Five Years Later: Lessons from the Saddle, Part 3

This third installment of my 2010 Lessons from the Saddle will be a bit more philosophical than the first two. In order to set up the lesson, I’m going to have to lay a bit of a foundation to build upon. Here goes.

When people, namely those involved in PRO road cycling, make statements about doping being ‘bad for cycling,’ they tend to, perhaps unwittingly, reduce all of cycling to PRO road. In reality, cycling, as a practice, is carried out by millions of people who will never come to know or care a whit about PRO road. Hurricanes are generally bad for cycling, holes in roads are bad for cycling, rubber shortages would be bad for cycling; doping is bad for PRO road cycling. Indeed, cycling is not even a sport for vast numbers of individuals who ride. Its a way to get around, to unwind, to explore, to help ease the burden of physical work.

Outside the frame of sporting competition, cycling is a practice that enriches lives in myriad ways. This is not to say that cycling necessarily enriches lives, that would be too strong a statement. It depends whether the bicycle is perceived as a tool, a means to an end, or, in contrast, an extension of the self, of one’s ‘I can,’ the field of possibility one perceives extending into the future. Those who already maintain a well resolved idea of what constitutes worthwhile cycling experience simply need a bicycle that fits, one that is the right tool for the job. In contrast, those who see possibility as open and unconstrained understand the bicycle to be a catalyst, a means to extend one’s capacity to engage the world in heretofore unforseen ways. In the case of the former, a road bicycle with 23c tires might seem altogether normal, self-evident, given the common understanding of what road cycling is…and ought to be. In contrast, others might view the same bike in terms of its limitations, the surfaces such a bike might be limited to. But a bit more volume would afford such possibilities….

I won’t blame you for wondering where this is going; don’t worry, I’m about to get to a checkpoint.

One might read ‘Have a Plan‘ and dismiss the exhortation as falling under the umbrella of sportive cycling. Certainly it does, but I want to contrast this context against that which is as valuable, if not more valuable to me and many others: open ended cycling. Cycling possibilities.

In the realm of competitive cycling, having a plan is of vital importance. Human beings are cognitive misers; this means we make decisions based on the minimum amount of information possible (listen to the Radiolab broadcast on choice for a great discussion of this topic) using our minds as sparingly as we can. In addition, the fact that racing bicycles tends to entail extended periods of suffering means we are prone to making decisions we might rather not make while in the thick of battle (I use suffering here in a qualified sense, as I am well cognizant of the difference between the pain endured in sport, which is self-inflicted, and the suffering people undergo they have little or no control over; not all pain and suffering are equal. In general, I use suffering to denote perception of pain – emotional or physical – that is subject to evaluation as being endured against one’s will. For example, those who endure torture suffer, while those who rip their muscles at the gym to build strength endure pain. In the cycling context, suffering refers to the conflict between the will and strong desire to stop the pain). For example, we might quit. I will quote Lance here, possibly the only time I ever do: “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.”

Photo: Allan Cameron

Photo: Allan Cameron

In the heat of competition, one’s focus narrows, and, as I mentioned in a previous post, we might in fact enter a cognitive state where we don’t think per se. We act. Our action is conditioned by our experience, which, perhaps surprisingly, does not need to be real. Recently acknowledged by 20th century coaches and trainers, mentally rehearsing future athletic performances can significantly enhance athletes’ ability to perform at the peak of their potential. Charles A. Garfield’s seminal book, Peak Performance, explains how mental training, visualization being a key technique, is vital to the realization of one’s full potential, not limited to sport, but extending beyond as well. Garfield echos the Stoics, who predated Socrates, in espousing the value of mental training in preparation for specific challenges to come.

Plan to be Positive

The Stoics always had a plan, or at least, they tried to. Steve D. Hales provides a pithy passage on the Stoic approach in ‘Cycling and Philosophical Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Riding out of the Cave,’ in Cycling: Philosophy for Everyone:

In the Enchiridion, Epictitus wrote that “With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it…If you are in pain, you will find fortitude…. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you along with them.” Epictitus was born a deformed Greek slave in Imperial Rome in the first century AD, and probably knew something of pain and suffering. But here he expresses the Stoic ideal that the flourishing life is to strive for what is possible, with a sense of inperturbability. A Stoic sage is insulated from misfortune because he does not value the objects of the extermal world, and believes it is virtue alone that ensures a good life. For the Stoics, one undergoes emotions: they are things that happen to you, and are to be distinguished from actions that one performs. The proper attitude toward emotions is to not be buffeted and controlled by them, but to be self-sufficient and even-keeled. The Stoics tried to live apathetically, meaning in its original sense, unmoved by pathe, the passions. Thus we can live in accordance with nature. As the fellow Stoic and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, don’t say ‘this is a misfortune,’ but ‘to bear this nobly is good fortune.’

The Stoics’ technique for insulating themselves from potential suffering in the future was to imagine scenarios as vividly as possible in order to pre-condition their perception of such a reality. In other words, they had a plan for every conceivable scenario. Competivive cycling requires running scenarios too. For a mountain bike race, we must plan for a potential flat and carry the necessary tools to remedy such a problem efficiently, for example. Tactically, we must plan for all kinds of races. Its not sufficient to set an intention to ‘go as hard as possible;’ that would be equivalent to a Stoic planning to ‘handle everything I face with grace.’ That’s not a plan. A real plan must cover the range of potentialities from good to bad. One must decide in advance how hard to start, what to do if a flat is suffered late in the race, when to take hand-ups of water, who to monitor…. Endurance mtb and road events bring team dynamics into the mix. One must decide in advance whether to assist a team-mate or accept assistance from team-mates in pursuit of a top placing for the team. As a helper, will you stop to assist another helper with a mechanical, or charge on to help the leader? These scenarios must all be run to facilitate decisive action under pressure.


Beyond the external aspects of a competitive event, it is likely most important to have a plan with regard to one’s psychological approach. How important is the event in question? At what point will pain become suffering? If one is really racing, its painful. Unless you are racing folks way below your ability, its going to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, you are not trying hard enough. This is rock solid fact at the starting line. The question is, do you have a plan for dealing with that pain when it starts to become suffering? How do you intend to push on into the pain when its soooo attractive to ease up, or perhaps, quit?

In 2010 I learned I need to race positively, and planning is central to that. Negative racing occurs when one tries not to get passed. This is the default stance for the leader of a race. Stress and worry comes with this frame of mind, which compromises one’s ability to put all their effort into riding well. In contrast, racing positively is about embracing possibility up ahead, of riding everything to the best of one’s ability, of catching the riders ahead, rather than holding a position because that’s easier. I learned to go into the race expecting to really fight the whole time, rather than settle for something resembling a comfortable pace. One cannot regret putting in the full effort and simply not getting the result desired. One can regret easing up and realizing the possibility was there to catch a rival. Yes, there are days when everything comes together and the speed is there without the ‘suffering.’ Those days are magical. One has to know that the time spent enduring suffering, resisting the driving urge to submit, quit, to let it be easier, is a necessary condition for the realization of those magical moments. Have a plan, stick to it, and good things will follow.

In the final instalment of Lessons from the Saddle, more on planning….for possibility.

Related Posts:

Five Years Later: Lessons from the Saddle, Part 1

Five Years Later: Lessons from the Saddle, Part 2

Dirty 40 Race: Flying too close to the sun

Good job(?)