Becoming a cyclist again
In two earlier posts (The effects of detraining and A pain in the butt) I wrote about how severe sciatic pain led to me being forced to take five months off the bike, meaning that at the start of the 2014 season I was completely detrained.
I had often heard the French expression “le vélo est ingrat”, meaning that a bike is an ungrateful beast and riding one is a thankless task… Now I really understood what it means. Nothing is ever permanently acquired and we are constantly forced to begin the cycle anew. On hearing that you haven’t been on the bike for a few days, older French cyclists will wag their finger at you, warning theatrically about the pain to come as you struggle back up the slippery slope to basic fitness, let alone to that elusive and transitory state of grace, form.
Truly, we pedal all the time merely to stand still. Metaphorically, all cycling is uphill, and the moment we stop the inexorable pull of gravity takes us back down again. Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent to putting on the brakes and stopping across the slope. Either you are training, or you are detraining. There’s no middle ground.
After a great deal of detraining, I was in trouble. There are few things worse than struggling where it used to be easy.
Familiar climbs that I used to power up in less than 30 minutes were now taking me almost 40 minutes. Where before I’d think nothing of a five hour ride, now my body was protesting vigorously after the first hour. My reference times on local circuits were way worse than they were in previous years. Where I used to do most of the overtaking, now more and more cyclists were passing me, and a glance at their disappearing wheel made it clear there was no point in trying to catch it.
At first I hoped these were one-offs, or at least a very temporary state of affairs, and I’d soon be back to where I was. But this was not to be. There are no short-cuts to performance on a bike. In the time-honoured cliché, no pain, no gain.
I wasn’t helped by the fact that I was managing two different businesses and time was extremely short. When I wasn’t running workshops, coaching, selling, working on the website or doing any of the myriad tasks you have to do as a small business owner, I spent the majority of the summer behind the wheel of an Alpine Cols car watching other people ride their bikes.
The result? Ten short rides in May, for a total of 300km and 6000m climbed (one third of 2013’s figures); only eight rides in June, for 480km and 10,000m (one half of 2013) and a slightly better month in July, where I managed 10 rides, 700km and 14,000m.
This was obviously not training in any serious sense of the word. I was just riding whenever and wherever I could, trying to get my body used to spending time in the saddle again. Very few of the rides were longer than 3 hours. Those that were seriously hurt… After four and a half hours on the Morzine-Haut Chablais sportive (grinding up the 11.6km of Joux Plane in an hour and fifteen minutes) I hurt absolutely everywhere, even in places the bike had never affected before…
The problem was, of course, that I was trying to cut corners. My head was still at the place I left off. I “knew” the speeds I should be able to maintain and the way I should be riding the climbs. Unfortunately for me, mind and body were no longer on the same page. Positive thinking will only take you so far: if your body is no longer capable of holding 280W for 20 minutes, no amount of willpower is going to force it to obey.
We all know this, obviously. If willpower was enough Chris Froome would spend less time on his bike riding up and down Mount Teide and more time with the team psychologist. Speaking personally, I never have and never will be able to climb at 450W. However, I certainly have been able to make long climbs at 250W and expect to do so again. And there’s the rub: it took me a while to accept the fact that this was going to take a long time.
Motivation became a challenge. Where before I’d have seized every opportunity to ride, even if it was only 90 minutes of intervals or 60 minutes on the turbo, now I was subconsciously asking myself, what’s the point? It was hard to enjoy riding when every ride was a forcible reminder of how much I’d lost. Before, I’d eagerly compare times and segments to see how much I’d improved; now I was gloomily comparing times to see how much I’d got worse.
It took the purchase of a new power meter to break the cycle. I lost my previous one together with my Garmin in July, and finally replaced both in mid-September. Riding for two months with no measures at all and no screen to look at took me back to the reasons why I ride: for fun and enjoyment, for the fresh air, for the beautiful views, for the companionship, for the wind in my face.
With my expectations reset and my desire back, the past is now truly the past.
I now have new base-line measures for my power zones and a new set of reference times. At last the figures are starting to tick up again. This is providing powerful motivation: now things are going in the right direction I can’t wait to get out on the bike again and push those numbers higher again!
Which reminds me… must go!