Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Winter Perspective

Do you enjoy winter or suffer through it? Is it a welcome respite from the business of the rest of the year, a time to slow things down and spend time at home with books, Netflix, chocolate, and red wine? Or is it time to ramp it up and ski double loops of the Gatineau Parkway on misery sticks? Somewhere in the middle? Or perhaps somewhere beyond either end of this spectrum?

I am having the most pleasant winter I can recall, and I'm trying to figure out why that is. It seems any kind of riding I get in makes me happy. Commuting, fat biking, riding the trainer; its all pleasant. Trainer....pleasant? What gives? Well, in short, perspective.

The power of the mind is staggering. And I don't just mean the human mind. I mean all minds. While many a scientist and philosopher alike will argue against attributing mind to non-humans, my view is that any definition that excludes all but humans from qualifying is fraught. But that's another discussion. For now I want to focus on what we can do about how we think with regard to indoor training.

Training. Perhaps that's the wrong foot to start on. Lets call it exercise. The truth is, most of us are not really aiming to put in quality training for the cycling season in January. Except for those who are racing cyclocross Worlds in February down in Louisville, the rest of us are mostly trying to retain as much fitness as we can, and reduce fat acquisition and muscular softening. Some get their kicks on skis, and there has been some good skiing this year. But shit happens, like freezing rain, and you gotta do some moving inside at least once in a while. So its either the ol' BowFlex or the bike. I take the bike.

Writing in VeloNews' February issue, Dan Wuori writes a humorous piece about suffering through indoor trainer season. For many of us Tall Tree riders, fat bikes have greatly reduced the amount of time we ride indoors. So right off the bat, riding inside is less stale when its necessary. But it can still suck if you make it suck. Wait, doesn't it suck, like, by default? In a word, no.

Imagine you've broken your leg, your femur, to be precise. You're in a cast for 2 months. You miss walking, riding, bending your leg, shaving. Sure, you get to read a lot now, but still, it would feel good to move. Getting onto the trainer will feel so good. It'll feel better than good. Even if it hurts.

Perspective. Human beings are notorious in the universe for not appreciating what we have. We always want more, better. That's a positive drive, but it has to be reflected upon with the mind, rather than merely pursued impulsively. Introspection. Sometimes, just moving is enough. Sometimes just moving is amazing.

Most human societies, and definitely ours, are all about ends, goals, indicators of success. Get from here to there. Now do it faster. We focus less on the 'how' than we ever have; we just want to be there, where we are not yet. That's the macro level. On the micro level, we use our bodies the same way most of the time. Do you ever notice how many people are really bad at walking? I mean, a lot of people out on the street have poor walking skills. They are not aware of what's happening around them. They are not conscious of what they are doing. My misanthropic side comes out when I scream in my mind, seeing yet another example of bad walking "You suck at walking!" But I never say it.

So what's going on there? How can it be that so many people can't walk well, when walking is a primary human function. I mean, its basic. And of course, yes, I am aware that many are not as able-bodied as others; I am talking about able-bodied people.

The underlying problem in inattention to that which is considered unimportant. I.e., 'I'll get there, who cares how I do it.' Just pump those legs and you move forward. Even in dance, to move closer to the point, it is common to see young students power through movements to reach the prescribed end point. Just get there, go fast if you can't control the movement. I'm not making this up, this comes directly from a conversation with a former professional dancer who has been teaching Russian ballet for decades.

Ok, so walking and dancing are two data points, if you will. I see these as mere symptoms of a cultural bias. The slow and methodical are devalued in contemporary cultural practices. Speed is king.

How then, does this relate to riding inside? Again, perspective. You have to slow down a bit and allow yourself to feel what you are doing to enjoy it. Otherwise, you are just trying to 'get there.' And you're not really going to get anywhere. You're in the basement, on a stationary bike.

The parallel with the practice of dance is striking. A good dancer is one who feels their movement rather than thinks their movement. Slow movements are far more difficult to execute well than fast movements. Rushing diminishes the ability to learn control, and thus, elegance. From the intimate experience of the mind-body connection gained through careful practice, the dancer can deploy their body in an infinite variety of contortions. Movement must be learned form the inside out.

Cycling is similar. Pedaling technique, to the casual observer, is basic: push down. In reality, developing efficient technique takes decades for most, if ever acquired. Its about very nuanced movement, very finely controlled muscle contractions. Over millions of repetitions, small imperfections magnify into injuries, at worst, inefficiencies at best. Truly gifted cyclists are intimately aware of what they are doing as they pedal, not to mention balance and maneuver the bike.

The trainer presents an opportunity to focus on this technique. Rollers take it another step. On either, it might be wise not to ride hard. Riding hard generally means we rude ragged. Form goes out the window. How much do we gain riding hard in January? Perhaps not much. How much might we gain by turning off the Sufferfest video, turning down the lights, putting on some meditative music, and really attending to what we're doing? I can report from actual experience that this approach makes a difference. I've ridden regularly in the dark, doing just what I'm talking about, and I markedly improved my technique come spring. I did it on a trainer; others might wish to do this on rollers. I wish to live to 100.

You don't have to look inward if you don't want to. You can simply get on your bike, put on a show, and enjoy moving rather than sitting. You don't have to ride hard, simply riding is good. Appreciate it for what it is, and ride hard when you feel like it. Perspective.

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