Yesterday was one of those days.
Three of us met in the city for a ride of somewhere around 100km. There would be hills. There would be laughs. There would be much good times to be had.
Cruised out of the city just fine. Feeling alright. Decent pace. Still chatting.
Then, the instant the first real hill arrived – bang!
I’m thinking it was partially my fault. I had inadvertently brought together two guns, and carelessly mentioned to One of Many Strava KOM’s that the other had at one point been to the Worlds for Australia on the track. That may or may not have been a factor, but it was very soon after that when one picked up the pace, the other responded, and off they went. See you at the top chaps…
The ride wasn’t a big pissing contest by any means, but these guys are both reasonably on-point at the moment in terms of riding ability. Ready to smash it and doing so at every opportunity. When you’re at that place, smashing each other is good fun. It can be what playing bikes is all about. It’s smiling between gasps of air. High-fives with arms you can barely lift. When you are fit enough, pain is fun.
Ahhhh… I remember those days… When there was little need for a small chain-ring. When anything that might be a challenge but probably isn’t but who cares was responded to with ease. When repeated full-gas efforts caused no concern. “Bring me another!”, shouted my legs. Yes, the good ol’ days…
Me now? Not so much. I’ve had one of the least productive summers on the bike that I can remember, preceded by a pretty weak winter. Compared to the general population I’m probably still in reasonable form, but you only feel as strong as the company you keep. Today my company made me feel as strong as a very well-fed and sleepy new-born.
And so, for about 125km of the 136km that morning, I was well and truly in the hurt-locker, yo-yoing back and then forth whenever they slowed down enough, and sucking wheel like the last drop of water on earth was on it.
What do you do with days like these? Here are a few thoughts that will hopefully stay with you the next time you find yourself in this position.
Don’t. Or do, but use it wisely. Depending on what was happening at the time, I went from feeling determined to get ‘er done to frustrated with my legs and even my present company. Firstly, it doesn’t help to blame others for your level of fitness (and is totally illogical, at any rate). It is what it is, and what it is is what you have made it.
Anger can be used productively when you have something left in the tank, but when your legs respond to your demands with extreme levels of disinterest, anger tends to work against you. Eat, drink, slam gels down, breathe, slow down and ride within your current limits, let your body come back to you, but getting angry at your legs apathy is pointless and just fouls what could otherwise still be an enjoyable time on the bike.
If the tanks are empty, anger isn’t going to change that. Even if it makes sense to get angry at yourself because you choose to sleep-in all those mornings or have made quite an impression on the couch or have been hitting the sauce too much rather than doing something that would have helped with your current level of suffering – even then – self-loathing still works against you in every respect. Pick yourself up from wherever you are and go from there.
It helps to know what to expect
If you need a good hit-out on the bike, it’s probably pragmatic to avoid doing so with someone who is not on your level. Likewise, if you really want a good thrashing, then there is nothing like trying to keep up with a few people who are quite simply stronger and faster than you. Know what kind of ride it will be, and set your expectations thusly – whether you are the fast or the slow party.
If you are expecting a hard ride with faster people, then you should be looking forward to the challenge and use it to make you a better rider. Plan for that. Assume you will be dropped, and when you are, see how long you can keep your attackers in sight. Aside from fitness gains, you should also take the opportunity to improve your mind: when to push, when to hold back a bit, riding at but not over your threshold, recovering while maintaining some pace, making friends with pain. These are all at least as important as simply being physically strong.
If you are not expecting a hard ride, or your body turns out to be less interested than you are in performing, then things can get frustrating. The suggestions above all still apply here, but you now have to deal with an extra layer of emotional stress. Use these situations to improve your mental fortitude/attitude.
Realize that it is a great opportunity to make some gains. Push yourself, but know thy limits. Seeing others ride off into the distance can be demoralizing, but try to focus more on your personal effort and gains rather than thinking about how slow you are compared to others. There will always be someone faster. You are at least out on the bike, and that is far, far better than sitting on the couch.
If you have planned to go for a ride with someone who you know is slower than you, you have a responsibility to actually ride with them. This is different from a big bunch ride that is supposed to be fast. If you show up for one of these and you are not up to the task, then you will get spat out the back, and nobody has any responsibility to hang back with you. If it’s just you and a couple of others riding together, then putting in the odd attack is all good, but doing that all day long is a good way to break someone. Read the situation: if the slower person is still chirpy and in good spirits, you’re probably doing alright and they may be happy to ride at their own pace and meet up with you now and then, but if they’re quiet, negative, or actually look like they’re physically about to break, then think about your pace. You are not strictly obliged to do anything you don’t want to – I’m just saying that it bears consideration.
There is, to be sure, a line somewhere between being a complete dick and dropping your weaker companions at every opportunity, and simply riding at your comfortable pace, where that comfortable pace is somewhat more rapid than those around you. It pays to remember those times when you have had to wait for others on rides, especially times where you can’t understand how someone could possibly be going so slow, and that if you slowed down any further you would be stopped. If you start to feel that way, you need to find a few people who are faster than you, ride with them, get dropped by them repeatedly, and then remember how it feels.
If there are enough people, consider splitting the group up into two paces, and arrange a few meeting points. Something fun might be for the faster riders to throw an extra segment or hill in and see who gets to the meeting point first, where available.
You are still riding a bike
And riding a bike is a good thing. Of course, if you have actually hit the wall and the lights have gone out, then that can be a very dark place. It’s ludicrous (or at the very least an extremely hollow suggestion) for me to suggest that you should just be happy because you are on a bike when that happens because that truly sucks, but for any situation where you are not beyond hope, it’s true.
Bikes are great, and riding them is the even greater. We are not pro’s, we do not earn a living from our physical prowess, and the only person you have anything to prove to is yourself. At some point, everyone will find themselves riding in the autobus before transferring to the proverbial broom wagon (better definitions can be found here). There is still satisfaction to be found in those dark places if you care to look for it.
I eventually came back on that ride. It took quite some time, a few baked goods, sugary beverages, and an enormous amount of wheel-sucking, but I was able to launch an attack on the last climb we all did together and then throw in a Mt Osmond in the big ring on the way home for good measure. Because cycling.
So, however your next ride goes, make it a good one.
Header image: source