You’ve all heard it before: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Usually, that idiom just means “don’t worry, it’ll get better.” There are plenty of these little perk-you-up phrases, like “Every dark cloud has a silver lining,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” One I’ve heard in Spanish is “No hay mal que por bien no venga,” which literally translated means there is no bad from which good does not come.
In cycling, there are plenty of dark times. Everyone’s been there: you’re out on a century and you’re feeling awesome; 70, 75, 80 miles in. Then you do a particularly strenuous climb, and suddenly that finish line seems eons away. Maybe you’re in a race and you’re riding with the leaders, but suddenly it seems like it’s taking everything you’ve got just to hold.
And we’re always told to focus on the dawn, on the silver lining, on the good that’ll come. That’s a good notion, and a positive outlook. But I think we’re giving those dark moments a raw deal.
I am a good cyclist. Why do I think that? Because I believe a large part of being a good cyclist means knowing what I’m bad at. And for me, that’s sustained power output. And basketball. Oh, and making pretzels. But I digress.
Enter the Time Trial
When you want to get better at climbing, you find a hill and you climb. And then you climb it again. And again. If you want to get better at sprinting, you find a marker and sprint. Then you do it again. And again.
Sensing a pattern? So I figure if I want to get better at sustained power output, I better output some sustained power. And nothing says sustained power like a good ol’ time trial.
Things have been rough on the riding front this year. Lung infection, injuries, high work loads, family needs, etc. I’m about 1,500 miles behind where I was last year at this time. I don’t say this for sympathy; I say this because all the reasons mentioned are valid reasons to not ride. The problem? I feel guilty for not riding.
See, at some point, without realizing it, I crossed over to a dark road. Riding went from something I wanted to do to something I had to do. It became a requirement. Worse, it became a chore.
If I didn’t ride with the my race team, I felt like I was letting down the team; whenever I did ride with them, I felt I was just holding them back.
If I didn’t ride with my casual team, I felt like I was not being a good supporter of the other riders on that team.
If I didn’t ride on my own, I felt like I was wasting opportunities to ride, stay in shape, burn calories, clear my mind.
So every time there was an opportunity to ride (or even when I couldn’t) and I didn’t, I felt like I was letting everyone down, including myself.
Now, I grew up Catholic, and if anyone knows how to do guilt, it’s the Catholics. So it was easy to blame myself for not riding. But here’s the deal, folks: you can’t ride because someone says you should ride. You can’t ride because others are riding. There’s only one valid reason to ride, and that’s because YOU want to.
Start cycling for any significant length of time, and you’ll inevitably hear about “power meters” and “watts per kilogram” and “threshold” (and many other power-related numbers). Now, cyclists are almost by definition numerically obsessed: miles, mph, elevation gain, weight, grade, temp, heat index, weight, wind speed, rolling resistance, weight… the list of metrics a cyclist can follow is staggering. But the more you ride – especially around the “did you just climb that hill at 32 mph” set, the more unavoidable these “power” terms are.
So the questions are: What is a watt? And why is it so important to cycling?
“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” Mike McDermott, as played by Matt Damon in Rounders. No, not a cycling movie (yes, cyclists need to watch non-cycling movies too!), but an excellent movie, and an excellent point.
When you go on a group ride, if you can’t spot the weakest sprinter, or climber, or the one with the least endurance, chances are it’s you. Wait, keep reading! That’s not an insult, it’s just reality. And there’s nothing wrong with facing reality. As the group starts to pour on the speed, or the climbing goes vertical, you realize that everyone’s doing well… except you.
That’s right. You’re the sacrificial lamb on this particular ride. Or for my Trekkie friends, you’re the a Red Jersey.
My wife was reviewing our logs to do our taxes. Being the awesome numbers person she is, turns out she records the beginning and end mileage of my truck each year; I had no clue. From this, I found out that in 2013 I drove a grand total of… [wait for it]
2,884 miles. To answer your next question: no, I don’t know why I have a vehicle.
On the bike for 2013, I rode 5,167 miles not counting the trainer, because well, who does?
Bikes are by their very nature extremely efficient machines. Even the cheapest blue-light special bike from your local big-box store is about 80-85% efficient at converting the power output from your body into forward motion. A decent road bike? 90-95%. A mid-to-high end road bike? 97%+. A high-end Olympic-level velodrome time-trial bike? Over 99% efficient. Insane, right?
All this got me thinking: how efficient are all those miles I rode on my bike versus those I did in my truck? The more I thought about it, the harder this was to answer. See, efficiency isn’t a simple subject. When talking about efficiency, you can limit your scope to just energy efficiency – converting potential energy (in glycogen or gas) into kinetic energy. But doing that, we’re leaving out quite a bit of the overall picture. There’s temporal (time) efficiency, economic (money) efficiency, and loads of other types. Let’s break them down, get them all into similar units, and see where my bike and my truck really land.
As another year ticks down to a close, I’m reminded of how our perception of time changes as we get older. When you’re young a single hour is a significant amount of time. Events are new, and routines to turn those daily events into mundane happenings don’t yet exist for you. You build up experiences – both good and bad – and they all stand out from one another because they haven’t happened before. “Remember that awesome spin out on my big wheel? That was cool!” Life feels long. So much time ahead.
Sun Tzu breaks down battlegrounds into nine different varieties, and how each affects the ensuing battle. Likewise, cycling has various battlegrounds, each with their own advantages and difficulties that should be considered. Below I’ve broken down some of the cycling battlegrounds, what to expect, and how to deal with them.
Flat ground is deceptive. Sometimes it is not flat at all, but has a small incline which can sap your strength without knowing it. Unlike other terrain, there is no relief from pedaling. You coast, you slow; just like a headwind.
Use caution on long flats, as it’s very easy to go full-out and burn yourself up. Retain a steady tempo, slightly below your max cruising speed, so that you can maintain your pace longer without burning out.
After watching a couple of stories run on local news about the Wednesday Night Ride in Tulsa, I had this whole big thing typed out. I vacillated between raging at the injustice and thoughtfully debating and arguing. I wanted through sheer force of will and words to somehow fix what is broken in our society in many more ways than just the ongoing and increasing issues between cyclists and motorists.
But seriously – of those who take time out of their busy lives to read this blog, I’d probably just be preaching to the choir.
So the only things I can really think to say is that as with any minority – and make no mistake, as a road cyclist, you are part of a minority – consider:
The more of us there are, the more visible we become, and the harder it will be to ignore us.
The more we behave lawfully and respectfully, the harder it will be to hold prejudices against us.
The more successful interactions we have, the less acceptable it will be to diminish us.
There is no quick fix, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop riding. It just means we all have many more miles to go.
Be the change you want to see in the world. And stay safe out there.