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What is it to truly master a task? To be able to perform something with a capacity as close to perfection as we are able to physically discern, more perfectly or beautifully or artfully than anyone else? To be a Yo-Yo Ma, a Tiger Woods (in his prime), an Eddy Merckx?
They say it’s 10,000 hours; five vacationless years of 40-hour weeks, three hours every day for a decade, or an hour a day for half a lifetime. Spend 10,000 hours in dedicated, purposeful practice and you, too, could be a master. So says Malcolm Gladwell.
But does that work in cycling?
The best in our sport were incredible from the first pedal stroke. Their bodies are naturally more efficient, moving additional oxygen and buffering more lactate than the rest of us, among a thousand other genetic abnormalities. They put in the work, of course, but are helped along by a freakish talent — see Joe Dombrowski, a Cat. 4 racer three years ago, or Taylor Phinney, son of legends and soon to be a legend himself.
It would appear, then, that cycling is not a sport based solely in skill; that for all our training, all our riding through storms and against winds, we will probably never reach the top. 10,000 hours will not get us there. Nothing will. We can reach only our genetic limits, where we grind to a halt. Deep down, we all know it.
And yet, the rides continue. The 7 a.m. Saturday throwdown and the frantic hour squeezed in at lunch will never disappear. We may be absolutely terrible, in relative terms, but still find enjoyment; because while at some point the speed stops coming, skillfulness continues to rise. Knowledge and muscle memory and reflex builds independently of fitness. And unlike fitness, they never disappear.
Attack Merckx, even now, and you will see him flinch to chase. Instincts as deep as anything in his DNA will trigger as he hears your gear clink into place and your dark shape enters his peripheral vision. He may not follow, but his body will tell him to. He can’t help it.
Greg LeMond, nearly 20 years out of his last professional race, still pedals with a souplesse that immediately marks him as a man with decades of miles in his body; he spins as if his feet weigh nothing at all.
Francesco Moser, now 61, weights and unweights his bars as he courses over the rutted, dirt back roads between the vineyards near his home, his bike rocking beneath him while his body floats above. He does so every bit as deftly as when he won three straight Paris-Roubaix titles three decades ago.
These are men of 10,000 hours. Very likely, they have many more. Ride with them today and it is impossible to miss the subtle weighting, left, right, forward and back; the sublime spin, each foot working in concert with the other, isolated but also unmistakably united with the rest of the body; the automated responses to the movements of others, performed without thought, etched as they are in the permanent parts of the mind.
Years ago, cycling molded their bodies, minds, neural pathways and muscle fibers into its own image. Cycling changed them forever, and gave them a lifetime of skill so perfect it’s striking.
It is for this sort of perfection, then, that we strive. It is the only one attainable, the one that makes cycling sport of life and living, not a sport of observation.
At 25, I am barely past halfway to 10,000 hours. In this job I no longer strive for my genetic limit, to be as fast as I can be. I have been near it, peaked over the edge, and retreated. The rush I used to get from attacking or bridging has transmuted into a more subdued pleasure, stemming from a mountain well climbed or a switchback well taken. It is an indulgence every bit as cherished and addictive. When I feel my legs and hips and core and arms and back all working as a unit, allowing my feet to spin with what I am sure is a LeMond-like souplesse, if only for a moment, I crack the same inward smile as I used to coming over the top of some climb with the field in my rearview mirror.
Today, I strive for the less tangible. I reach with every ride toward a more perfect stroke, a more perfectly carved turn, a more perfect paceline. When I race I am my own opponent, even if others are around. When I sit and stare at the winter weather outside my window, it is a need for these things that gets me in the saddle.
I am seeking 10,000 hours. It will not turn me into Merckx or Moser, but that is not the point. I pursue the perfect ride I hope it will bring, and every perfect moment in between.