I’ve learned a lot about how to ride a bike in the last three years. How to hold a line, to keep the speed consistent when I’m pulling (no matter what unless I signal a slowdown first)… Heck, I learned that platform pedals aren’t the only kind of pedal out there. Seriously. I learned about integrated shifters, VO2 max(es), why Gatorade does what Gatorade does, how nutrition works… I learned about hype, carbon fiber, aluminum and steel. I learned about aero bikes, race bikes, time trial bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, beach cruisers and leisure bikes – and how to tune them all. In the process of learning to ride a bike, I learned how to ride one fast (or at least most people’s approximation of fast).
For quite a while I had no idea that I was fast, I just pushed on the pedals as fast as I could and called that good. One thing I did know was that I’d get faster and ride farther as I got stronger. I’d been running regularly (3-4 times a week) for a decade or so at that time but even so, I knew the use of muscles in cycling was entirely different so I figured there would be a little bit of a building curve. What surprised me was just how quickly I progressed. What I figured would take months took weeks. In part, it was fairly obvious that the fact that I was already in pretty good shape (8 minute miles or slightly better over 7 miles) helped, but the rest of the equation that actually helped was that I got into cycling completely ignorant of the sport. To say I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground would be quite apt and because of that ignorance, I didn’t have any predetermined limits. Before I knew it I was holding a 20 mile an hour average on my own.
Then I started talking to the owner of the local shop and he urged me to ride with the “advanced” group on Tuesday nights. I practiced skills I thought would benefit me (and the group), such as riding in a straight line (try riding on the white line on the side of the road for ten or twenty miles…it’s not as easy as it might sound) and paying better attention to my surroundings. I searched out tips and videos online as well. Then I was ready, and I was taught what real speed was. I ride, still, every Tuesday with age group triathletes, State time trialists and cat’s 3-5 racers (well, at least I ride with them for about 20-23 miles, when they turn it into a race once we hit the hills, I’m smoked). My first day I lasted eight miles and I was entirely wiped out. The next week I made it twelve. Today, depending on conditions, I can hang on regularly up to 23 miles. Last night was much the same – only faster. We were up almost two miles an hour over our normal pace and my legs finally started to protest (this was entering the hilly section, where the pace really gets hectic).
Having everything that I could possibly need to cycle as fast as possible, equipment wise (actually I was on my Trek last night, but it’s still a great race bike, if it’s old). I’ve got the aero bike, the shorts, the $300 shoes, the bladed wheels, the helmet, the skin-tight jersey – I have it all. And while some of that stuff matters, a properly fitted bike, tight fitting cycling clothing, properly fitted shoes and correctly installed cleats, what I lack is that drive to push my body passed the point where I get nervous about my ticker. Once my heart races so fast, I simply quit. This isn’t an excuse and even if I were trying to use one, it wouldn’t be good enough – I’ve talked to my doctor at length about the strength and cleanliness of my pumper and it’s all good, all clear… What this is happens to be is a lack of desire to push beyond a certain degree of “uncomfortable”. There are no excuses for that, it just is what it is and I have to accept it or push beyond it if I want to get any faster.
It’s not about the bike, I went just as far and even faster than normal last night on my 15 year-old bike as I do on my six month-old aero race bike. Fifteen years worth of better technology, the Venge is three pounds lighter than the Trek, and I can still ride it just as fast (if a little less comfortably). What I learned about cycling fast is that it’s all about the will to suffer. Everyone who is willing to ride a bike for a decent length of time has some but what really separates the fast from the slow is a willingness to be uncomfortable. Without that, you plateau and stay where you are (if you’re lucky). What I’ve learned about cycling fast is that I’ve simply got more of that than the average cyclist and less than the average cyclist who races. The thought I’ve been grappling with is whether I really want to hurt as much as it will take to get to the next level or not. I’ve learned that the way to “get faster”, for the lack of a better similitude, is to “shit or get off the pot”.
PS: This is not a “power” thing. I am strong. I have excellent power to the pedal and I can out-sprint a lot of guys… What I don’t have is the ability to apply enough of that power for a length of time to keep up with the group. This is a conditioning thing.
UPDATE: Shawn from First Time Triathlete gave me a simple tip that I can use, down in the comments section: “We have a Tuesday Night World Championship ride here. I did it for years, and got way stronger. The best way to get fast is to ride with faster people. turn off your brain, and just hold on. Then when you think you can’t hold on anymore, push for another few minutes.”
It’s that last part: “…when you think you can’t hold on anymore, push for another few minutes”. I don’t do that. I go until I’m cooked and I know it, then I quietly drop off the back. It’s worth a shot. The mind trick involved here is that “few minutes”. If I can put that simple time stamp on it, rather than look at the next ten miles… Who knows. I’ll write about that next Tuesday (I’m even putting a reminder in my phone so I don’t forget).