Five years later: Lessons from the Saddle, Part 1

Five years ago I wrote the post below, the first of what was to be seven instalments. Instead, I wrote four. It’s amazing how much has changed, while so much has stayed the same since then. One of the things that hasn’t change one bit is the importance of what the lesson speaks to: determination and tenacity. This is why I chose the image above, from the hardest race I’ve ever done. For those who missed it back in 2010, or have forgotten (I forgot about it, that’s for sure!), read on!

With the 2010 cycling season fading into the recesses of my memory, its a good time to  reflect on about what I learned, what I did right, and what I’d like to do differently in the future. But I’m not just talking about practical stuff. No, I talking about looking at deeper matters of perception, values and motivation. This is the first instalment of a series of posts that will delve progressively deeper into philosophical questions emanating from my perspective on the happenings of this past cycling season. I’ll start out with a pretty tame lesson: keep pedalling.

2010 was the year I raced bikes more than any year before. Back when I raced xc as a junior and senior I only made it to about 6 Cup races per season, along with local races at Camp Fortune. I barely rode my road bike, and cyclocross was way in the periphery. I rode 5 or six days a week, mostly on my mtb. When I transitioned to downhill racing I raced about the same number of races a year, and spent a lot of my time on skills based riding – dirt jumps, skate parks and street (or ‘urban’ if you like). As I raced less and less I started to work in more road riding, more xc, and started to move back toward endurance oriented riding, albeit with a bent toward the gnarly end of things. Little by little I added races to the mix, from 24hr and 12hrs to regular xc, road, then cyclocross.

Much of this was going on while I was finishing school, so when I was all done with that I was able to ride my first full season in 2009. That was a great year, and the improvement I saw from my efforts really motivated me to be yet more focused in 2010 and see what I could do. I set a goal for 10, 000k on the bike (not including commuting). By Battenkill on April 10th, 2009, I’d logged 3500k on the bike since January 1st, many of which on the trainer and rollers in the basement. Fast forward to the end of December and I’d racked up 11.200k. When I first decided I’d try for 10, 000 back in 2009, I wasn’t sure it was possible for me, given I normally limit my riding to 2 days during the season. However, I found that riding 5 or 6 days a week during the winter helped a lot, as did more time indoors in the late fall. With a solid base I found I was still feeling good through the fall, with the exception of the weeks I was down with a flu and pneumonia, which took some time to recover from. Staying healthy is a challenge that time of year.

So while the 2010 season wound down I started been reading a great book my sister and her beau gave me for my birthday in November,Cycling: Philosophy for Everyone. Many readers will know that I am a philosophy nerd. I did my BA in philosophy, and I continue to pursue wisdom, or, more specifically, Eudaimonia. Perpetual seeking and striving for wisdom defines the philosopher; the term itself is derived from the greek philo – loving, and sophia – knowledge and wisdom. We are not content to know what we know; those of knowledge comprehend the vastness of that which is unknown, unexamined. Wisdom defines those who understand the limits of their knowledge and the relationship between who they are and what they think. I will delve more into this topic in a later post, but I’ve digressed. The book I mention is a compilation of essays on a plethora of cycling-related topics, from learning to ride a bike to the ethics of performance enhancing drugs. On the balance, the essays are quite good. The interlude to ‘Stage 5,’ Velo Virtues. penned by Patrick Vala-Haynes is, quite frankly, one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve even encountered in the cycling milieu. The rest of the book could be crap and I’d still think it was worth it for this piece. Imagine a mountain biker racing a horse on a familiar trail. I won’t say more, you’ll have to read it.

Reading through the chapters of the book, numerous articles elicited many interesting ideas for further discussion, others…not so much. However, all were interesting for the manner in which they developed their analyses. Personal style is all over the map in philosophy, just like anything else. About halfway through I decided that rather than doing blog posts picking up certain interesting threads as they came, I’d instead organize my ideas around a framework: lessons from the saddle. So far I have 7 sketched out, and I’ll unfold them as I have time. I’m going to start out simple, and pull in more philosophical elements as I move forward.

Lesson 1: Keep pedalling

This lesson sunk in after a few distinct incidents. One involved a massive, snarling Rotweiler on a Quebec backroad. S/he paced me at 35kph, looking very eager to rip a piece off of me. I kept pedalling. I squirted water. I didn’t realize it until Ariel mentioned it; dogs won’t go for a bite while your feet are spinning around fast. Keep pedalling.

At D2R2 I flatted three times. After my group stopped for me the first time, I was on my own to chase the other two times, after patching my flats. It was gruelling; one climb went on forever. After working myself over thoroughly after flat #2 and catching the guys on a mellow climb I flatted immediately. I chased for about 30 minutes after that one. I suffered, but I kept pedalling, and I caught them. We finished the ride together.

In September, while team time trialling in the Hastings Hilly Hundred to try to catch the lead group after a mechanical, I cracked. David assured me I’d be ok. Keep pedalling. I did, and I came back around.

Into cross season I opted to try my pneumonia afflicted lungs out in Perth, a technical delight of a course. Despite a decent first lap, I was not in the race at all, suffering greatly from a lack of lunch capacity. Kris Westwood passed me in a sweeping corner, rolling much faster than I was as I coasted. He was pedalling AND he had traction. Keep pedalling. I applied the lesson from there on out, and found that pedalling through turns tended to help a lot of the time. Riding my mtb since, I realized pedalling through technical turns can really help correct front wheel disturbances. I recall reading about one of the faster American cross racers training for cross on a fixed gear a couple years ago. His rationale was a secret. I suspect he was working on pedalling through turns.

At the more macro level, keep pedalling applies to simply putting a bit of time in on the bike day to day. I already knew that commuting was great for keeping the legs familiar with the work they’d be asked to do come spring, but I didn’t know how much was enough, or whether I could actually ride too much. Some riders train much harder than I do; for example, they actually call what they do day to day ‘training.’ For some, that amounts to work, devoid of enjoyment. I rarely ‘train’ in this sense, I prefer to ride hard when I need to. Those who train in the former sense will need time off in the off-season to recoup motivation and the will to power (volition). These riders can stop pedalling for a bit (they don’t need to read this on a blog to know it either). For a rider like me who does not approach overtraining, there is value in keeping the riding going through the winter. For one, it feels good. I enjoy my time on the trainer, especially when I get to watch a classic cycling film like The Impossible Hour. I reason that its easier to carry form through the winter than rebuild it, and it feels better to ride with form in the spring than to chase fitness. One doesn’t have to ride harder than one wants to each day, its just important to pedal. This is an opportunity to really focus on pedalling technique and identify weaknesses and position issues. I like to really focus inward and pay attention to what I’m doing from time to time, unplugged. When I am in the right frame of mind, I am able to meditate this way, completely focused on the corporeal sensations. I’ve learned a great deal about pedalling technique this way, though, as those who have seen me roller race will attest, I’ve learned little about how to spin fast. I don’t do that nearly enough to improve much.

Back to the plot, it feels great to keep pedalling. Take this as you like; it can easily be applied as a metaphor for simply maintaining momentum with regard to those activities, athletic, intellectual, spiritual or otherwise, that contribute to your  life in positive ways. Know that even if interruptions in momentum are encountered – or if momentum is altogether lost –  as so often happens on the bike, it can be regained, and overall speed from A to B is not really the point. The process, the experience of rolling, gliding, running, reading, singing…whatever it may be, is good in itself. Keep pedalling.

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