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Power-to-Weight: Cycling and Body Image in a World Where Skinny Rules

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Cycling, as far as I know, is the only community in which men appear to obsess more over their weight than women do. The first time I heard a male member of the spandex set complaining how big his butt was this season, I almost laughed, thinking he had to be joking. Thank goodness I didn’t, since he was totally, unhappily, serious.

There are all kinds of body types in men’s professional cycling, but it’s true that most of them are on the skinny side. There’s tall and twiggy (your all-arounders and classics riders), and short and twiggy (your climbers and stage racers, mostly). Even the sprinters, who look stocky compared to the rest of the riders, are shockingly thin in reality. I recently met Mario Cipollini, a decorated sprinter who always looked enormous and lion-like on video compared to his teammates; in person he is tall (six feet and three inches) but incredibly narrow-shouldered and lanky; in his prime, he was only 167 pounds!

Essentially, long hours of training burn so many calories that body fat drops to under maybe 5 percent. Extra weight, at any event, only holds a cyclist back when the road goes uphill. The magic mantra is the power-to-weight ratio: the more power you can produce, and the less you weigh, the faster you will climb. Of course this is only true to a certain extent: lose too much body mass, and you will rapidly lose power too, resulting in a lower power-to-weight  ratio. However, I’m not really here to discuss the scientific physiological arguments for or against weight control in endurance sports: I’m interested in the psychological aspects.

Unexpected as this may seem, my impression is that there is actually greater variety in body types among pro women racers. Perhaps this is because the formula relating power to weight is actually subtly different for women than it is for men. There are lots of thin girls, of course (both tall and petite), but there are also girls with lots of muscle and girls with curves (though, truthfully, not too many: flat-chestedness appear to be almost a prerequisite for lining up at a national-level race).

At any rate, I hear much less commentary from women bike racers about their shape and size than I do from men. All the same, I’m not sure this is because women are less concerned about weight. Perhaps we’re just more private about our anxieties. Or perhaps we are so much more used to plugging our senses to the constant babble of the weight-loss industry and the fashion industry and the celebrity worship culture, that it’s a See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil reaction. Maybe male endurance athletes are largely oblivious to that babble until they discover the power-to-weight mantra, and then they are especially vulnerable since they have not spent their lifetimes building up resistance to the skinnier-is-better creed. However, even a lifetime of resistance may not be enough armor, and maybe the dangerous creed just burrows into the subconscious.

As a bike racer, I have never worried much about my weight, nor have I taken particular steps to change it. The only scale in our house is used to weigh luggage, and generally resides in a dusty corner of the closet. Until I recently saw a Chinese medicine doctor and started avoiding certain foods to improve my digestion and overall health, I never limited my diet in any way designed to reduce calories. In fact, I’ve been known in my family as something of an eating machine. I am almost never known to refuse dessert or snacks; a lack of appetite on my part is taken as an indicator of illness more reliable than a high thermometer reading. When I was staying with my folks during spring training this year, my mom was in line at the supermarket with a huge load of food. The little old lady behind her said, “My, you must only come here once in a blue moon!” “Actually,” my mother replied, “I have to come here a few times a week.” “Well,” returned the old lady, “I guess you have a very big family.” “Really,” said my mom, “it’s just one daughter at home right now.”

So, I was tricked into thinking that I must have a very enlightened attitude towards weight: a very modern and healthy body image. I was not going to be one of those women who see fashion models as ideals to strive for; I was not going to be one of those athletes who endanger their health by pushing to an extreme low in body fat. I was not going to refuse cookies, ever, if I felt like eating them! I was happy, even self-congratulatory, that I’d escaped the pernicious influences of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the fashion industry in promoting skinny as better. Of course, the fact may not have escaped you that I am, in fact, a skinny bike racer, and it is generally much easier to ignore pernicious messages to get thin when you are already thin.

Even if I don’t weigh myself daily, weekly, or monthly; even if I eat whatever the heck I feel like at any hour of the day or night; even if I am in no way trying to lose weight, I definitely notice that the effect of all the training I’m doing is making me a little leaner every year. I’m not sure at all that being skinnier is making me faster on the bike. And yet, in my heart of hearts, I have to admit a terrible and embarrassing truth. In a private and perverted little way, I am happy to be thinner. And this really disturbs me.

I really thought I’d successfully knocked that sexist, objectivist “Thin Is Better” nonsense out of that part of my consciousness where I file things I believe to be true. But here it comes back to haunt me; in some way it’s still holding me. Maybe it’s because the cycling community is so stuck on the physiological benefits of a high power-to-weight ratio that the psychological minefield of weight control and body image are being ignored. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve seen a riding buddy after several months and been greeted with “Hey! Wow, you look great—super skinny. You must be in excellent shape.” I am ambivalent about this compliment. On the one hand, I am frustrated that “skinny” is clearly intended as praise … and yet, on the other hand, there’s that private exultation, which frustrates me still more.

I suppose what really worries me is that if I—having been brought up living a conscientiously wholesome, low-fashion, no-TV, high-exercise lifestyle; having grown to adulthood as a healthy professional athlete; and having consciously discarded the harmful body image messages crowding the mainstream media and entertainment—if despite all this, I still succumb subconsciously to our culture’s unrelenting maxim of “Thin Is Better,” then how can one ever really escape it?

I don’t know how many cyclists suffer from eating disorders or weight control obsessions. I’m not even sure that it’s a problem in our sport. However, I think that since it’s so clearly a problem in our society at large, that it’s probably wise as a community to take careful stock of how we present the issue of power-to-weight, especially to junior riders coming up in the sport—both boys and girls. The psychological implications could ultimately prove to be as important as the physiological ones.

Illustration by Daryl Cagle


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