Literally: suppleness, softness, flexibility, adaptability, fluidity. On the bike: smoothness, a one-ness with the machine. Think of a climber dancing away on that steep section that leaves everyone else pushing squares and threatening to rip their handlebars off.
You have seen those riders who appear to be wrestling the bike, and you have seen those who seem to glide through the most trying circumstances. It is not as simple as being a good bike handler. You must also be a good bike pedaler too, your body always in the right place and in the right shape, and this must not appear to be intentional. Souplesse is organic. It is a priori. It is the bike and the rider together. One thing.
Fausto Coppi’s souplesse was legendary, a pedal stroke as smooth as the back of a spoon. Coppi was dubbed “il Airone,” the heron, for his beak-like nose, and long, gangly legs, but just as the shore bird, Coppi seemed to move in slow motion, all the time floating away from his opponents.
As we get older, and top end speed ebbs away, souplesse becomes a new pleasure and a way to distinguish ourselves. How steady a line do we hold? How neatly do we skirt obstacles? How still are our hips? How easy our grip? Do we mash, or do we stroke the pedals?
I like to think this smoothness has a place off the bike as well. Faced with life’s natural conflicts, between rider and motorist for example, how easily do we slip by, let go of the conflict before it turns ugly. How solid remains our roll? Family affairs can be a messy collaboration, even at the best of times. Souplesse is that quality by which we refuse to engage pettiness with a brother or a parent. We set examples rather than boundaries. We act more than we talk. Souplesse contains within it humility, strength and patience.
Think of a simple, forged crank. Think of the curving sweep of an Italian saddle. Think of a true wheel. The medium is, perhaps, the message.
Souplesse connotes style, but it also hints at a deep-lying efficiency, an elimination of non-essential movement. Much has been made in recent years of incremental improvements, the sorts of time gains made in wind tunnels and in customized nutrition plans. Souplesse has that same incremental value, except that it comes from within the athlete.
My friend Francisco lives in Mendoza, Argentina. In the summer, his club rides from Mendoza, up over the Andes, down into Santiago, Chile and back. Francisco is my age and still full of piss and vinegar. This annual ride is a searing sufferfest for him. His stories of it are interesting, not for the hyperbolic descriptions of hypoxic climbing exploits, but rather for the character sketches of these ultra-lean old Argentine men who ride alongside him as he struggles for breath, whispering exhortations in his ear as they spin effortlessly over the high peaks. Souplesse.
This is a thing you can’t get from a pill, a shake or a properly stored bag of blood. Souplesse is the immeasurable measure of class. It’s charm is in its elusiveness. Form, as the old saying goes, is fleeting, while class is permanent.
We should all hope to be faster tomorrow than we were today. Fast is fun. Just know that there is something beyond speed, something beyond fun, and it is in you, ready to be found.