You are moving, but not without pain. Where is this pain coming from? Your back? Your legs? Your mind? You are ashen, gray. This would be apparent if there was a mirror handy, but there is actually nothing handy. You are upright and moving forward and that is all. This is survival mode.
There are many ways to enter survival mode, most of them a result of your own naivete, poor planning or naked hubris. How far is 100 miles? How many is 10,000 climbing feet? How many bottles do I need for this ride? Where will we get food? Did anyone check the weather? These are all questions that presage survival mode.
Sometimes circumstances contrive to take you there. The weather man has a jour sans. Mechanical forces array against you. Road construction disturbs your route.
Uttering the phrase, “I’ll probably be fine,” is what passes for an express ticket to survival mode. You can get there via bonking or crashing, or by simply failing to train up to the level of your aspirations. Here a foolish pride bleeds you dry as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.
In the Spring, on an unseasonably hot day, I showed up for a 70-mile cross “race” on a borrowed bike with one water bottle. Quite what I was thinking, I could not explain to you. It was laughable.
There was nowhere on the course to refill my one bottle. To add to the mirth, I crashed in the first twenty miles, and though it wasn’t a serious spill, the ensuing 50 miles of pounding turned my spine into a length of barbed wire. There was no comfortable position, no possibility of relief out of the saddle, no power to be derived from the muscles of my lower back. As the rest of my team settled into their groove and hammered through the final climbs and trails of the day, I dehydrated, too.
Fortunately, I had been in survival mode before, so when, suddenly, I became enraged about being dropped on an unremarkable hill in the last 15 miles, I knew where I was. Because you get used to pain on the bike, because you become inured to suffering, you sometimes don’t know how badly off you are until you lose control of your emotions.
The best rule for surviving survival mode, if indeed you feel compelled to finish whatever ride you’ve started rather than packing it in as a sane person might, is only to speak when spoken to, and to limit your answers to the barest minimum. In this way, you can keep your pain to yourself and not get it all over your companions.
A few weeks back, a friend of mine found himself in this particular spot of bother at D2R2. An early crash shook him up. Then he had double leg cramps. With over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, this is not a ride you want to cramp on. We spent probably the last 25 miles with him just doing the best we could, hanging back, taking our time. I was impressed with the way he continued to push on each climb. He dug down into some deep reserve, the reserve we all have but seldom are brave enough to access, and he finished.
We often say, here at RKP, that “to suffer is to learn,” but if you’re not careful you can turn that into a pseudo-tough-guy cliche. It’s all well and good to push at your limits, but you’ve also got to pay attention. You have to take the time to learn.
In the most practical sense, you can learn not to make so many stupid mistakes. You can learn to show up on the right bike with the right supplies. You can also learn not to overestimate your abilities. In this way, the more you suffer now, the less you suffer later.
But then, there are other lessons available. I believe there is value in learning to sit with pain, both physical and emotional. Low-blood sugar and dehydration will put you off emotional kilter. They will introduce you to chemically-inspired, irrational rage. The bonk is sometimes called “going to meet the man with the hammer,” but you can also become the man with the hammer, hammering yourself, hammering friends.
There are also the ego-crumpling effects of being the weak link. You feel you’ve let your friends down. Disappointment mingles with shame and anger. It’s a party you’d rather not be on the guest-list for.
A bike ride, though, is logistically insignificant compared to everyday life. Naivete, poor planning and naked hubris don’t confine themselves to in-saddle time. You get stuck in traffic. You pay attention to politics. Someone says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. You get ill. Your kids get ill. Your parents age. Your parents die. You lose friends. So much of it is beyond your control, and so little of it goes to plan. Big events and small distractions. Life on life’s terms. Just like on the bike, you find yourself, occasionally and unforeseeably, in survival mode.
And hopefully, just hopefully, something triggers in your animal brain. You have been here before. You know how to do this. This is practical reality, where riding and life merge and become the same. What you do is no longer an activity, a hobby. It’s a tool for living a better, calmer, more peaceful life. It is a proxy and a simulator, and all you have to do, in survival mode, is just keep rolling.
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Image: © Matt O’Keefe
When I tell you I have a graduate degree in English, I’m not so much stating a fact as a failing. An MFA in poetry suggests that the diplomate can string together a grammatically sensible sentence, true, but more importantly, it lets you know his or her math skills are as hard to find as sea lion unafraid of Great White Sharks.
When I say my math skills are basic, I mean they are as useful as basic cable. My abilities don’t include any of the useful or interesting stuff. As a result, I have to practice. A lot.
I use group rides to work through common problems I encounter at the bank, grocery store and in billing publishers for work I completed weeks or even months ago—in truth, I’m usually not too sure.
Believe it or not, there are lots of essential math problems I’ve brushed up on while sitting in the peloton. Let’s take odd numbers, for example. If I’m in a double-rotating, double paceline and after my pull I go to the back, an even number of riders will ensure that I’ve got company to chat with. An odd number means I’m riding along with ample silence to work through other math problems.
If a group is shrinking, then subtraction is at work. The key here is to assess how I feel. If I feel good, then my number is not likely to come after the minus sign. And if I feel good, then the smart move is to let someone else do the work of shedding the dead wood.
I use logarithms any time I want to do long, slow distance. I’ve learned that for each person who joins an easy ride, the odds that the ride will go faster than Zone 2 increases ten-fold. Two riders plus me means I’m 100 times more likely to go too hard than if I ride by myself.
The associative and distributive properties both taught me that it doesn’t matter who is actually at the front of the ride. The speed of the ride is determined by the fitness of the fastest riders present. They don’t even need to be at the front to make a ride faster. This point is most easily illustrated by having a pro show up for your local training ride. Said pro can sit at the back of the field and enjoy a rest day. Nonetheless, every Cat. 4 present will do the entire ride in Zone 5.
Understanding how to perform a squared function is handy, if depressing. While I can pedal on flat ground for a period of time at 28 mph, my ability to lift my pace to 29 mph depends not on how well I can do math, but on my body’s ability to increase wattage at an exponential rate. It’s like the difference in volume between a car horn and a Who concert. You may think the boat horn in that Hummer is loud, but just wait until the opening power chord of Baba O’Riley. I may be able to sustain 28 for minutes while managing 30 for only seconds. Knowing my exponents can help me keep a leash on my ego; it may roam, but not far.
The most important property I apply to cycling in general, and group rides in specific, comes from fractions. It is the property of the least common denominator. Socially, it gets used to explain all sorts of social ills, like what draws boys to gangs. It’s Darwin for the 21st century.
In my experience, the LCD is a measure of the amount of work the weakest rider will have to muster (kilojoules) to stay with a group. Unlike in societies, the weakest rider does not automatically slow a group down. While some groups may choose to slow to keep everyone together, the fastest groups prefer just to get smaller—the herd is safer if it sheds a member or two periodically.
During those fastest rides I find myself looking around, assessing the look of other riders present. I do a careful calculus (yes, more math!) weighing how that rider has performed in the last three weeks versus how they actually look at that moment. What I want to know is that minimum kilojoule number. It’s like buying a car; the sticker might say $36,000, but if you only need to spend $32,000, why would you spend more?
And ultimately, what I want is a difference, a delta. I want to know that my number is bigger than that other number. So long as I’m strong enough to stay with the lead group, I don’t really need anything more these days. Racing is part of my past; I just want to see the big move go and get home with something left. Whatever keeps the needle from pointing to ‘E’ is called the remainder.
And we know all the terms for what happens when the tank is empty. Bankers don’t understand the term ‘bonk,’ but they know all about overdrawn. I’ve made plenty of entries in training diaries that would have been more accurately described by a number in parentheses. And just as with a bad check, what I spent I owed someone else.