When I was in my ascendancy as a cyclist, at a certain point, I began chasing numbers. We all did. There was higher speed—both average and max—because chasing velocity is inarguably the pursuit of fun itself. Then came longer rides. There was my first 20-mile ride, 50-mile ride, and of course, my first century—it wasn’t hard to figure out that a longer ride was just more of a good thing. Then, of course, came racing. There was the first race I entered, the first race I finished, then I chased my first placing, the first podium and then, finally, that first win. What came next? Points. I chased upgrade points and then the categories themselves. Along the way I picked up a heart rate monitor and for a while I was focused on seeing ever-climbing max heart rates. And once I learned what it was, each season I pushed my lactate threshold a few beats higher.
The appeal of chasing numbers is obvious enough. I was chasing a better me. When I decided to get serious about my cycling it was because I was nagged by a single, simple question: Of what was I capable? The promise that we may be a diamond in the rough can drive us to train with abandon for years, even decades. Within those numbers I pushed through boundaries as much of mind as body. I was learning that my limits are far less, well, limiting than I once figured.
Cycling, more than any other endeavor, taught me that the person I thought I knew, the identity that I carry day-to-day was as temporal as a rain cloud. For years, every time I thought I’d reached my limit, mere weeks later I’d experience some sort of performance breakthrough that would cause me to reevaluate my core beliefs. And the issue wasn’t that I was only as good as my last strong ride; no, even now I learn new lessons. I’ve seen recently that I can sustain more pain than I thought, I can exercise better judgment than I thought I possessed, that my skills are sharper than I suspected.
There comes a point for many cyclists where the numbers don’t add up. That is, they cease to contribute something meaningful. To use MBA-speak, they don’t add value. Off goes the heart rate monitor and computer. Out goes the training diary. I’ve encountered plenty of riders for whom the reasons why the numbers became an aggravation seemed a mystery. Trust me, it’s not. The ego of a cyclist is as fragile as a Christmas ornament. As soon as the numbers bear bad news, rather than good, the easiest solution is to stick the messenger in a drawer.
I’ve watched friends chase race fitness well past their 50th birthday, and while I think racing can be terrific fun and don’t see anything wrong with a bunch of 50-year-old guys racing a crit, I do fundamentally think of racing as a young buck’s game. At one point recently I contemplated a return to racing—just for fun—but once the accusations that some of the riders on some of the local masters team (sponsored by a biotech company) were doping, my stomach for pinning a number on evaporated. I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but if you’re old enough to be a grandparent and you’re doping to win a master’s race, you’ve lost the plot line. I also suspect that anyone doing that isn’t reading my work, so I should be in the clear with that last statement.
One of my goals for my life is to find a way to thread a middle ground between aging and chasing youth, between sedentary decline and doped-up racing, between passive retirement and head-strong ego. I call that space grace. I’d like to ride my bike as far into old age as possible. In my case, based on family history, that could be well into my 80s. My maternal grandfather rode his coaster-brake cruiser four miles every morning well into his 80s. On the days he felt good, he’d ride his circuit again in the afternoon. This is a man who smoked cigars into his 70s. Now, that said, I’m aware that at a certain point I need to think of my lactate threshold as a place not unlike the loud concerts of my youth. I might get back there once in a while, but it won’t be a weekly event. Not only isn’t it smart, I doubt I’d have the stomach for doing it every day.
Without geeking out too much, one of the concepts that has influenced my thinking lately is the projected lifespan of the average heart. The American Heart Association says that average human heart will beat in the neighborhood of two billion times. Some projections by Dr. Robert Jarvic, the inventor of the artificial heart, hold that it’s even higher, somewhere between 2.3 and 2.9 billion. Riding may drive up my heart rate, but the physiologic adaptation that has occurred as a result has lowered my resting heart rate. Bottom line: the numbers suggest that for cyclists, all that riding is buying us time.
Which brings me to my current relationship to numbers. I still wear a heart-rate monitor. Every ride. And, as many of you know (because you follow me), I use Strava. But I don’t use either of these training tools in the typical way. I don’t use the heart-rate monitor to go hard. I know how to go hard and no number will make me go harder. Going hard was never the issue for me. Going hard too often has often been an issue in the past. Overtraining was one of the reasons I stopped racing. Being overtrained robbed me of the ability to go fast and in so doing, sucked the fun out of racing for me. So these days the heart rate monitor helps me know when I’m going easy, easy enough.
These days, I think of tools like the heart rate monitor and Strava as means to keep me from overtraining. I’m not that disciplined in my training for the most part. I ride. I like doing group rides. There’s usually been a point every spring where I try to log some bigger miles to give me a good foundation for later in the season, but the reality is that I have traditionally logged my biggest miles in the summer. For me, that’s not hard to process: My greatest goal as a cyclist isn’t becoming a better cyclist, it’s to have fun. So in an effort to minimize the number of mistakes my exuberance inclines me toward, in addition to making sure I do easy rides, I also make sure to back off for one week out of each month. I cut both miles and intensity, arguably one of the more lasting lessons from Joe Friel’s book “The Cyclist’s Training Bible.”
As Robot noted in a recent FGR, I was on schedule to hit 8000 miles by the end of 2012, a figure I did hit just before New Year’s Eve. By any standard, it’s a lot of miles, though it wasn’t a goal until early December, when I realized that simply continuing to ride with the frequency that was normal for me would bring me to that total.
I had to ask myself why I even cared and then one night as I clicked around Map My Ride (where I have multiple years of data recorded) the answer popped out. It’s been more than four years since I had a season with that many miles. It’s by no means what I used to record when I was racing, and that’s okay. So why even think about how many miles I’m riding? It’s a tool, just another Allen wrench in the toolbox, one that helps me think about what I want my life to be. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life riding 15 mph, but that I can put in 8000 miles in a year reminds me that I can still develop some real fitness, that my future as a rider doesn’t have to be without a goal or two to chase. Setting goals is how we redefine our limits and while I may not ever climb in the big ring again, my future may hold a few surprises yet.
And that’s enough to keep the training exciting.