‘Commuter Cup’ qualifies as fast track to heart health … if you don’t get hurt

Ah, the ol’ ‘Commuter Cup’ – riding as fast as you can on your way to and from work.

C’mon, be honest – you’ve tried it. You’ve thought: I can go faster than that gaudy turkey in lycra… I can beat the dude on the full carbon whatsit… I need to overtake that squeaky bike with milk-crate panniers whose rider is wearing gumboots…

You might have done some wheelsucking, got boxed in … lost … won … won again (with a bit of help from that amber light) … hit the wall and DNF’d … and all on the way home from work! And without a finish line …

Commuter racing is quite an urban phenomena, with websites in the UK and US dedicated to … well, proving triumphs through laying down some rules.

Silly as it may seem to many, especially those who are fans of the slow bicycle movement, the stately upright glide, a recent study from Denmark shows that intense, brisk cycling is better for your heart health than slow cycling or the amount of time you spend in the saddle.

While current western-world recommendations are that adults spend at least 30 minutes, preferably every day, doing “moderate physical activity”, the optimal intensity of this activity goes unspecified. So the study, conducted as part of the Copenhagen City Heart Study, aimed “to examine the impact of intensity versus duration of cycling on all-cause and coronary heart disease mortality”.

The research, published in the European Heart Journal and the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention, was based on a study of “5106 apparently healthy men and women aged 21–90 years drawn from the general population of Copenhagen, and followed for an average of 18 years” and the relative intensity (self-assessed) and duration of their cycling.

Of the 1172 deaths in this group, 146 were due to coronary heart disease. For both men and women, the researchers found “a significant inverse association between cycling intensity and risk of all-cause and coronary heart disease death, but only a weak association with cycling duration”.

Men who cycled with fast intensity survived 5.3 years longer, and men with average intensity 2.9 years longer than men with slow cycling intensity. For women the figures were 3.9 and 2.2 years longer, respectively.

“Thus,” the researchers concluded, “our general recommendation to all adults would be that brisk cycling is preferable to slow”.

“What matters,” added Dr Peter Schnohr, who led the study, “is your own perception of intensity.” That is, a 20-year-old’s idea of intensity will be greater than that of an 80-year-old. Cycling that leaves you a little breathless is the aim. Previous research by the same team also showed that brisk walking is better for you than slow walking.

Now, back to the thrill of the Commuter Cup.

This is one place you can get your intensity fix. And, conveniently, every day. Although it is also obviously far from the safest of pursuits – herewith a discussion of candidates for the top 10 hazards of commuter racing.

‘Let’s race! If only in our minds’ is an article written by J. David Goodman for the New York Times about the increasing phenomena of commuters racing each other in New York: a city brimming with competitive people and, increasingly, with cyclists, as NYC attempts to go ‘cycle-friendly’ (I have trouble imagining it myself). He writes:

I was rolling up the bike lane on Eighth Avenue on my way to work recently when a man on a Trek roared past with legs pumping like Greg LeMond.

I didn’t think much of it as I immediately caught up to him — with his casual office clothes and drop handlebars — at a red light on 23rd Street. I cruised past as the light changed, but by the next block he had come charging back, outside the lane and in traffic this time, and zipped ahead of me for good.

Had I been defeated? Were we even in a race?

J. David says the term ‘Cat. 6’ is being used to describe these contests: one level below the 5 official amateur levels (I guess that makes the local, Australian term ‘F Grade’?). But he admits that “these sorts of impromptu competitions are as old as the bicycle and just as universal”, citing London’s ‘It’s not a race (I’m just riding to work)’ website, which has been going since June 2008. Here you’ll find details of ‘The Game’, plus The Rules of SCR (or Silly Commuter Racing) and the FCN (Food Chain Number) system of scoring (hmmm….). Also, importantly, ways of defining a win are described, for example:

“A true scalp is not only overtaking someone but leaving them stopped at a set of lights as you, who have clearly beaten the lights, pummels nothing but the open air ahead.” – DondaddyD, Player of the Unspoken Game

Now back to J. David’s research. He ruminates that:

Commuter racing illustrates the essential and unique aspects of riding to work: unlike other modes, bicycling is perched between transportation and exercise …

Bicycling in an urban environment, with all its hazards and potential shortcuts, can be a kind of game that brings out a cyclist’s essential competitiveness, said Robert J. Bell, professor of sports psychology at Ball State University in Indiana. For better or worse, commuting by bike still feels more like play or exercise than a tedious slice of the daily routine.

“I think the majority of cyclists who bike to work are just more competitive by nature,” Dr. Bell said.

Thank you to Dr Bell of Ball University.

“Riders who don’t race lack an outlet for their competitive drive on the bike,” is the opinion of Andy Shen, a racing journo. But the last word belongs to the SCR folk:

The Game has a name and that name is ‘Silly Commuter Racing’, itself a hollow denial of the seriousness with which The Game is played. Mock if you will, but eventually you will come to realise that we do not play The Game, no The Game plays us.

and “an early SCR haiku”:

In fear of pursuit
I press on into the gale
Quietly weeping

But you know it’s spring now – and we’re not in London – so there are fewer gales and you can just claim your tears are sweet beads of sweat.

One Response to ‘Commuter Cup’ qualifies as fast track to heart health … if you don’t get hurt

  1. robyne 06/09/2011 at 7:02 pm

    great article! every rider competes in the ‘commuter cup’. i just hope no one else takes stupid risks like the idiot on holden street yesterday. the cup ain’t worth that!!