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.