! What you guys go through!” he marvelled. He complained of not being able to break 30km/h on rides of 30km. “And I’m a subfive-minute miler.” Listening to his torment with the sport and his disbelief that anyone would actually do it for pleasure, I realised with a start that he was echoing my exact thoughts about running. What if, I wondered, we could ride and run together, trying to see into each other’s pain, and possibly learn to enjoy the other’s preferred sport just a bit more? At least, that’s how I presented it to him. With the inner zeal of a convert, I was hoping, of course, that after hearing my spiel and being shown The Way, he would slap his forehead and wonder aloud where cycling had been all his life.
ON A PLEASANT SUNDAY morning I met Gladwell at his house in pastoral upstate New York. Over a cup of tea, I asked him about the dismissiveness I’d detected towards cycling in his conversation with Armstrong. “Just a runner’s disdain for anyone who’s not a runner,” he said, smiling. He’d lumped cycling in with skiing – sports that are ‘ultimately more about the equipment than the activity’. Compared with running (‘put on a pair of shoes and go’), in his early cycling days he was struck by how much attention was paid to gear. He thought of his fellow riders: “Are you a racing-car driver or an athlete?”
Gladwell had a point. I have spent entire rides talking about gear ratios, or the question of disc brakes, or the virtues of a certain power meter. Cyclists say the ideal number of bikes to own is ‘N+1’. Runners tend to ditch their shoes once they’ve accumulated a few hundred kays of use.
We spiritedly debated the merits of our chosen activities. “The time commitment [of cycling] is so bizarre,” he said. “Where you’re on your bike all day? I just find that unfathomable.” Running is more efficient, I’ll give him that – data that Strava provided me shows cyclists spend on average 161 minutes per week on activities, runners 70. But I countered that I could eat breakfast
at home, have a mid-ride coffee in the countryside, and be exposed to a wide range of landscapes, even micro-climates, during a single ride; my average run didn’t take me out of my own neighbourhood. In cycling there was adventure; in running, routine.
I pressed this theme of running’s lack of pleasure. Descents – in cycling, the sweet, occasionally terrifying reward to a challenging hill climb – were, in running, just another form of pounding on your knees. Gladwell countered by describing a favourite nearby route, when he’s on the last kilometre, slightly downhill with splendid views, with 12km under his belt, his heart settled down, all systems having checked out: “It’s superfun. It feels effortless.” Science, however, has largely found it’s harder to get to that ‘effortless’ stage in running than cycling. Research has shown that sub-maximal running exercise induces a higher oxygen uptake – and, probably, energy expenditure – than cycling at the same intensity. One study found more ‘muscle damage’ from intense bouts of running than cycling.
We could have gone on all morning, but the time for talking was done. We donned cycling kit and headed out onto a series of back roads, which quickly pitched upward. Built like the Colombian climber Nairo Quintana – 23kg lighter than me – Gladwell should have dropped me on the hills. I not only held firm, but began dropping him. In the spirit of constructive feedback, I suggested he was moving too much on the bike, rocking back and forth up minor climbs like Alberto Contador on a ferocious Alpine ascent. “You’re wasting energy,” I said, thinking back to my own clenched back in running. He was also in too high a gear; instead of a highcadence spin, he was mashing pedals beyond his muscular capability. His descending needed work (he’d warned me in advance), though it’s hard to explain rationally why someone should feel confident going downhill at 70km/h on tyres less than 2.5cm in width.
We had a somewhat subdued trip back to the farmhouse. He had the air of someone who had just been to an uncomfortable doctor’s appointment. “I will suffer today,” he had told me earlier, and I didn’t feel like asking him to unpack his suffering.
He perked up as we switched into running gear. I had been expecting a nice eight-kay gallop, but he announced we were going to do uphill sprints – on the same gravel roads he’d hated on his bike. “Hills, paradoxically, will teach you how not to suffer while running,” he said, Yoda-like. We walked to the base of the climb. With a start, he was off, bounding with a high gait, like a springbok. I tried to keep up, but was already flagging at the midway point, bent over by the end.
Over lunch, we each talked of how hard the other’s activity had been. “I wonder what it is,” he said, quizzically. “We have these polar opposite attitudes toward these activities.” We were both reasonably fit individuals, so what was going on? First, it was clear that the ‘training specificity’ of each sport had adapted our bodies to its particular demands. I confirmed this theory with Dr Michael Joyner, who runs the Human Integrative Physiology Lab at the Mayo Clinic. With running, “you’re turning your legs into springs,” he says. “People’s feet are on the ground for less than a tenth of a second – we’re becoming large kangaroos.”
When you ride, by contrast, “you’re producing force for much longer periods of time”. A runner on a treadmill may have a heart rate upwards of 180bpm. Put them on a bike, Joyner says, and “their peak heart rate will be, like, 150 – they’ll stop because of local fatigue”. In other words, their legs give out long before their heart and lungs do. Which is basically what was happening to Gladwell.
I was finding almost the opposite problem: my heart rate was soaring, higher than in cycling, even though my legs felt good. My heart was telling me that I hated running; Gladwell’s legs were protesting his cycling. Later, we compared our Strava ‘suffer scores’, which are based on heart-rate data. On paper, Gladwell actually hadn’t agonised much on the bike. In fact, his score was not only less than mine on the run, as you might expect, but also on the bike. “That’s weird,” he admitted. “I would have thought it was far higher.” Gladwell had more to give on the bike than he knew, but his mind was telling him no. And what was for me a not unsubstantial effort felt like a walk in the park. Our brains, more than our bodies, were telling us different stories about how much pain we were feeling, for reasons that are not yet understood. Part of the problem, as physicist Alex Hutchinson, PhD, writes in his book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, is that it’s almost impossible – for now, anyway – to study the brains of people exercising sufficiently hard to hit the red zone. But, he adds, “whether the brain plays a role in defining the limit of endurance is no longer in doubt; the debate now is how.”
Gladwell and I agreed on one thing about running: an antipathy towards marathons. “It’s the most unpleasant idea I’ve heard of in my life,” he said. “I regard that with as much pleasantness as an 80-kay bike ride.”
AS THE WEEKS WORE on, I dutifully ticked the boxes on my running calendar. While I laboured on the side of the road in the park, I would watch with longing as my Lycra-clad cohort sailed past, chatting amiably. Still, with my new technique I was finding it easier going. My body was slowly adapting to the distances, to the pounding.
One thing I didn’t succeed at was converting Gladwell. Cycling kays on Strava, 2018: 0. While he may have had a new respect for cycling, he just didn’t have the love.
As for my marathon, I heaved myself across the finish after four and a half hours – approximately the median finishing time in an age of wider marathon participation (i.e. more casual runners like me). I took it as a moral victory. The next day, even though I could hardly rise from a chair, I got on my bike and did a quick 25km, like I was trying to prove something.
Gladwell had more to give on the bike than he knew, but his mind was telling him no.