From the day I brought home my first road bike I was faster than average, average being about 16 mph – and I was riding an old aluminum framed bike with down tube shifters. Oh, and the bike was about one or two sizes too small.
I didn’t care that it hurt to ride the bike a little bit, I was going to be fast, dammit. I pushed that little bike just as hard as I could and I did indeed get fast. I suppose I was fortunate, I was too cycling-dumb to know that riding a bicycle isn’t supposed to hurt like that so I simply pushed on, choosing to believe that the “pain was weakness leaving my body”. Say what you will, it worked.
I brought home my second road bike just three months later and rode that one even harder. Being a carbon fiber frame (and the proper size, thanks to Matt Assenmacher), riding fast was easier – but what average people do with an upgrade is they choose to enjoy the same speed with decreased effort. I chose to translate the ease into more speed.
Before long, I was invited to ride with the advanced group on Tuesday night. I still can’t keep up with the leaders, who race regularly, for the full 30 miles but a group of six to ten of us hang on for the first 20 and then take a three mile shortcut to beat the racers back.
Still, on a fairly difficult little track with a few really nice rollers, we’re holding a 22 mph average on open roads. With fewer hills, I can do even better, 24 mph over 60 miles or almost 22 for a full hundred. My point in dragging out the stats is not to brag, those are nice speeds but they most definitely are not brag-worthy. They’re good, above average, but nothing to jump up and down about. The reason those numbers aren’t so great is quite simple: I do have my limits. I have a point where I say, “You know what? That’s fast enough, that’s good enough”… I have my limit for how hard I’m willing to work at being fast and I know I could do better with a little more ‘want to’. The speeds are included in this post for context only.
Now for the fun part: To get even that fast hurt. It was hard. It took a lot of convincing the committee in my head to shut their collective yap and buck up. And it is absolutely fun as hell. Uh, well if hell were fun, which I can’t imagine it would be…but that’s… You know what I mean.
Sadly, natural talent and being thin will only get a person so far and for the vast majority, that’s somewhere south of 20 mph – oh, how I wish this weren’t true, er, for me at least.
Being fast on a bike takes a lot of want to. It takes training, hard work, a lot of sweat and commitment. Fast takes discipline.
It should come as no surprise that the easy part is putting in the saddle time. I can do that with a smile on my face. The hard part is setting my mental bar high enough to follow through with my enjoyment of going fast.
Performing above my natural ability, while I’m doing it, has points where it sucks. Often, not always, I run into points where I want to quit pushing so hard and just enjoy a nice easy ride back. In fact, last Sunday, one of the stronger guys I ride with pulled into the parking lot huffing and puffing. He said something to the effect of, “It never gets any easier. I worked my butt off all winter long and he [Greg – dude is unfairly fast] still killed me”… There’s always someone faster.
See, to a point as I get faster, I am able to ride faster more comfortably. There’s no doubt about this, my body gets used to the effort. After a 20 mph effort at the beginning of the season I’ll be smoked. At the end of the season I can do 22 on the same route and feel better afterward – I go through this every year.
That example is physical. Where the mental part of that equation comes in is that I have to think myself into the willingness to push that hard, several times a week, just so I can hit that 22 at the end of the season. I’ve written about this many times – I have to dig deep enough that I push myself till I puke, still knowing that this won’t be enough to keep up with the really fast guys I ride with. That’s entirely mental.
One blessing I have gotten down to a science is the ability to be okay with telling my brain to shut up. Jens Voigt is famous for “Shut up legs”, but the legs are not my problem, it’s my melon. My problem is, “but I don’t wanna”. My problem is, “this is too uncomfortable”. My problem is, “I just want to take it easy for a bit”. My problem is, “conditions suck” or “the road is too bumpy”. The answer is a simple middle finger to all of that crap.
The hardest thing I’ve done in cycling has been to make “shut up brain” the instant answer to those thoughts. It used to be that I would contemplate them, give them validity. I would let that first thought become a second and a third until I was off the back, only to spin easy for a quarter-mile then pick my pace up and find that I had plenty left in the tank. That I could have done better. That my brain was mistaken.
The discipline is never giving into that crap. As we used to say when I was a much younger man, that shit harshes my buzz. The discipline is remembering that I am not the thoughts that enter my melon. I am what I do with those thoughts.
I choose to be fast simply because fast is fun. Unfortunately it just happens to be a shit-ton of work.