If you picked up a wheel, could you mistake it for a bike? Probably not. But you know it’s a part of the bike. What about the handle bars? The saddle? The tires? Any individual piece will tell you something of the bike, but you can’t call any of them the a bike without the rest of them. The entity of the bike is – as with many things in life – more than the sum of it’s parts.
Our brains work the exact same way. No one neuron contains a memory. You can’t just pull out a single brain cell and say, “Yep, that’s Friday, 7:15 PM, when I ate that steak.” That neuron contains only a piece of the information. A very small piece. Through it and the thousands of others surrounding it, we start getting a sense of the idea, and in turn the idea itself. Every memory, every thought, is an aggregate of many smaller pieces that on their own don’t mean much.
This concept is an important one in riding.
Riding is an aggregate of many, many things. Balance, muscle strength and control, breathing, timing, movement. The list goes on and on. As we get beyond just noodling around the neighborhood and start pouring on the miles, we find that just turning the pedals over isn’t enough anymore. We need to worry about nutrition and hydration. We start worrying about rolling resistance and aerodynamics. And with each new thing we focus on, it becomes the “killer app,” the thing we need to focus on the most.
Like the bike itself, riding well is an aggregate of all the things that help us ride well, not of any one thing. This sounds obvious, but in practice it is extremely difficult. I can’t tell you how many rides I’ve forgotten to drink water while focusing on a steady, clean, and fast rolling pace line. Was my performance in the pace line good? Sure, but had I allowed myself to keep other things in mind (like drinking) I wouldn’t have had to fight dehydration as well.
So, how do we balance all of these pieces?
To be honest, at first we don’t. There just isn’t any way to do it. To get better at something, you must focus on doing that specific thing. Over, and over, and over. Eventually it becomes more natural, and its importance will be more inline with those things we learned before. We internalize that aspect of cycling.
I started focusing on [fill in the blank]. At first I made great strides, and later not so much. What gives?
Well, that’s easy: Whatever we haven’t worked on, frankly, sucks. So there’s nowhere to go but up. The more we improve, the less room we have to improve. For example, our cadence may be really slow and unsteady at first. So even a small bit of correction will make a very large difference in our pedaling efficiency. The more you work on it, the more efficient your cadence will be. But you’ll find that you’re not improving as fast as when you first started working on it.
Don’t be discouraged. The big, noticeable gains are good, but they’re not nearly as important as the tiny, incremental gains that come about from hard training and good technique. Anyone can train a little bit and do a lot better than had they not trained. But only those who really focus and train properly will be able to squeeze out every bit of juice from that particular training fruit.
So we need to focus a lot, while not focusing on other things, and we can’t balance it all. Are you saying it’s impossible?
No, not really. See, each of these pieces can’t be thought about actively. We need to take a holistic approach to cycling. The soldier that has to think about how to reload their weapon? Won’t be around to reload it. The boxer that has to think about what combination to throw next? Won’t be standing long enough to throw that combo. And the cyclist that needs to think about the minutiae of cycling? They’re gonna be spit out the back of the peloton.
Um, not exactly encouraging. How do we get a handle on all these things?
As we train, we internalize the many aspects of cycling. More than reshaping the body through additional strength, flexibility, and speed, what we’re really doing with all those miles is moving pieces of know-how into our subconscious. Once we’ve internalized all these bits and pieces, our brain will be freed up to take in the next steps: planning, strategy, analyzing the field, and anticipating actions. In other words, we’re free to think again. And I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble thinking clearly when I’m not on the bike doing 30 mph. The more we can move to the background, the safer – and better – we’ll be. 😉
Try this: choose something to focus on for a week. Ignore the rest (well, not entirely, just don’t focus on it) and just pay attention to that one thing. Cadence, breathing, pedal stroke, eating/drinking in a timely fashion, whatever it might be. After a week, switch to something else. And then something else. After several weeks, go back to the first thing you chose and see how it feels. Focusing on it shouldn’t require as much attention.
This will not only get you to work on those things that you’ve probably been neglecting, but will also help keep your training rides from getting stale. Working on your breathing during sprints (say, up every hill) versus working on a high cadence or a smooth pedal stroke on every hill, can really change the same-ol’ same-ol’ routes we hit over and over.