Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A bit of what you want, a bit of what you need.

With this past Sunday's cyclocross finale in Almonte, the Ottawa area's mainstream cycling season comes to a close for those who have not already packed it in. Racing is done. I've been looking forward to calling it for at least a few weeks. I don't think that indicates I was worn out, just that the season is long, and it feels good to let go.

Let go of what, one might ask? In a word, the tension. In response to this reply one might counter: 'tension, why bother if racing is about that?' The answer to this question is one that every racer must confront, and continue to confront, each season. For those of us with families, this is question that often brings internal struggle. For some, including myself, the 'why bother?' question is answered simply: racing presents the opportunity to strive, to experiment, to learn what it means to push our physical and psychological limits, to try tactics, to experience camaraderie, to travel to locales off the beaten track...and perhaps, the odd time, to realize our potential. Few things are more satisfying than putting all the pieces of the puzzle together correctly at the right time, on race day. After each season comes to a close, the first question that comes to mind is: how can I improve next season?

That's the why bother part, but how might I break down what I mean by tension? I'll begin small, at the base: bicycle racing is about pain and suffering. I am by no means unique in stating this, everyone who writes about racing acknowledges and delves into the pith of this truth.  'Cycling' is not about these, racing is. I did not fully grasp this truth until I got into road racing. Having raced mountain bikes from the age of 14, I knew racing was hard, it hurt, sometimes it sucked. But I pushed myself, I raced the pace I chose. In road racing, pace was often inflicted upon me, and I came to know suffering. Hold the wheel or fail. I do not like to allow myself to fail. Cyclocross is pretty much uncomfortable to outright painful for an hour straight....unless you are so much stronger than the rest that you don't have to push. I wouldn't know that feeling.

Ok, so racing bikes is about pain and suffering. If one does not accept that, one is not racing. Fine. With  this reality comes baggage: emotional investment. This is, I believe, the primary reason Lance Armstrong feels (from what I observe) that he legitimately won 7 Tour de France titles. He put in the time, the pain, the suffering. He earned those yellow jerseys. This is not the place or time to debate LA's case, I merely raise it to illustrate how powerful the emotional investment of training can become. The utter truth is that training often sucks. The things racers have to do to glimpse their potential are generally not fun. Intervals are not fun. They must be extremely uncomfortable if not painful in order to be effective. If one is a robot, or at least robot-like, the solution is clear: do it. For those of us who are, let us say, more philosophical, there is tension: should my cycling be all about mean to ends? Or do I need to preserve an approach where I take rides as inherently valuable from an experiential point of view (granted, one might say this is a rationalization for not being strong willed enough to just do it)? In practice, I think a commonality Tall Tree riders share is a careful balancing of the poles of this tension. From where I'm standing, we all seem to find our own ways to ride our bikes for fun and put in hard work judiciously. Some are better at the latter part than others, but 'better' sounds value laden, and that's not what I want to do. Simply put, some are motivated to do the robot work more than others. Different strokes for different folks; you get out what you put in.

The robot work is taken up as an investment. Its for later. Its for the Almonte Roubaix. Its for Battenkill. Its for the Grand Prix, Sutton, the Tremblant Canada Cup, Crank the Shield....the list goes on. While our group training rides blend fun and suffering, the interval work is solitary and devoid of beauty. Its slobbering-all-over-yourself-agony. Consequently, the racer feels s/he is earning results down the road. Pain now, good sensations later. Please, let that happen.

Here is where the tension really manifests: the rest of life. This is why cycling is referred to as a 'lifestyle.'

Here's how it breaks down: Racer-X puts in time over the winter on the trainer, the fatbike, xc skis, yoga, hockey.....etc, etc, in an attempt to retain base fitness, unwind a bit, and perhaps improve some areas of weakness; say, core strength. When February 1 hits, its time to get serious. More trainer time, threshold intervals....things start to get painful. Strong in April, that's the mantra. March 1 hits and its 'spring.' I'm not kidding, regardless of what the weather is doing, I call March 1 'spring' because it has to be. As in, the races in April fall when they fall regardless of what its doing outside in March, so March 1 is 'spring.' Better find a way to get out there and put in some serious rides. That means hills. And that means shit weather on roads with holes everywhere, numb nuts, and embrocation on my face. Emotional investment: check.

Ok, so Christmas time was all about damage control (minimizing weight gain), January was about getting on track and into a routine, February was about putting in some quality work, and March was about suffering in crap weather. One might call all this 'sacrifice;' I call it 'the lifestyle.' It just doesn't make sense to undo or undermine gains clawed into being with weakness for wackloads of sugar, kegs of beer, and midnight poutine. Yes, there are times when one must allow for such 'slippage,' but the pain and suffering motivates discipline. Eye on the prize.

I personally believe the general lack of understanding around the core of bike racing - pain and suffering - prevents our colleagues, uninitiated friends, and family members from understanding us. They perceive dietary discipline as odd, perhaps eating disorder-like behavior, possibly founded upon vanity. I, and I believe many racers, view this as merely prudent. After all, the equation is simple: power:weight. That's what it is. How much power can you deliver in relation to your weight? Weight less, retain the same power, and you are faster. Simple. 5 pounds off the body could come at zero cost financially, but be worth more in speed than $5000-worth of upgrades. Recall, Tyler Hamilton stated he'd drop 3lbs rather than take EPO any day; the benefit was that much greater.

Tension inheres in the usual stuff, holidays, family time, all the moments where it would simply be easier to do what everybody else seems to do: let go.

The elephant in the room is of course the tension that resides in the parsing of time dedicated to cycling. At once, we read of training plans, how much time we should spend doing this, that, the other thing. We are bombarded with mixed messages in popular culture: live every day like its your last; don't live a life of missed opportunities, etc., while also: be involved in every aspect of your child's lives; keep your lawn pristine; be a good neighbor; be selfless in relation to your spouse and kids; have a good job; be awesome at your job; make a lot of money, etc. The racing cyclists constantly confronts tensions between these ideals, casting off some as trivial (keep your lawn pristine), and weighing others heavily (don't live a life of missed opportunities, and be selfless in relation to your spouse and kids). Oops, do those jive? The short answer is: it depends. If one is as lucky as me to have a spouse who understands my psychology pretty well, this whole 'racing bikes and having a family' thing is workable. But there is always tension. 'Should I ride for 1hr, get home sooner?' 'Eeee, 1hr is kinda short, I can't really accomplish much in that time....I won't be making doing justice to that shit I went through in February and March.....' Herein lies the primary tension I experience as a bike racer, and its one I have to assume most in similar life arrangement undergo: commitment to family versus commitment to one's sense of what constitutes sufficient effort, dedication, discipline, and toughness. This balancing act - always trying to do the best thing, the right thing - is what leads many of us to virtually give up 'pleasure riding.' We just can't afford to spend time during the season doing rides that are not contributing something to what we've set our sights on. Doing an easy 3hr ride feels like an offense to one's family and one's own sense of dedication to racing. In short, we just can't afford to do that. We are invested.

So we find ways to have fun while making it really hard at the same time. This is the joy of having riding partners who are on the same wavelength, and are able and willing to share the pain and suffering.

I think I have sufficiently established the sorts of tension racers, particularly Masters racers, deal with over the course of the racing season; so, essentially, from February to the end of November. That's ten months of the year. The end of the season means the tension is off, its sidelined, its merely a potentiality. Family time stacks up above riding time; no tension. Riding can be easy, just for fun, no strings attached; no tension. One can let the diet slip a bit...just a bit. Enjoy not caring if that's what you want.....and need.

Next post: the season in review.


Dom said...

Excellent post Matt, I’m sure it’s what many masters riders struggle with...balance may be an overused term these days but it's ultimately what everyone must achieve – we all have only so many chips to play with, spend them all at the blackjack table and you don’t get to play roulette. In my view, balance doesn't have to resolve itself on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. As Baz Luhrmann wrote in his semi-famous song Wear Sunscreen “sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind…the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself”.

My approach is more a lifestyle that will evolve over many years. Every year at this time I think about the large gains I would probably make if I trained hard through the winter and lost A LOT of weight, and then after a couple of months of fitting in rides where I can between hockey, 30+ hours of kids sports all over the region, the demands of my wife’s graduate studies and of course my job, I come to the realization that for now I will remain at the “OK Plateau”, there just aren’t enough chips left. I ride because I love to ride, I like the suffrage of a hard ride and I’ll suffer sometimes but not often enough to make any real gains, partially because I also like long easy rides just as much. Spring will come as quickly as winter did and I’ll be out at Paris-Roubaix slogging it in no man’s land in pretty much the same form I will maintain for cyclocross in the fall.

All that to say, I will use the end of cross season to inspire me…again. This winter I will train hard and lose A LOT of weight. See you in the spring, make room in the lead group :).

Matt Surch said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dom. I've always thought you maintain a very pragmatic approach. I know you are pumped about your winter plans, and I can't wait to see you up front!

Anonymous said...

Been there done that ... raced some big staged stuff... put in 25000km a year and countless hours from -40 to +40oC .... then came divorce... then came the bills (someone has to pay off all these bikes)... then comes work and balance (trying)... its a struggle for sure. Hence, I don't race much anymore, but I still love getting out on the bike and that's what counts... being out there and enjoying your time on 2 wheels of freedom. Thankfully, I still like riding. I do it everyday pretty much. Main thing in life, is keeping healthy with balance. Without ones health, its hard to live a full life. That's what really counts.