When I am strong, I believe, incorrectly, that I will remain strong indefinitely, as long as I continuing doing all the same things, all the time. So it’s always a big surprise to be five miles into a 60 mile ride and suffering like a worm on the end of a fishing hook, just dangling there, waiting for something big to come along and eat me.

As a cultivator of suffering, it’s astonishing how unpleasant it can get when you’re out of form. And I just think to myself, “Isn’t this what you came for? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

I try to believe that if I just hang in I’ll feel better in a kilometer or two, that I’ll get my legs under me and stop dropping off the back on every climb. Maybe if I eat something. Maybe if I drink a bit more. Maybe if I find a better gear, in the small ring. Maybe it’s just not my day.

The truth is, sometimes it’s just not. No one maintains their top level year-round. Right?

And yet, the surprise, the shock, when your regular companions ride away up the road, not because they want to hammer you, but because they can’t conceive of the idea that you’re not on their wheel. They pull off the front, expecting you to come through, and … nothing.

You have to be careful. Formless rides can be so dispiriting you struggle to pull on your bibs the next day. You begin a seemingly inexorable slide off the back of fitness. The couch gets that much more comfortable. You begin finding reasons not to ride. And then, a panic sets in. “Holy shit! I’ve got to get back on the bike!”

Sometimes you just needed a rest. Sometimes it’s a long slog back.

Fortunately, you will forget this. The season will change. It will get hotter or colder, and your legs will feel strong again. It will be you on the front, not even glancing over your shoulder. You’ll crest the tallest hill and shift back over into the big ring (if you even left it) and feel the power coursing through you, and you’ll forget that time, maybe not even a month before, when the sweat ran off the tip of your nose, your legs ached from ankle to hip, your vision blurred, staring down at your front wheel, praying for the end.

The beauty of self-imposed suffering is that it leaves few marks, either physical or mental. Ask anyone who’s given birth. Ask anyone who’s ridden a double century. Ask anyone who’s raced Paris-Roubaix.

Even our most pathetic lack of form gives us something to ride away with. Does it hurt less the next time? Do we become less afraid of the ten miles post-bonk? Do we gain a little bit of compassion for our friends when they hit their own empty patch?

I can tell you I have been there lately, lungs heaving, eyes stinging with sweat, stomach sour on too much engineered glucose product, and limping up the hill to my house, barely able to clip out in the driveway, and then laying on the kitchen floor, where it’s coolest, waiting for my back to give up its spasm.

I am sure there is something beyond this, if I can only manage to keep turning over the pedals.


Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

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  1. Everett

    I’m formless right now. Racing and riding the miles since the spring have left me with endurance, but no snap. At the track the past few weeks I can hang with the group, but when a sprint starts I just stay the same. Uhh, August. Do I need to rest more? Race more?

    Maybe formless isn’t the right word, but snapless. Not as catchy but probably more accurate. And now cross season is around the corner. That beautiful hour of pain, numerous accelerations and hurdles. Can’t wait.

  2. Souleur

    Being the kind benefactor and recipient less responsibilities at home since my son has enlisted in the navy, my daughter is 16 y/o, this has enabled Souleur to ride more, hammer it more and actually maintain form for a descent season.

    I have been on the other end of it, with the form of a snail pulling an anvil uphill, and it is truly mentally killing and a horrific reality that makes you reconsider everything.

    The best thing I did was to re-inventory everything i was doing; how i ride, what/when i eat, how i rest/recover and etc. It was shocking the reality of what a little complacency and ignorance had done. Eating better, riding longer has helped me come back to form and actually stay there for nearly the season.

    actually everett mentioned cross, and i am going to find my first cx bike soon and try that this winter to mix it up. And then next early spring try some dirt road racing, then badabing its summer again…right?

  3. Nelson

    @ Everett
    I had a personal trainer a few years back that gave me the best advise for preventing “Snapless” legs. She said that I needed to take my bike for a walk every other week. What she meant was take a slow ride, and once I thought it was slow enough, she said to slow down even more. This has helped me keep my legs during high stress training and has allowed me to realize August after August that cycling is fun! It can be a little frustrating doing 20 or so miles @ 16mph, but it seems to help.

  4. Brad

    Perspective. That all it takes. If you’re form is off from some higher level, it’s likely better than it has been at some other time. It gets down to the simple joy of riding a bicycle, the suffering will still come, regardless of form.

  5. RUV

    Oh how this resonates with me. This summer my friends have logged in over 1K miles and me… less than that. Watching them ride away from me and being powerless to follow on a ride in June was a powerful moment this summer. I went through several stages… despair, frustration, resignation, justification, determination. But I realized in the end that it is no big deal. They have time to ride a ton and I don’t. In the end, I’m still on my bike and the wind in my face and the hum of the road still bring a smile to my face.

    Chapeau Robot. Great writing.

  6. Paul

    I had a good year this year, by my standards. I kept fit over the winter doing spin classes. I was able to get outside by mid February when the snow suddenly vanished, and I have ridden long, hard miles ever since. I did mountains in Massachusetts, and mountains in the Alps. Then, recently, I had to go for two weeks on a business rip to South America. No chance to ride, really no exercise. Fourteen hours travel home, then group ride the next day. There was nothing there, no legs at all. Dropped on the first climb, and never able to stay with the group again. Eventually I told them to go on without me and I rode home. The next ride — back to normal!

  7. Joe

    Nice to see I am not alone! First time on this site and it couldn’t have been more timely. I just suffered through a one hours sprint XC race yesterday afternoon and watched the pack drop me like a sinking stone. For the rest of the race I went through all of the emotions mentioned here.
    Paying the price of not doing my homework. Good reality check. Back on the program. Can’t belieive I contemplated selling every shred of bike equipment I own less than a day ago.
    Thank you my brothers in Arms!

  8. Souleur

    I cannot believe I didn’t think of this Robot. Formlessness….what every cyclist has, until you hit the first hill, and your ‘formless’ buddies hit it like a rabid monkey.

  9. Ron

    I have surely gone off form but since I’m still a relatively new roadie, I still seem to be improving all the time. It’s pretty awesome. Being kind of young doesn’t hurt either. I also have reached a level of fitness where I can be off the bike for a week or two if I’m on the road for work and can’t take a bike and when I toss the leg over I get back to form quickly. That’s a nice feeling.

    That said, when I’m in a hole I try to take a day or two off & just think about why I ride, which is mainly for fun.

    I also suffered on Sunday. Three dudes I was out with are all accomplished racers. What was a cruising ride for them put me in pain a few times. Able to push on through and make it home, though I was tired for two days afterwards.

    And wow, getting dizzy and nearly puking from effort on the bike sucks. It’s weird when your vision gets blurry and you can’t ride in a straight line.

  10. travis

    Thank you for a very wonderful post. I am definitely “formless” these days. In fact the form has been falling off since the birth of our first son (now three years old). It started slowly of course, mileage starts to slip off approaching the birth, and then POW, you are suddenly responsible for this little life and all else ceases to be important. Of course this is a worthy time off the bike, but then time passes and you even may find a little time for yourself on the weekends to get on the bike, and low and behold, you can’t go 20 miles without three stops to rest and getting the bibs on at 5AM doesn’t sound so good, since the only time you can farm out for yourself to get anything done, is after the little one is in bed. So here I am, rocking a whopping 30 miles a week (if I am lucky) down about 250 miles per week pre child, and we have another one on the way. The good news is I have a great son, and he will be a great big brother, and the bike is still there if I need it.

  11. Dave

    And I thought that I was the only one who sometimes collapses onto the kitchen floor – Ah, the sweet feeling of the cool tile through my sweat soaked jersey!

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