The inevitable question: ‘How’s your winter going?’

“How’s your winter going?”

I’m comfortable answering the question, because my winter is going swimmingly. But I temper my repsonse. Why? Because I know I’m lucky. Does this mean I think it’s a matter of chance that I’m having a great winter? As in, it has just happened, randomly?

That’s not what I mean. Yes, I’m committed to riding every weekday morning, every week-night (barring Tuesday, my daughter’s ballet night), every weekend day. I don’t think about whether I’ll get up at 6:15 to ride instead of sleeping another 1/2 hour. I just get up and do it, because that’s what I do. But I’m fortunate to be able to do that, because Danielle, my wife, makes our six year old  son breakfast and his lunch while my daughter feeds herself.
She is able to make her own lunch so she does. I get off the bike, get dressed, say hi, exchange a few words, grab my food, and jump on my beater bike to ride to work. At the end of the day I fit another hour in, either before or after dinner. It’s my normal; our normal, but it’s not normal. 

I understand that I am not the sole author of my life. I take responsibility for my choices, but I acknowledge that others are part of any success I enjoy. I’m not ‘special’,I don’t have super powers. I have a family that understands my passion for cycling, and they enable everything I do.

Not everyone is in a similar position; this is obvious. Some wish they could ride more, for innumerable reasons. They feel guilty, if not inferior, for not riding as much as they want to, as I do, as other do. They fear judgment. There is tension.

I get it. I get that others imagine I will judge them for not riding, for not riding enough. The truth is, I might be tempted to, but I won’t allow such thoughts to fully form. All of this underlies my response to the question, “How’s your winter going?”

Where does the guilt come from? Where does the judgment come from? I think it’s important to understand the reasons both are common in cyclists.

The starting point: cycling, specifically road cycling, is a sport of evaluation, judgment, calculation and risk taking. While it might be fun for the odd person to enjoy perpetually riding with those who carry less fitness so they can always ‘win’ their group rides, most dedicated riders are more inclined to ride with better riders, at least one or two, so they can improve. Why? Progression is a basic human compulsion.

While, when construed as ‘reaching’ or ‘grasping’ (see Buddhist philosophy), the pursuit of persistent progression can end up amounting to a persistent state of dissatisfaction, it doesn’t have to go that way. For many – and this is something I’ve heard from plenty of cyclists – progression is less about being better per se through time as it is about learning, experimenting, and problem solving.

When I think back, way back, to the presentation I did in one of my high school classes, where I had to talk about my co-op job (at the CyclePath bike shop on Rideau St. Ottawa), and what I liked about it, I vividly remember the realization that the thing that cut across everything I was doing as a mechanic in the shop was problem solving. I loved it. Yes, I loved the bikes and everything, but I really got a lot out of the problem solving part. I didn’t know then, but this predilection would ultimately underpin my interest in philosophy that saw me do an honours degree years later, and all of the most satisfying work I do today involves problem solving. Why? Problem solving is a creative activity, and I feel energized by the process.

But what’s the problem being solved? Simply, we’re trying to figure out how to become the best cyclists we can be with the amount of time, finances, and energy we have without compromising our other priority areas: family, work, and whatever else. That’s the challenge, the problem. There isn’t one ‘best way,’ but are a multitude of different approaches we might take. It’s an experimentWe try this, that, something else. We measure, we repeat, we draw conclusions. The subject of the experiment is us.

The whole time, we’re learningLearning about our bodies, our minds, our mind-body connection. We’re learning about our strengths and our weaknesses. Assuming we’re riding outside, we’re learning about the life-world, building deeper connections with our cities and our wild places. We’re spending time with others, opening opportunities to learn about their lives, their struggles, their joys. Not least, becoming a student of the sport greatly enriches the experience of cycling, deepening one’s understanding of its roots and where we fit in.

Does cycling make us better people? Not necessarily.

Does cycling open opportunities to become better people? It does.

Progression leads to judgment

OK, we’ve covered progression, and what it’s about, ATMO. We like to progress, and that can be a good thing. So what? This is where the judgment part comes in, and that inevitable anxiety about being judged. What’s the deal?

When we ride road bikes in groups we make innumerable judgments. Cast aside the popular culture sense of judgment: ‘You don’t know me; don’t judge me!’ In the popular vernacular, using ‘judge’ in this context is equivalent to saying ‘Don’t assume things about me and make moral judgments about me based on what little you know of my reality.’ Sorry, this is a bullshit way of using the concept of ‘judging’ because not judging whatsoever is literally impossible. At the basic level, in speaking to someone I need to make a judgment about whether they are a physical threat to me.  About whether they can be trusted whatsoever, at a minimum. I also need to make a judgment about whether their cognitive skills warrant me caring about what they say enough to keep listening. We’re making judgments non-stop.

This is, of course, also happening while we’re riding bikes with others. Read any coaching article on group riding skills, and you’ll see recommendations to avoid ‘dangerous’ or ‘unpredictable’ riders in the pack. What’s that about? It’s about making quick judgments, based on limited data, about others and their ability to ride safely. ‘Don’t judge me, man!’ ‘Uhh, sorry, I’m definitely going to, I like my skin where it is.’

That’s basic judging in a group. Naturally, we’re making all sorts of other judgments about the terrain, the road surfaces, the physical stuff, as we go along. All of that is unconscious, we don’t need to articulate it in language within our minds. If we did, we’d be crashing, because accessing the language centre of the brain is WAY slower than judging and acting via that ‘reptile brain,’ technically, the cerebellum. Found at our brain stem, right at the top of our spinal chords, this part of our brains is responsible for ‘fast thinking,’ ‘reflex,’ ‘intuition.’ But it doesn’t function in isolation, but is indeed connected to the limbic brain (responsible mainly for memory, but notably, where emotions reside, and where judgments are made, composed of the hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala) and the neocortex, which is where language develops and emanates from, as do imagination and creativity.

You see a hole, you react: swerve. Shit! You just took out the pack. Another rider sees the same hole, hops. The next rider hits it, flats. Nobody crashes. What happened?

Both reactions occur lightening fast, and don’t involve the neocortex to any significant degree, nor the limbic brain. Fear? No, there’s no time for that. Just input – hole – and reaction: swerve/hop. Why might we expect two different reactions to the same situation?

Experience. That’s it. The more we ride, the more we think about riding, the more we study riding, the more we condition our reptile brains. We imagine scenarios, what we might do, like the Stoics. We watch races and study what the best riders do. We thus re-pattern our brains, informing the split-second decisions we’ll make automatically, reflexively. We’re honing our craft. This is the stuff that saves lives.

What about the conscious level? This is the big one, when it comes to the anxiety I spoke of off the top. We’re calculating as we ride, consciously. This is the ‘chess match’ metaphor you’ve likely heard referenced while watching bike races. What are we calculating. At the very least, we’re calculating whether we can stay behind the wheel we’re on. We’re gauging our effort, asking ourselves: ‘Does this feel ok?’ ‘Am I good today?’ ‘When it’s my turn to pull, should I pull as long as the other guys/gals, or should I just pull through?’

These questions inevitably lead to other questions about our fellow riders: ‘Jim looks like he’s going well today, should I follow his wheel on the climb?’ ‘Dave looks like he’s hurting a bit, maybe he should be behind Derek instead of Iain?’ ‘Should I pull this hard or ease up; is it too much for the guy on my wheel?’

And this is a club ride!

In group cycling we’re always inevitably judging ourselves against others because we need to do this in order to have a chance at properly using our energy from start to finish. To make no judgments would be utter folly, irrespective of ability. For example, a very strong rider would take his/her pull, ride a comfortable tempo, and end up riding solo, having dropped everyone. Fail.

Making judgments about the ability of others on the bike is thus both natural, effective, and inevitable. BUT, if we spend a great deal of time in this mode, we run the risk of having those increasingly strengthened synapses (neural connections) dominate our thinking. In other words, we run the risk of conditioning ourselves to make judgments about others in relation to ourselves off the bike, when we really shouldn’t. This cuts both ways: ‘I’m not as good as him;’ ‘I’m better than him.’ With these ideas attach emotional components: inferiority / superiority. This is what we have to resist.

How? We need to maintain a distinction between ‘faster on the bike, at the moment (maybe forever)’ from ‘better person’ and the converse. These things just are not coupled, there is no moral aspect to being fast or not-fast on a bike. There is thus no reason to feel inadequate for not doing the things that make a faster rider faster. This is something I have to contend with all the time, as I am well aware that others are doing more than me, and this will always be the case. But the problems they are solving are unique to them, so the same applies to their solutions. There are many paths to take, but as long as we continue to remind ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing, we have a better chance of maintaining perspective.

How’s your winter going?