I don’t remember the last time my ass hurt, more specifically the lower connections of my gluteus maximus to my adductor magnus, that soft spot where sitting and pedaling come together. Before Sunday, I had been off the bike for something like six weeks, a combination of injury and bitter cold forcing me to concede that discretion was called for this winter, rather than valor.
But Sunday was warm, nearly 50F, and I didn’t feel I could sit on the couch any longer. Dawn cracked. I pulled up my big boy tights and set out to do some pedaling.
The first ride back is always revelatory, isn’t it? To feel your body working again, to be outside and engaged, to cover some ground under your own power, it calls up all those things elemental to cycling. And of course, there is the revelation of form, really the lack of it, the slowness, the struggling, the cruelty of the wind. Coming back up the hill to my house, I couldn’t believe how slow I was and how hard it felt. Except that I could.
My neighbor has been stealing rides between snow storms, running to keep up his fitness when the bike is a poor option. He asked me to ride with him on Saturday, and I should have gone, even just for an hour, but I was afraid. I wanted to suffer alone first, to see where I was before showing anyone else.
The good news is I still love riding bikes.
I took a slow spin into the city. No one rides into the city on purpose, but I do sometimes. The roads are all awful, snow plows and salt breaking down an already patchy network of asphalt, the pot holes spread like mines in a field. But the low winter light plays across the faces of buildings and throws shadows across the river. Winter ducks cluster at the water’s melted edge and the streets are quiet, too many people stuck in their cold weather routines to recognize the beautiful day dawning outside their windows.
It is a pain in the ass to start over, especially when there is little prospect of a quick return to form. The snow hasn’t finished with us yet, and this January thaw will fade back into frigid cold again. I won’t be piling up miles any time soon. But that’s ok. Sometimes it’s good just to remind yourself of what you’re waiting for, to roll around aimlessly and feel like a cyclist again.
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.
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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