29 May 2016

Free your mind

I don't ride with others as often as I would like to think I should. My commute is fairly solitary with the occasional ad hoc bunch forming, although I've noticed that people are generally happy to go their own pace when commuting, probably because they are all going to different places so are burning fuel at different rates. As I am often adding in extra hills on the commute - a grand departure from my original fear of not riding straight to work - it makes it hard to organise anything with anyone.

Plus most of my friends are sensible enough to live closer to their chosen place of employment.

The way I have my training set up also means that I'm not really settled on the idea of doing bunch rides on the weekends with the local groups. It's probably something I can get over fairly easily by just turning up and doing them, but at the moment I'm really focussing on sticking to the Training Plan, especially for the the longer rides which are generally planned for the weekend. There's also the family factor; being able to get out at 6am is better than the moderately civilised time of 8am when the groups tend to meet. My earlier starts allow me to get more time in during the day with the family, even if that time is spent bemoaning my aching quads, or lying on the couch with my feet up hoping that someone else will do all the housework (and trying to stop the cat from kneading my aching quads with her claws - you'd almost think that could be therapeutic, but it isn't really).

One strange phenomenon that I've noticed from all this solo riding is what I call The Hunt, otherwise phrased as 'hunting them down'. I like giving things names. This is the act of seeing someone else riding somewhere far ahead of me; when I start to judge their speed relative to mine, as well as what type of bike they are on, their apparent ability etc. It's actually pretty amazing what you can tell about a cyclist from varying distances, even from behind them. Clothing and posture tell a lot, and combining that knowledge with speed can indicate their relative ability. Lights are a give-away sometimes as they can indicate whether it's an e-bike, or possibly a weight weenie... I dunno, It's not foolproof, and it certainly doesn't go any way to proving anything, but at some level, deep down in the psyche - it's a moving target.

And a moving target must be chased.

I see them, and, almost unconsciously, start to accelerate. There's a small but discernible increase in pace that slowly ramps up until I notice I'm running a heart rate that's usually higher than intended. There's nothing particularly competitive about this - any more than there is anything competitive about a dog chasing a car - once I catch up with them I run into another problem, which is whether I continue at my current pace and pass, or slow down and draft them...

But what are you supposed to do when you catch them?

This problem is exacerbated when riding with bunches of people I know, especially when it's 'the guys' from work. This game of one-upmanship becomes slightly more serious than that of your average commute. For me it's mostly about keeping up, but also about pushing just a tiny bit harder. Taking turns, but not being the one that never takes the front, or ends up never getting off the front. It's generally amicable - we're not smack talking each other... much... and most of the time we're still riding within our own personal limits - and if we're joining someone else who is doing some specific training we'll often discuss the plan before, and then insert moderate amounts of smack on the road.

I'm one of the slower riders in the group of people I know. I could probably give the others a run for their money in the 'how far did you go' sweepstakes, but my outright speed is on the slow side, and my climbing ability is limited by a combination of strength, and all the pizza and beer I enjoyed last year - I have to work harder to maintain the same speed; especially up hills.

I like to think that when the weight drops I'll be faster, pound for pound, or more so because of my current built-in resistance training - but I'm not holding out hope; I'll probably just get smaller and not be able to catch as much of a tailwind.

Thanks to some strange ritual that I still don't fully understand - being the slow one on the climbs means I get the honour of seeing my riding buddies coming back down the hill looking for me. We have an unwritten rule that if you get to the top first you have to go back looking for the slower rider and then ride up again - repeat until they either die of embarrassment or get to the top themselves. It's good for morale though, keeps the fitter guys quiet because they're wearing themselves out, and slowly - slowly - I get faster at the climbs until there's not much point in them turning around to look for me. Once day I'll get to the top first - if I play my cards right.

Unlike I did on a recent commute commute home.

We decided to do a quick run up Ngaio Gorge on our ways home - a detour for me and and alternate route for others. Something that adds in a bit of extra elevation for me as I generally don't do climbs on the way home.

It started off innocently enough. We're riding up a hill, there are three of us and another cyclist who looked like he knew his stuff. We all hit the bottom of the incline and start to spread ourselves out for the climb. Now I'm not sure exactly what happened in my head, but I decided to make a break for it. I was having trouble keeping pace because The Engineer was going a tiny bit slow for my enthusiasm - probably due to differences in the way we accelerate/decelerate more than an actual difference in speed - so I passed him. Doing this on a road with a small shoulder and cars passing wasn't pleasant and by the time I'd passed him he was up to my speed - but I was going too fast for my pace. To fix this I decided to get some distance, and basically put the hammer down.

I smashed it. I went hard - the other cyclists melted into the background - unable to keep up. I passed the pro-looking dude who was ahead of us and kept on going. They gave chase, but I was going strong.

And my heart-rate was too. I had exceeded any concept of a sensible pace and was now pushing it into the red - and beyond. I was gasping. I started seeing stars. Then, as I reached the last corner near the top of the incline, I realised my heart rate was at my, theoretical, max.

And they all passed me.

It wasn't a gradual thing - they all shot past like I was standing still. I was straining, I was giving it everything I had and my heart was aching - and I was doing all of 9kmh... and I was unable to breathe.

So I did what any sensible person would do, and got up and gave it one last sprint. My skin started to burn, I actually stopped breathing for a time, and after about 7 seconds my legs gave up. I ground the last 50 meters to the top, dizzy, light-headed gasping like a drowning man; my stomach rising in my throat, skin steaming and legs on fire.

I had to rest for 10 minutes when I got to the top - all of which was spent just trying to stay upright. I managed not to throw up, I may have managed to have a conversation with another rider... it's all a blurry mess of a memory.

Then I had to ride home.

Ngaio Gorge is at the beginning of my commute - about 5 km from work, and proceeded to ride the hardest ride home. I had nothing left, and it showed. Every step of the way was at maximum effort just to keep the bike upright.

It took me about 2 days to fully recover and my lungs felt raw for days afterwards.

What this seems to boil down to is a continuation of The Mental Game - where a lot of the work done to ride effectively is really in the helmet area; I really just need to calm the heck down and think about what I'm doing.

So, armed with some humility after my recent crisis of faith, and some learnings from my field-research in cauldron of Cat-6 Racing, I've been focussing on what each ride is about. It is about an average speed, a min/max perceived level of effort, or just about getting around? Is the goal just to get home after a long day, or to break myself so I feel like my upcoming rest-day is well earned? Perhaps it doesn't even matter for some rides and I just go out and have a good time.

Knowing roughly what the rides are about has really helped - it helps keep the eyes on the prize and not be led astray. Not that I always stick to the plan; there has to be room to improvise, but that probably doesn't mean smashing out a breakaway that ruins you for 2 days just so you can say you got the top of your local climb before the rest of the commuters - especially when you don't even get to the top first!

Since the fated day of trying to tear myself a new lung, I've been working on my climbing a lot.

I love climbing - whether it's on the mountain bike or road bike; hitting the hills and climbing to the top of ridiculous looking pieces of road or trail just pushes all my buttons. I've started adding in extra climbs on my way home, and when I plan my own rides I'm looking for as many ways to appreciate gravity as possible. I can't say that descents do the same thing for me - probably only because it is harder to get road-rash when you're going uphill - but going up... there's something in that.

The key, really, has been to pace myself.

Not pace as in go slow, more like 'keeping it at this level, thanks' - and it's paying off slowly. Putting more sensible gear-ratios on the bike has helped me spin up hills, and my skill has professed from grinding up the hills in bottom gear to spinning up the hills in a lower bottom gear instead. It isn't always faster, in fact it's often slower, but it's smoother, instead of being an all-out effort just to keep the bike upright. The same thing applies on the flat, but no-one is ever impressed by how flat your ride was.

But the key thing here is the mental effort required to keep that pace - to go slow, or to go fast - to know when I need to stand up and give my legs a rest - to know when I need to just keep pushing even though my ham strings are burning. To keep the cadence up and the gears low and to push through the pain - or to drop down a gear and spin it out.

Being able to spin up Korokoro climb recently, was an achievement - one that Strava didn't - possibly couldn't - pick up on. It wasn't a record speed; it was the first time I got to the top of one of my regular climbs just spinning. My cadence never dropped into 'grind', I managed to keep it around 75rpm the whole way up.

That's actually progress - now I just need to do it in a harder gear.

Chasing people down is also further down my priorities, unless I'm riding with the crew. Knowing how much effort I want to put out - in essence having a general plan and sticking to it. It's still hard to watch someone sail past on an e-bike, or be overtaken by a Mountain Bike when commuting... and watching a road-rider tear past always leaves me feeling that I should be jumping on his wheel - but a quick check of Strava when I finish up inevitably shows that they were commuting straight to work - not via the crazy hills that I've somehow managed to rope myself into climbing on the way in. So there; road rider!

So I guess what this comes down to, overall, is something resembling discipline. My parents would no-doubt be the first to comment that this would be something that I'd struggle with (thanks Mum and Dad) but from what I can see - and from some anecdotal research on what other long distance riders have said - long distance riding is really about what goes on in your head. You do need a good set of legs, and there are many things that go into the planning and execution - but if you can't keep your focus and you end up getting your thinking swept up with what other people around you are doing or thinking, then you'll burn yourself out chasing them - or potentially cool yourself off by not breaking off - and the long term game plans all go out the window.

Thankfully the Velominati have already thought of a rule for this;

Rule #6 - Free your mind and your legs will follow

~~ ~~

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