The Matches

One of my favorite cycling-isms is the notion of burning matches. Chasing a distant breakaway, the riders on the front of the peloton will have to “burn all their matches” to bring back the escapees. The race favorite failed at the last, because he’d “burned all his matches” chasing back after a flat. We’ve each got a finite number of matches in our book. Matches are watts or glycogen or an absolute measure of will. The individual units can be somewhat hard to measure, but you know when you’re all out.

As a daily rider, or in the terms I prefer, as a participant in life’s infinite stage race, I think a lot on the matches I have left in my metaphorical match book. For example, after a rest day, I usually ride very hard, not because I should, but because I can. Speed sings its siren song to my rested legs, and I will invariably dash my ship on its jagged rocks just to feel the wind in my hair and the power in my being. In the back of my mind I am thinking, “It’s really too early in the week to be burning so many matches.”

Likewise, when I am passed on my route by a rider who is clearly kitted up to go fast, I will jump on his or her wheel thinking, “Well, I’ll burn some matches on my pulls, but this will get me to point B faster, so it’s worth it.” I tell myself lies like that all the time.

For the last 6 years, my ability to do long miles on weekends has been limited by the exigencies of parenthood, so that I end up logging a lot of miles, but never all at once. The upshot of this lifestyle is that I am quite strong for an hour in the saddle, and then crap thereafter. It is only quite recently that I’ve found the time and companions for longer spins, and the effect of the added work has been dramatic.

I have more matches.

So it was with particular delight and disbelief that I attacked the hill that leads to my house yesterday. I’d fairly flown home without the aid of even the merest tail breeze. My legs were sore from running (honestly, who runs?) the day before, but I felt strong. Every time a match burned out, I struck a fresh one, assuming it was the last, but not really caring.

So there I was, climbing in the big ring, like some kind of monkey, high on bananas, or one of the peloton’s blood bag cowboys from 2006. I thought about my form, sitting up, relaxed, chest open, fingers on the piano keys, and I wondered how many matches were really left in my book, or whether I might not have run out and simply set the empty book alight.

“I will be completely burned by the time I get home,” I thought, “but it will be worth it.”

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


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  1. Burns

    You cannot get more matches without burning what you have. Old matches don’t burn as well as new matches.

  2. michael

    i experienced much the same phenomenon last year on a club ride. I had a nice solid 3 week period where i actually had time to take some longer rides, and on that fateful day we tackled our local 15 minute climb. The first ramp always killed me in the past – a little over 14% for the first 400m meters or so. i`d burn out on that and straggle on the false flat right afterwards and the ensuing more reasonable 5% pitch.

    well on this day i stomped it up the first pitch, only to find myself searching for a larger gear on the false flat and subsequently big-ringing it up the rest of the climb. I had started from teh very back of the group, and by the time we hit the end of the false flat I was flying – right up and over the strong climbers in our group.

    jumping out of the saddle once we hit the 5% pitch I just kept on punching my way up. i heard some breathing behind me a turned around to see our climbing champ had latched onto my wheel. as we hit a small 9% section (just a couple of hundred yards long) I decided to hit it one more time to see if i really had the legs i thought i did. champ dropped.

    best climbing day of my entire season and one i won`t soon forget! I ended up hitting the accelerator and lighting 7 of those proverbial matches on the way up. I ended up staying on the front and pulling for the rest of the ride.

    I can`t wait to feel that good again (most likely sometime in September given how late i have started my season this year!).

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  4. Lachlan

    oh so true of parenthood – suddenly having an hour and a half to ride seems like a luxury!
    And a small box of matches definitely sucks.

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