The Soapbox: The Tyranny of Numbers

A computer made me feel sad recently. I was out on the road bike (yes, I dabble) heading up one of Sydney’s well-known climbs at Bobbin Head. It was only the second time I’d used a GPS and heart rate monitor, and the chest strap still felt a little weird to me – like I was shackled by the torso.

My riding buddy, Will, was a gadget bandit from way back. He knew all about heart rate zones, lactic and eating more than jelly snakes during a ride. As we climbed, a beep made me look down. Apparently my heart rate had crept over 190, and the computer was now warning me that I was in danger of meltdown.

‘Will, what’s your heart rate?’ I asked. ‘168,’ he came back, worryingly. He wasn’t going any faster than me, and his face showed just as much effort, but clearly his body was operating efficiently on all six cylinders, while my carburettor was gummed up from too many training pies.

I’d always thought of myself as relatively fit, but apparently I was not so much. The numbers don’t lie any more than Shakira’s hips. Will was 20 more fitnesses fitter than I. When I got home I looked at the data – I’d maxed out at 202 bpm and spent far more time than I would’ve ever imagined up above 180.

I didn’t quite know how to react! On one hand it was a shock, on the other it made me feel quietly chuffed that I’ve obviously been riding completely red-lined a lot more often than I realised. (No wonder I often felt like a vomit.)

Since that first rude awakening, I’ve been torn. I want to get fitter, but I can’t decide if knowing how close I tread to implosion is helping or hindering me. There’s part of me that likes the discipline; I can see on a little screen in front of my blurry eyes just how the previous night’s five beers or the week prior’s kilometres hinder or improve me. It’s addictive too, uploading your data, seeing it all mapped out.

But at the same time, when I leave the chest strap and GPS at home and just ride, I feel like I make real gains too. I’ve been riding for long enough that I know a pace that I can sustain – I find the point where my face gets suddenly tingly and then back it off a quarter turn. And if I don’t feel like hurting that day, then I can call it a ‘rest day’ and go get a donut.

I haven’t yet taken the heart rate monitor to the dirt (though the GPS gets used there) and I don’t know if I ever will either. For me, my time on a mountain bike has never and will never be about getting fitter. I ride a road bike to make my mountain biking more fun, and when it comes to the dirt I’m not quite ready to completely succumb to the strangely alluring tyranny of a number fetish…yet.

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