Going by the numbers, or not

Bike racing is a sport of numbers.

Watts produced, oxygen sucked, skinfold numbers (I only have the one gut, personally), time to the break, distance to the finish, grade of the next climb.  You can spend an entire ride glued to a four-inch screen measuring how high you pissed up the toilet wall compared to last week, then hook it up to Strava and compare tidelines with the pros.   You can be weighed and measured by whatever computerized Gradgrind you choose, safe in the knowledge that when it finds you wanting, it’ll be almost as dispassionate. And then, if you like,  it’ll tell all your friends.

The lack of ready access to a huge wad of cash prevents me joining in – by the time you’ve hooked up a Garmin to a Powertap or whatever, you’re in for more money than I’d spend on a bike, being as I am something of an ebay Prince.  Jealousy of the better-heeled and coveting Another Man’s Wheels are sometime sins which I’ll freely admit to, but here – nah.  I just don’t get it.

I raced this weekend, first after a break.  A Garmin might have told me that it was fifteen degrees and dry, but it would have missed the cotton tailed clouds that bunny-hopped off the peak of the mountain into a blue, blue sky.  It would have missed too, the gravel on the corners that spoke of washouts recently passed, of winter roads that we rode on and through, of what a lucky day this was.

It would though, have told me my heart rate was somewhere near the end when the bloke who no-one had seen before tried to go on the last part of a ramping climb, but I knew that anyway.  It would have missed how I got onto his wheel though – just enough to not have let him go.

Maybe they’re thinking of something that would have told me before I cramped, five miles from home, but I don’t know what you’d do with that because when there’s five of you out front you just do until you really, really, can’t, and the computer don’t know that.

I lay on my back in the verge, trying not to kick myself in the back of the head as my hamstring threatened to snap, then repeated the performance a mile down the road.  Groups rolled past, friends laughed.  I rolled home, didn’t DNF.  Sore as hell the day after.

Find me a computer that’ll tell you the real story of your ride.

Let prejudice be your light

Back in the old country, I lost my way.  Starting a career and a family pushed the bike out of my life for a while.  Things became scrambled, so that when eventually it found its way back in it did so sandwiched between a swim and a run.

For a long time, I was in denial.  A new challenge, and all that.  But the truth is, deep down, I knew I’d never be able to be as good as I was before.   Pounds had been piled on, and with swimming in the mix I could kid myself that gee, all those laps were really piling on the muscle.

But there was, really, no getting away from it.

I flat out suck at running, very nearly as much as I find it hatefully boring.

Surfing since forever means I’m comfortable in the water and a fair swimmer: it also means that if I’m in the water, I’d rather there be a board involved.  Swimming is for rehabilitation.  (Besides, they shave their chests, and that’s just weird.)

Whenever I staggered in, mid-pack fodder, my thoughts turned to the results sheet.  And I knew that on that results sheet I’d see a story that no-one else would: passed you in the first transition. Passed you after a k or two on the bike.  Passed the next ten on the first hill.  I’d check my bike split.  The other two – meh.  I was racing a bike, in disguise.

I thought of my short and unstoried triathlon history today, because I set out for a training session and then glanced over my shoulder to see, bearing down on me, a cloud that not only housed the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but more than likely their stables too.  Being a gentleman of mostly sound mind and judgement, I pussied out on the spot, although not before the fucker hit me like a lorry load of de-icing freezers, slamming me into the verge.  I picked my way home via braille, sheets of freezing sleet keeping me virtually blind.

(I should mention here that I live on the west coast of New Zealand, and a quick glance at any map will reveal the absence of anything except a large expanse of watery bugger-all between here, Antarctica, or Chile – squalls have room to build up steam, is all I’m saying.)

One of the things that Triathlon does terrifically is act as a confessional for the be-problemed,  There are reams of stuff online about how Joe or Cynthia finally came out of a loveless marriage or had a leg removed from their other leg, or recovered from years of bad haircuts, and kinda thought they might try this triathlon thing, and how they nervously went along to a swimming pool and lost nine hundred pounds and one day looked in a mirror and you know what? They didn’t know the guy who was there but they kinda liked him.  Which is brilliant and all that stuff.  Way better than cycling does it, but then cycling is filled with people like me.

Anyway, one of the articles I read was some aspiring ironman who hunkered away from the weather on his turbo trainer, and how his daughter came into the garage or the cellar or wherever he was doing it, and asked him if the weather was bad on race day would they let him ride his bike indoors, and lo and behold our hero…yadayadaya.  You know how it finishes.  Headwind heroics.  Snow conquered.  Frost fought.

And so today as I rode home, chilled face as red as a prostitute’s back door, wrestling with the wind, canted over to silly angles just to ride straight, I thought of this hero, and wondered what he was up to now.  I wondered if he’d have turned around.  What the story of his ride would have been.

Then I remembered.

Triathlete.  He’d have fallen off ages ago.

I took my clothes off in the hall, let them lie in a puddle, and then settled down to a second breakfast involving croissants, milky coffee, and a large helping of self-satisfaction. And I resolved to get up later tomorrow, and spend an hour on the trainer instead.

Coming off the bottom

As far as I’m concerned, the phrase “base period”  is – to put it kindly – disingenuous.  It conjures up visions of an off-season of forced athletic abstention, smugly smirking over beetroot salads and yogic retreats.   There are few glimpses of a more accurate truth – the orgies of drinking and pie-eating that inevitably follow the end of my seasons.  Muscles get shorter, bikes go unwashed. The first couple of weeks back should be more accurately referred to as “rehab”, and like any rehabilitation, the effort here is primarily a mental one.

Sure, there’ll be a couple of rides.  More likely I’ll be dodging weather, and a few twenty minute sessions on the trainer will yield enough sweat that, for a while at least,  I can languish under the misapprehension that foundations are being laid, house is being built.

This is of course, a lie.  The habits of post-ride beers, a quart a week of chocolate milk – for recovery, cakes to fuel the afternoon ride – these are for later in the season – these are relics clung to, treasured.  The will to discard them must needs be strong, and strength of anything is something in short supply at this time of year.

Eventually though, rehab finishes, the latter parts of which are taken up with generally avoiding domestic turmoil by doing all the shit jobs I thought I’d got out of last season, and the second part of base period begins, known as “panic”.

In an effort to get as much mileage in as possible, I cram in five or six rides a week, but none of them are long enough, none of them are fast enough, and I know, deep down, that I still haven’t resigned myself to the pain that has to come. Starving myself might help on the hills, but after so long as a glutton, even resuming a normal diet feels like unbearable flagellation. A week without beer looms ahead like an iceberg to the Titanic.  Doubts haven’t just crept in -they’ve kicked down the front door and climbed into bed with the wife.  I’m this far from taking up competitive pipe smoking, or popping into town for some elasticated slacks to get fat in.

Maybe, a voice says, this could be your big year. In the garden.

Somehow, I keep going.  Some undead and unkillable streak of blind optimism pushes past the cold logic of age, fatherhood, and financial responsibility, tells me the career will always be there – and besides, I’m probably even worse at that than I am at this. It pushes me through the humiliations of crawling up hills I stomped two months ago, tells me that the spare roll in my bib shorts’ll go if I just do one more lap.

Somehow though, just before I give up, I’ll be ready for the Day, the ride that heralds the end of the beginning.  The day when I’ll feel like a cyclist again.

A hard, hilly century-plus, ridden on my own,  in the rain and wind, that might be it.

It could be a twenty minute time trial preceded by too much coffee, or an hour’s breathless, dying slog up the local alp.

Or it might be as it was this week:  I got home from work early, fussed about my bike for a while, fought myself into my gear, which combined took enough time for the clouds the weatherman promised would be the day’s due to materialise, remnants of the blue skies that had reigned while I was office-bound scudded down the coast.  With the correct level of rage for this inevitable confluence of circumstance I warmed up and went full gas, resolving that once the rain hit I’d pull on a jacket and twiddle home, figuring I had perhaps ten or twenty minutes to wrestle my inner five-year old into submission.

The rain never came.  I rode a fifty-k time trial, caffeine and rage fuelling me to the point some way around when I realised I was on a ride that could be, if I let it, become the Day.

When I realise this, the only course of action is to press harder, to crouch lower.  To change up, not down, To not worry about the mess you’ll be tomorrow.   Right now, there is only the road, and the top of the next hill, and the wind to be beaten.  It’s the first victory of the year, and the taste is sweet.