On Top of It

In a recent conversation my friend said at the recent state time trial championship, ‘he just never got on top of it’. He was speaking of his gear of choice, and as we rode along he continued to elaborate further that he couldn’t find any gear that he could get on top of and that he simply didn’t have it that day. It had been a while since I had thought of it, but I was glad my friend mentioned this to me.

Being ‘on top of it’ is something we do recognize as cyclists. It’s that feeling you notice when your legs and cadence are smooth, the bike flows and the gear is relatively easier in effort than previously. For me, its when I spin my 53×17 at a cadence of 100 to 105. My feet feel light, my knees are even, my breathing effortless and the K’s tick over quickly. Even climbs are different, as they may be out of the saddle efforts yet I may remain in the same gear; the cadence slows a bit, but there is minimal need for shifting now, just a nice swaying of the hips and pull on the bar for the climb.

It’s feeling like you have a good tailwind, but you realize there is none, you’re doing it for yourself and you couldn’t care less if there is even a headwind because you’re on top of it. For some of us, it’s a short-lived seasonal feeling that we experience, and for others it’s a feeling that lasts for weeks at a time. I have been fortunate to found myself in that zone the past two weeks and my friend is tapering at the end of a long-fought race season.

Conversely, there is a good amount of time we struggle with not being on top of it. When we are not on top of it as my buddy mentioned, we tend to find our cadence slower, our pedal stroke sloppy; it’s something we fight the bike over—the gear—and we tend to look up and ask ourselves if we are in a headwind or perhaps we have a brake dragging. Not being in such harmony is where many of us tend to reside for a good amount of the year. But for a few weeks we do find ourselves making poetry with our bodies and this makes the painstaking miles a worthy endeavor.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Paul

    It’s those moments with the Hincapie “no chain” feeling that make me stay on the bike, even though that feeling is very elusive for me, and even non-existent so far this year.

  2. Jim

    I generally refer to this as being on top of the pedals, or conversely, the pedals being on top of me. There’s a vast middle ground in there between the two feelings, however, and I haven’t thought of a good term for that. Pedaling the Meh-tercycle?

  3. Pascal

    I have been on top of it until I changed bikes. I employed a hi-tensile Velo-Sport “sport touring” bike to commute to work with. yuk! No matter what gear I was in, I just could not get on top of it and it would hurt my legs. When I would switch back to my 853 Pro Team club racer for after work hammer fests, I was back on top of it. Sure, this is a radical example but it shows that some frames you can wind up and they will give back while others seem to do nothing but take, take, take, leaving you tired and sore.

  4. Author

    thanks fella’s for the comments.

    I think Pascals observation is an interesting one, and one I’ll defer to Padraig as he is brilliant at exposing the differences in a bike, its geometry and what that difference makes. It can be ‘the’ difference in my opinion, although many will argue that point is null and void in light of one in true form, ie Sean Kelly often rode a too small of bike.

    I like velosopher’s simple stateement, and indeed it covers so much.

    I suppose the question is how many of us reach it and how long can we stay that way…

  5. soul_cramp

    Ah, something I’m familiar with but haven’t thought about for a while, too. Back in the day when I considered myself a sprinter I once tried to describe to a fellow rider the sensation of a good sprint as being “on top of it”. I’ve spent most of this year to find any sort of form. And although riding is a joy, many of my rides this year I have not been “on top of it”; usually desperately hanging on. The past few weeks I have had that “on top of it” feeling again. I know it won’t last but I’ll enjoy these “super-sensations” as long as I can. (maybe they’ll carry me through my first cross race of the season…)

  6. Lachlan

    not sure…. for me being on top of it (at least in a racing context) is not a free-spinning /no-chain feeling but one of real resistance and pain but also joy and control: where you’re churning through it powerfully and sustainably (regardless of cadence) and at what you know is max effort but without feeling any doubt you will stall or hit the wall…. When you are bringing it to the wind or the drag, and showing it who is in charge rather than it bring it to you…

    At least I think thats what it used to feel like. ; )

  7. fausto

    The term really meant more back in the days before computers, heart rate, power meters… You knew your body and when you had that extra 1% of strength, fluidity, breath and supleuse (spelling). You felt it versus read it. That feeling of connection and one where your legs, feet, pedals, cranks have merged/connected right into the chain, the cog, in the forward movement. Different than being in the zone. Very hard to explain, not just going fast or easy… on top of it.

  8. randomactsofcycling

    I’m gonna take bits from Lachlan and Fausto because I agree with them.
    I feel best when I am hurting but am confident that I can recover and go again. I suppose it translates to the days when I feel I can put the hurt into others! And that didn’t happen until I stopped using a HRM/Cycle computer and just started training by hurting myself!

  9. Author

    you guys have tapped into something I didn’t mention, but may expose a bit more.

    Souleur is as fausto describes ‘old school’ in that I don’t tend to look at numbers to dictate to me how I feel. I really do rely on the feel, as lachlan mentions the effort and reserves present. After 20 years in the saddle, I think I better know by know where I am at in form. I do appreciate technology, and for some it may be motivating, its just that I do understand differences in our perceptions and our monitors numbers (there are so many). Sometimes the monitor will tell us number ‘x’ is at 100%, so that would dictate slow up a little, but we may feel like going for it…so what do we do? Are we an outlier on the ole bell shape curve, are we able to endure more, run a little higher comfortably?? If indeed the numbers loose meaningfulness in what we will do, why look at them and use them, if we still in the end will go for it. Conversely, if we don’t feel on top of it, the HRM numbers look great, are we really on top of it? Do we refine things, or are we satisfied because the numbers say so? That indeed is tangential to this, perhaps a good consideration for a Friday group ride, but does apply to that feeling of being on top of it. When you get it, its a wonderful thing.

    Confidence, feeling, suppleness is all virtues of being in form.
    thanks for your insight fella’s!

  10. cyclemaniac

    On top of it ? Dare I say it isn’t measurable. It’s not just speed, where you are at in the local peleton, what your body fat is or how many dollars you have tucked into your crotch. It is feeling the payoff of months of training resulting in that magic ride that exceeds your expectations. It is hitting speeds that make you look down and think “wow”, didn’t think I was pushing that hard. It is hitting that big hill with relative ease, then looking for it’s big brother. It’s why we ride, train, compete. To get that addictive sensation of slipping through the air, faster than usuall, faster than our problems can travel…..

  11. cyclemaniac

    Excellant perception, souleur. On top of it is completely subjective from our previous ride experiances, interpretations and love for particular aspects of any ride. It is a perception deeply ingrained into our bicycling souls and is as personal as choice of religion. Ride on top my friend, it is, in large, a big part of what defines us…..

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