A little while ago, I wrote about what it feels like to me when I lift weights in the gym. A feeling I find, if anything, a better reason to do exercise than any health or performance benefit.
In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses the deep pleasure he gains from his participation in running. I’ve never liked running. I’m very bad at it. Yet the contemplative, almost poetic accounts of Murakami’s experiences manage to convey how meaningful such an activity can be without veering into something spiritual.
I think cycling deserves the same exploration.
Of course, every ride is different. And not just when you look at the big stuff, like comparing a commute to a week long touring excursion, or a quick cruise with mates in the summer to a solo slog through the snow in winter. As you spend more time on the bike, you become more attuned to the subtleties of time on the bike. While I can pass many hours while chatting on a group ride, or push myself to the limits out training with another competitive rider, I still think the purest and most profound bike rides are those carried out alone. The rides where I’ve planned a decent chunk of time to seek out tough terrain. The rides when the pedal stroke becomes metronomic and thoughts about the road ahead and absent minded daydreaming merge into a blurred mess of awareness. In short; “proper rides”.
A proper bike ride demands proper planning. Intention alone is not sufficient to dig out the miscellaneous pieces of temperature appropriate clothing, snacks, tools and ride ready bike on a given day. For those who don’t do exercise regularly, this alone would be daunting. It takes a good hour or so to make sure food has been eaten far enough in advance, coffee consumed in copious quantities and all climate controlling clothing donned in the correct order. This isn’t an impulsive decision due to the time commitment involved – it’s very rare for half a day to suddenly become available. A high proportion of rides that are planned never make it to this stage of actually being ready to step out the door. Getting started is therefore part laborious chore and part preparatory ritual.
As the Garmin fires up at the end of the drive I can normally see a heart rate substantially elevated by caffeine and the rapid trips up and down the stairs that took place during the prep period. On some occasions, the route is finally loaded, or just as likely, completely changed at the last moment. Impulsive decisions can now be made. While there is always a starting plan, roughly based on how much time I have to play with and how keen I am to cause some serious damage to my legs, it can now be abandoned at a moment’s notice. I’ve swung down side routes, irreversibly changing the course of a ride before I’ve consciously decided to change direction. In some cases it’s bailing out to take a shorter route, in others it’s to force myself to deal with what lies ahead. From here on out freedom, is complete.
But before the fun really begins, I need to get out of town.
One of the many barriers for getting out on a ride is that everywhere I have lived, there is always a distance that must be dealt with to get out onto roads that are enjoyable. Cycling through urban streets beats any other form of transport for getting around but is never so desirable as to do for it’s own sake.
The first few pedal strokes out the drive are the tantalising teasers of what’s to come but first a few tedious junctions must be dealt with. This, if anything, builds the anticipation by being fundamentally dull. There’s often a sense of strangeness if I to navigate a route I use on a commute. A route used every day to get to work can have certain emotional connotations, to use the same road in the build up to a big ride can invoke a strange sense of dread for several reasons.
On the plus side, getting out of town acts as an externally constrained warm up. Depending on recent training, my legs could be feeling snappy, jumping up and away at every acceleration, or sluggish and struggling to get up to speed. I’ve learned not to read too much into these early indicators as a bit of heat and exertion can make all the difference and a ride that lasts several hours cannot be judged on the first few minutes.
This is the easiest part of the ride. Legs warmed up, the afterburners are ignited and I always struggle to suppress a little surge of speed into the unknown. Eyes are firmly focussed forwards as I shoot past hedges and other indicators that I’m in a rural setting. By this point both body and mind have slipped into the task at hand. Pushing on the pedals become a slicker sensation and I’m feeling fresh and full of energy.
At this stage all is well. As the road winds it’s way through the countryside small inclines can be dealt with by simply thinking about going faster. Holding a low, fast riding position is the right place to be. Settling into a rhythm is easy and speed beckons the bike at the slightest antagonisation.
Approaching the Climb
Once I get settled, after a few shiftings on the saddle, the frequency of thoughts about the climb increase. The climb is the focal point of the ride. Any anticipation to the ride doesn’t come from getting ready or getting out of town. It comes from the climb.
The reason I am on the ride starts to loom. Inevitably that reason is to push myself harder than I want to. There’s a perpetual paradox in that I know I don’t want to push myself hard right now, so I direct myself towards situations where I know I will be forced to push myself. I don’t want to push myself, but I want to want to push myself. So I head for the climbs.
Basic physics means that when cycling, overcoming gravity on even a slight incline demands far more effort than cruising at a reasonable clip on the flat. Basic physiology means that I have to find and hold the limit for extended periods of time when going up hill to get a faster time.
When I set out on a ride I know full well that it’s pure purpose is to push myself on the climb. It’s normally easy and acceptable to cruise the rest of the time. The climb is where it counts. There’s a slight sense of dread as my awareness that the climb is coming builds.
In the final few meters before the climb my heart rate spikes. This part is genuine fear. I know what’s coming. I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to achieve the performance that was the entire reason I got out on the bike. The climb justifies the ride. As I turn the final corner or approach the ramps to the start of the climb in earnest the tension is even more evident in the heartrate monitor. Before I can establish If I’m ready or not the climb has begun.
The Recurrence of the Decision
There is one key difference between cycling and powerlifting. Powerlifting is all out and brief. Cycling is something that must be endured. In the gym you’ve put the weight back down before you can fully comprehend the magnitude of the effort. Out on the bike one is persistently aware of pain that lasts an eternity. And also that at every second there is the opportunity to stop. The mental struggle is less “choosing to go on” than it is repeatedly beating down the craving to stop. At the start of a climb this choice becomes completely clear. The internal dialogue goes something like this:
“This is ok. I can keep this up”
“Can’t go faster, don’t want to blow up”
“Better go faster. Can’t set a slower time”
“This is starting to hurt now, maybe I should ease off a bit”
“I said it would be a hard ride, better keep going”
“But it’s only half way up the climb”
“I definitely went faster last time, gotta keep that average speed up. Can’t go slower.”
“OK this is really hurting. Could slow down a bit”
“Still at least a minute to go. Fuck. Keep going.”
“I want to stop”
“Heart rate is only 190. I can keep this up for several minutes. Better push harder.”
“Form has gone to shit”
“Fuck this I’m gonna to get fit. ONWARDS!”
At this stage I’m probably trying to accelerate just to get the agony over with sooner. The realisation hits me that on those past occasions where I set a PB I really had to go beyond where I thought the limit was. Certainly, I was in this state of “about to hit the limit” for far longer than I thought possible. In order to go beyond the limit, the trajectory has to set me up to hit the limit way too early. It still surprises me how long I can go for it when I really have too. And how hard it is to go for it for that long the rest of the time. However, the effort is not as intense as lifting, there is still just enough consciousness left functioning to question why I carry on. The debate continues:
” Maybe if I get out the saddle….”
“Shit. Shit. Sit down. Shit”
“Oh fuck still 50 seconds to go”
“I did it at this speed last time. Data doesn’t lie. Go faster.”
“Maybe there’s a headwind. Could slow down”
“Oh God why am I still doing this”
“What would Froome do?”
“Can’t look up. Look at stem. No. Look up.”
For reference, the stem is the part of the bike than connects the handle bar to the main bicycle frame. Maintaining a forwards facing position is normally rather tricky by this stage. Thoughts are monosyllabic beyond this point.
“How is my heart rate not higher. I want to stop already”
“OK. I’m done. Gonna slow down. Give up.”
“NO! Fuck it. Can see the top. ONWARDS!”
“No. Shit. This Hurts. Can’t go on.”
“Can’t do 37 more seconds. Might as well stop”
“No. Can’t. Quit”
“Just keep it up for 10 more meters”
“Fuck it. 10 more meters”
“OK this really hurts now”
“ANOTHER 10 METERS”
“GAAAARGH WANT STOP…”
It’s always hard to pinpoint which factors enable me to make it to the top of the climb in time. Or not, as may well be the case. Many are arguably beyond my control by this point, such as the weather, recent training load, pace early on in the climb or even tyre pressure. There are legitimate reasons for not being able to beat a personal best on any given day. This allows for more than a little wiggle room when it comes to shirking responsibility for failure. But the purpose of the ride was almost inevitably to beat a PB. What’s the point of ever going for a ride that’s slower? Therefore it matters. It’s at this period I philosophise on not being a professional athlete – I can live with a performance below expectations. Presumably a professional athlete can’t.
Descend & Recover
After the climb the ride is far from over. A blur of reflection on the climb while trying to stay upright on fast bends is always exhilarating. Endorphins churn and high speed winds chill. Normally the exchange of fluids: sweat out of my eyes, water into my gasping mouth, takes up most of my concentration.
On many rides, there are multiple hills. In these situations it is often too hard to think too far ahead. Getting air in lungs requires focus but then suddenly I am at the foot of the next climb without establishing any mental fortitude.
The process of the climb repeats. An unending battle to carry on, over the need to stop. Time seems to slow meaning the decision to continue must be upheld even longer.
Eventually the final climb is done.
After the climbs have been done and I start to head home riding a bike feels very different. Fatigue has set in. Where earlier I could comfortably squeeze on the pedals to add speed, I’m now grinding away to avoid coming to a dead stop.
This grind slowly settles into a slog. On rides where I’m going for it, the battle against giving in continues. With the freshness from the start long gone, this is where a subtly different battle begins. Getting home with the minimum amount of pain requires treading a fine line. Going slowly merely draws it out longer. Putting the hammer down too early inevitably leads to “blowing up” and struggling to stay upright.
Eventually this dilemna ends. Albeit, much less dramatically that the debate that presides over the climb. As the city limits approach once more, dead legs try to yank the pedals around in a vaguely circular motion. Anything less that utter exhaustion by this stage is almost a disappointment. Energy levels have dwindled with every mile that’s passed and eventually the need for the ride to end overwhelms. Keeping the bike moving in a fairly straight line in a struggle. Stopping at a red light requires a maximum effort to get rolling again. Even the mind is too tired to to put much thought into the level of suffering that is taking place. This is, in fact, the other reason for the ride. Mediation, it would appear, can be achieved through self imposed exertion.
This is why I love riding my bike.