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Nostalgia, Mind, & Body on Long Rides

August 12, 2011

Today’s Ride: 140km—Terra Cotta & back

Weather: Sunny, with headwinds coming from the north, west, and south (all at the same time)

This never happens. It defies all logic. I set out to ride a century—100 miles/160 kilometers—was diverted by construction, took a wrong turn, and managed to shave 20 kilometers off my ride. The century was less an issue than the ride itself, which I enjoyed very much. Toward the end of the ride, I began to think that cycling was a silly thing to do and I should just throw my bike in the ditch and get a car to drive me home, but I got over that feeling reasonably quickly. One aspect of the loneliness of the solo rider is that longer or harder rides become battles between body and mind. By and large, the body isn’t particularly interested in punishing itself, and the mind has to force it to act (witness legendary hardman and super-domestique Jens Voigt explain this phenomenon; he summarizes at the end). Somewhere around the middle of the ride, the body is fairly comfortable with the rhythm and pace, and the mind takes over, doubting the process, the distance yet to go, and misjudging the length and severity of hills on the horizon. At this point, before the body decides it really is bunched and the mind has to drive on, shutting the mind down and allowing forward momentum and the physical rhythm of the pedaling is the only way to keep going. I should hurry to stress that all these sensations occur not just at longer distances, but in more compact form even in short rides. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine ever wanting to do this. While I enjoy this conversation between body and mind and the challenge of keeping one, the other, or both in check, extreme distance riding really doesn’t seem like much fun.

Terra Cotta—today’s turnaround point—has a certain significance, other than being the right kind of distance away from home. Last August, I raced in le Tour de Terra Cotta; my first and only race. The event was terrific. Full road closures and 175ish starters on 12 laps of a 9km loop. Shortly after the start, there was a sharp right turn and then a deceptively tricky hill, which started around 5-6% and likely topped out at 10-12%. Not insanely hard, but it looked short (from the bottom), but I recall struggling on it and having trouble catching my breath at the top.

At the beginning of the race, we were told that the first turn and hill would be neutralized on the first lap in order to avoid a mass pile up ripping around the very first corner. Fair enough, thought I, looking forward to a comfortable start over the first kilometer, which would help me find my legs (I was a bit late arriving and didn’t get much of a chance to warm up). At the starter’s pistol, I clicked in, turned the pedals three (maybe four) times, looked up, and everyone was gone. I caught the stragglers on the hill, got to the top, buried myself and watched the peloton pull away while I was steaming along at >40kph. Even without having done any racing and knowing I was in fair (which might be generous) shape, this wasn’t exactly how I imagined the race going. I teamed up with three or four other riders and we did our best to, first, limit the damage and hope to catch up, and then, second (and more realistically), make it to the finish together within a fortnight of the leaders. On lap 5 or 6, my lower back seized right up. I lost contact with my comrades. I forced myself back on, but only to tell them I was going to have to drop out. I was booked on a plane to Norway the next day, and decided it would be better not to be in total agony.

Embarrassing from top to bottom. I have three explanations for my back pain:

  1. My fitness wasn’t particularly good.
  2. I had just added new saddle and pedals to the bike and hadn’t got used to them.
  3. In addition, I had just raised the seatpost by close to 1cm.

Okay, throw out no. 2. The Speedplay pedals and Fizik saddle were both big improvements on the bike. No. 1 certainly played a role, but my instinct is that the radical shift in seatpost height was the critical issue. It had previously been much too low, but 1cm is a big jump in one go, and I hadn’t really got used to the new position.

Anyway. A year on. The hill looked more daunting than I remembered, but was fairly harmless. I weigh ten kilograms less than I did this time last year, and I look (and feel) better on the bike. Midway up the hill, I jumped out of the saddle and almost sprinted to the top. Once there, it only took a couple of moments to catch my breath, and then I was flying along with a substantial tailwind. This year’s edition of the race took place while I was in Vancouver, but I learned from a former student that the neutralized start occurred much the way it had last year. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to compare my abilities with last year’s performance.

No matter. After completing one lap of the course, I rolled down to Glen Williams, where I had lunch on the shaded patio at the Glen Oven Café (Coronation Chicken sandwich, magic bar, and water). Very pleasant venue. Then home. Longer rides take a healthy chunk out of the day. I recover fairly quickly and well and don’t spend the rest of the day sprawled on the couch, but feel as though I missed all the children’s adventures today. But it does help add to the Bikes to Rwanda totals, especially since we have had a fair amount of rain coming through since we got back from Vancouver. This also puts me over the 2000km mark for the year. It still feels like a small amount, but more rides and more riding should get me there…

Waiting for a train. On the homeward leg; I thought a rest might be nice, but it only served as notice that my legs were actually kind of tired. And then it turned out to be a long train, so I had lots of time to think about how tired my legs were.

This was a beautiful surprise on 10 Sideroad, just after the Scotch Block Winery. A full field of flowers in full bloom.

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