Torture By HobNob, Tim Dawson (2009)

Original article first published in The Sunday Times 1 November 2009

HobNobs are my new milestones. As I pedal up hill and down dale, I calculate my progress in units of those oaty biscuits — pride of the McVitie’s pantry. A mile on the flat at a tidy lick expends approximately three-quarters of one HobNob — about 50 calories. A quarter of a mile attacking a hill until my heart feels as though it will burst from my chest achieves about the same output.

My midlife conversion to calorie-counting is the unintended consequence of technological change. That, combined with a desire to relieve the pressure on the Lycra under which my body bulges in a way that is more shot-putter than a cyclist.

I have taken receipt of Garmin’s latest electronic device (the Edge 705) and strapped it to my handlebars. It fairly bristles with features — more than I can quite comprehend — but it certainly includes GPS mapping, a heart-rate monitor and a sensor that tells me how quickly I am pedalling.

Among the many, many lines of data that it can be configured to display is a “calories expended” window. I doubt that it matches the accuracy of the speedometer — which calculates velocity across the Earth’s surface by triangulating your position on the road with that of various satellites. But the sight of those units of energy being burnt up by my legs provided succour to the soul of this cookie-jar sinner.

After an hour of fairly strenuous riding — including a couple of heart-stopping efforts up hills — the device records that I have lightened my load by approximately 1,000 calories. The whippet-like contours of my dreams were surely just weeks away?

Reality returned with a predictable bump. First, a number of academic studies — widely covered in the media — cast doubt on the notion that exercise was ever an effective means of losing weight. Innumerable health benefits result from 20 minutes of working your body until you are out of breath, three or four times a week. But it won’t help with weight loss, the experts say.

Then I started to reflect on my own behaviour. I had grown excited as I watched the rising tally of calories expended — but I had not actually cycled any further, or any more frequently, than I generally do. What I had done, since I had established my HobNob index, was to think that at the end of each ride I deserved a treat — just to restore my vitality, you understand.

At the giddy pace that I had been burning off biscuits, I could speed my recovery by consuming a HobNob or two, I figured. Indeed, on the days when I had really pumped the pedals, I rewarded myself with a biscuit-tin session.

That is when it dawned on me. It is fine to divide my journeys into virtual HobNobs — so long as when I cycle to the shops I don’t buy any actual HobNobs. So that is what I am left with. A measure of distance travelled, burnt into my imagination, that emphasises what I have had to forswear.

Perhaps that is progress. I just wish I were sufficiently the master of my handlebar computer that I could switch off the calories expended gauge. It is taking all the fun out of cycling — and biscuits.

TD November 2009

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