Clocking Off: How cycle computers destroy your ride

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
- Chicago

No offense to the very late John Harrison, or the Swiss, or my wife, who has separated our house into minute time zones to aid her morning routine,* but I couldn't really care less.

Granted, my days often have little more structure than a bouncy castle. Perhaps if I worked for one of the many fine British train companies I'd feel different [insert obvious gibe HERE]. But somehow I don't think so. Chances are I'd cock my head, peer off into the middle distance, decide it was 5:02 or whatever -- perversely, I've gotten pretty good at guessing what time it is -- and enjoy a very short tenure. I'm not that accurate. '02' was an embellishment.

Maybe I don't worry too much about time because it doesn't exist. "The unreality of time's passage has been near the top of the philosophical agenda from the outset," writes Paul Davies in his book About Time-must reading for anybody with a bit of, well, time on their hands. Davies outlines some of the difficulties physicists have with the subject and alights on Zeno of Elea, who argued that motion itself was impossible, "since at any given instant of time an apparently moving object is in fact static." Good grief, never mind time. When I ride my bike am I even moving? Maybe that's why they sell cycling computers: proof....

Everyone has the right to know their morning commute of 11.8 miles just took 44 minutes 37 seconds, with an average speed of 15.8 mph, which is 0.3 mph better than the day before. And if they're further made aware that they achieved a cadence of 99 and climbed 100 meters you can't blame them for taking an interest. It's their sweat; they're entitled to quantify it. As I did, some years ago. Those are my stats. I recently unearthed them from my personal Burgess Shale, scribbled into a long lost notebook. Although I fabricated the cadence and the altitude, I needn't have, because you can get computers to tell you that, too, as well as your IQ: just add all the numbers together and see if you can come up with the square root.

I studied the figures, considering why I had thought them important enough to transcribe, and why the record abruptly ended. The second part was easy. When my last bicycle was stolen I simply hadn't installed a computer on the new one. In fact I'd lost the habit of snapping it into its cradle on the handlebars some time before the theft.

As for why I'd bothered recording my stats in the first place, that's also a no-brainer. The numbers were a terribly convenient shorthand. It was only later that I was to decide that they had nothing to do with why I was on my bike in the first place.

Six years ago I started cycling again after a long absence from the saddle. Like many born-again cyclists, one of my first discoveries was that technology was now sufficiently advanced that I could attach a little magnet to one of the spokes and become instantly preoccupied by how slow I was. Each click of a handy little button presented new data to confirm this. The only reading which wasn't judgmental was the clock, and even that seemed to blink in an accusatory manner. The obvious way out of this hell was to improve my stats. This wasn't too hard at first, my numbers going up in leaps and bounds. But they soon plateaued, as they must when you make the fateful decision not to be [insert personal cycling hero HERE]. The numbers gradually lost any real significance, except on the occasions I'd find myself barreling down a hill at 40 or 50 mph, and to be honest, I never found that knowledge particularly helpful at the time.

When the weather was bad I straddled a stationary bike in my living room. This was so boring that even the computer was a welcome distraction, and the numbers were always far more cheery, given the terrain. I'd regularly clock up averages in the mid-20s and even nudge the 30s, with an all-time and frankly meaningless record of 60mph for a few seconds one gloriously rainy day. It must have broken some kind of barrier because it's the last stat I ever wrote down.

Now I'm back where I started, so long ago. Just me and a bike, no cable snaking up the fork.

A friend of mine does time trials. He rides 100 miles in less than four hours. I've always assumed this is something only particularly fit extraterrestrials -- perhaps riding recumbents -- are capable of, but he assures me sufficiently motivated humans can do it, too. He doesn't use a computer. "I know how fast I'm going," he says, despite the absence of a wire plugged into the base of his skull and slithering down his legs. I imagine he's converted a gear cable into an abacus or something. You can't listen to music on time trials; you gotta keep your mind occupied. Then again he probably just finds out later when he gets the speed camera photos in the mail.

It's not that cycling computers don't have their place. If only they told you something really useful, like a Star Trek tricorder does. If you don't know what that is I can't possibly explain, but trust me, it's the greatest invention the 25th century has to offer. The ideal model would tell you when you're due for your next cramp so you can go to a nice shady spot for a lie-down instead. You'll be able to pass it over a bike to gauge its true metallic composition. ('Those forks appear to be Reynolds 531 rather than the claimed Reynolds 725, Captain.') It'll prompt you to drink when you're in danger of dehydration, which I currently check by borrowing the nearest wing-mirror and noting how much salt has dried on my face. And naturally, it'll warn you of the presence of any hostiles in the area. Excuse me. Mine seems to be bleeping now.

* details on application

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