Ask This and Improve Your Cycling
By Kevin Kolodziejski
Even if the only thing you know about stage racing is the Tour de France, you have to know GC stands for General Classification. It’s the rider’s placement in the race based on his or her cumulative times plus or minus any bonuses or penalties from each stage.
But greatest stage-racing enthusiast or not, there’s no shot you know what CG stands for. I made it up. It’s an abbreviation solely of my creation to make the title rhyme, pique your curiosity, and cause you to read on.
It stands for the central governor, a term first used by Archibald Hill that Tim Noakes now employs in the Central Governor Model theory he developed about 25 years ago.
Who Is the Central Governor?
Now I’m simply an exercise addict, not an exercise scientist, so I see the central governor in my often glucose-deprived mind as a who instead of a what. He’s that really tiny guy who worms his way into your brain while you’re busy attacking a 5k climb. Then, when you need to downshift and stand because the next 500 meters are potholed and pitched at 15 percent, he matter-of-factly says, “Slow down.”
And because the Central Governor also serves as the prime minister to your country of muscles, your heart, your legs, and any other fibrous tissue called upon to keep the bike going forward heed their leader’s warning.
What Is the Central Governor?
To understand the central governor as a what, consider Alex Hutchinson’s explanation in Endure (Harper Collins, 2018). It’s the limits you encounter during exercise that are not a direct result of failing muscles. Limits that are “imposed in advance by the brain,” in a sense a failsafe to make sure you stay safe, avoid injury or even death.
Now whether or not the central governor exists is far from a settled matter. A few of Noakes’ peers challenge him on this. For instance, a review of the Central Governor Model published in the May 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology is dismissive, stating that the theory is “controversial at best and unfalsifiable at worst” and teaches us “precious little.”
But what’s precious to me, be it little or not, is finding ways to become a better pedaler. I assume you feel the same, so for now let’s suppose Noakes is right and that the central governor does indeed exist.
Because supposing Noakes is right can only make you a better cyclist. Much of my racing success — and especially my worst flameout — supports this. So does what Tim Noakes says in a 2017 Scientific Triathlon podcast, “Psychology and the Central Governor Model with professor Tim Noakes.”
Tim Noakes Talks About the Central Governor
Just past the 13-minute mark of the podcast, the now-retired Noakes — whose more than 750 scientific books and articles have been cited more than 20,000 times in scientific literature — explains that his research team has been able to identify the point “where your brain starts to think it’s not worth the effort anymore,” that the “discomfort you’re feeling is not worth the effort you’re putting in.” So your brain tells you to go slower or even quit altogether.
But what Noakes will tell you is to never quit “because your brain is playing games with you.” And that so-called fatigue you feel is “purely an emotion we use as an excuse.”
Feeling offended by his assertion? I certainly was, at first. Accurately or not, I see myself as lacking many cycling talents but possessing the ability to endure — and even embrace — a world of hurt. So to hear him say that when I have pulled the plug in the past I was only pulling my leg did not set well with me.
Then I recalled my greatest time trialing failure and realized its root cause was not exertion but emotion.
Racing (or Not?) for Team Picket Fence
It occurred just past halfway of a 40k TT I was using as preparation for the PA state TT championship two weeks away when something happened on the long rise just before the 20k turnaround I wasn’t expecting. I got passed. I got passed as if I were the proverbial picket fence — by a rider I didn’t even recognize but whose number told me he started two minutes after I did.
Undeterred at first, I continued with the intent of turning myself inside out to keep him in my sights.
But the gap kept widening and soon I was focusing on something else: the pain in my right hip and glutes. The as-often-as-not result after a few miles of riding all out from a titanium rod being screwed into my right femur. So, central governor or not, I sat up and soft-pedaled in. On the car ride home and near tears, I decided I couldn’t push myself as I once did anymore, that my racing days were probably over — and that I was certainly skipping the state time trial.
The Power of a Politically Incorrect Friend
A few days later, I called a cycling buddy averse to time trialling, confessed to giving up in my last one and giving strong thought to no longer racing. He called me a name that’s now very politically incorrect. But he called back a day or two later and told me the rider who flew by me is only 20 years old — an out-of-state, low-level pro.
Whether true or not, that info eased my mind, and I attempted the time trial state championship. I managed to win my age group by a few seconds — despite experiencing the same hip/glutes pain as I did during the prior race.
The central governor got overruled somehow, in part, I imagine, because of something else Noakes says is true.
“The bigger the ‘why,’ the better the performance.”
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.