But rather than listing the miles i’ve covered, the training sessions i’ve done and the bling bits of carbon fibre i’ve fitted to my bikes i’m going to stick to the ethos of it all.
Two things have happened to me in the last week that have made me really think about why I cycle. But before I get onto that some background is probably needed.
It is often said that Eddy Merckx, arguably the greatest cyclist of all time, said ‘ride lots’ when asked the secret to becoming a great cyclist. Of course Jacques Anquetil, also a great rider, said “to prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good phesant, some champagne and a woman” but then you shouldn’t believe everything that people tell you.
But there’s a fair ring of truth in what Merckx said. Bike racing isn’t something you do if you aren’t dedicated. Or at least, not something you are likely to do with any degree of success. Every summer of competition is based on the foundation of a winter of ‘base’ training – putting in a lot of hours on the bike to get the body ready for the shorter, more intense, efforts of racing.
And so it is when riding is at its most unappealing that the demands of cycling are most apparent. There are no shortcuts in bike racing, no substitute for hours and hours of training. The onset of winter means getting out and training on dark mornings, slogging through quiet country lanes regardless of wind, rain, sleet or snow, racking up mile after mile of foundations on which to build speed and racing strength. So far the autumn of 2011 has been mercifully tepid, the long-fingered gloves haven’t yet been necessary for an entire ride. But doubtless the temperatures will fall, the clothing layers will increase and each ride will end with numb fingers and toes that turn purple under the warm water of the post-ride shower.
And this is one of the core problems. Winter training hurts. Not necessarily in the muscles, as the over-riding principle is to stay largely within the limits of physical capability, but in the skin, flesh and bones. The cold from metal handlebars and brake levers penetrates mercilessly through gloves, leaving fingers numb and struggling to operate brake or gear levers. Icy winter air freezes the face, anaesthetising the jaw and removing the power of coherent speech. At the same time winter training is a filthy game. Rain has to be embraced as an inevitable feature of winter training. Riding alone this is bearable, but the relentless hours of training that form the basis of a good winter are often better passed in company. Riding in the rain in a group means mile after mile hoovering up the stream of grimy water rising from the rear wheel of the rider in front, sucking in the mud and detritus that litters the lanes.
Perhaps worst of all, winter training is time consuming. The winter is the time to ‘stick the hours in’. During the summer it will be necessary to reduce the overall time spent on the bike, to compensate for the increased level of effort in each ride. But in the winter duration is king. Three, four, five hour rides become a staple part of the week. Once a ride is over, there is more to do, inevitably the bike needs cleaning to an extent that seems unimaginable during the summer, only for it to be caked in filth the next day. And as a result, cycling has to be worked into daily life. To give away 9 or 10 hours a week to a frivolous pursuit is an extravagance many of us can ill afford. So a 20 mile commute becomes a handy training opportunity – and work colleagues become accustomed to a lyrca-clad figure stalking through the office at the beginning and end of each day. And sacrifices elsewhere become inevitable. Despite the shortening days 4:45am begins to seem like a reasonable time to get up, in order to squeeze in a ride and still be able to leave for work at 7am on the dot. Saturday morning is blocked out for the ubiquitous club ride, more on that later. Suggestions of weekends away are echoed with “…sounds lovely, errr… could I bring the bike?” Even the most hallowed of days, 25th December, becomes another day in the training diary, and one with guaranteed quiet roads at that (if it was good enough for Daley Thompson then it’ll do for me…). It is easy to see why people can consider cycling to be more than a hobby but an obsession, a way of life.
Those two things?
5 days ago I was hit by a car whilst out, ‘getting the miles in’. Thankfully there was no harm done to either me nor bike. But it was a rough reminder of how dangerous it can be to ride a bike in winter. Most worryingly the driver in question “never saw me”, which doesn’t bode well for next time he comes across a cyclist at night considering the bright, frenzied flashing that my rear light emits.
This evening I rode home from work, exploring quiet Suffolk lanes in the rapidly fading light. With 20 miles still to cover the heavens opened and the wind howled. I arrived home soaked to the skin, bike filthy, shivering from the cold. It was a stark reminder of how grim winter cycling can be, how uncomfortable winter riding is.
And of course the worst is yet to come. The days will get shorter, colder, wetter. Doubtless there will be more near misses with careless motorists. So why am I doing it? Well, if I want to do my best when I take on the mountain, i’ve got to be out there: plugging away; building those foundations. Dedication? I reckon Roy Castle would be delighted.