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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Speed and How to Think “Fast”.


This post might ruffle some feathers though it is not intended to.  If you find yourself getting upset, believe me, you’re misunderstanding what I’m laying down – either I didn’t explain myself well enough or you’re emotionally attached to why you’re having a tough time getting faster.  Assuming, of course, you want to get faster, but you just can’t believe that it’s easy as managing the gray matter between your ears better.  Stay with me now…  This post is my experience, meaning I had to battle through this myself to put my estimation of being so-so in the past.

How often have you been completely, entirely spent after a ride?  If you’ve followed my blog for the last two months, you know I’ve ridden a lot in that time.  Well, a lot for a guy with a full-time day job, a wife and two kids.  A little more than 1,300 miles.  I’ve been that smoked, so far on just one weekend long ride – last Saturday as a matter of fact.  One of those where I had to will myself to the finish line each of those last eight miles.

I’m not talking about those rides where you’re pushing hard and you just want to slow down for a minute, I go through two of those a week.  I’m talking about a ride where you’re physically wrecked afterwards.  You know, the character building rides.

Two weeks ago, long about mile 57 of a 63 miler, up hill and into the wind, my wife was in tears and struggling hard just to keep pedaling.  As she described it, something miraculous happened when we turned out of the headwind…  She started to feel better.

One of the harder aspects of cycling to grasp is what happens when you start to feel bad, when you’re really working.  First, if you were a runner who is just getting into cycling, cycling isn’t like running, where your body pretty much says, “Screw you, I’m done.”  In cycling, if you can back off just a little bit, you’ll almost always start to feel better within a mile or two unless you’re in a full bonk.  I’ve been through this countless times and because the body doesn’t take a pounding the same way it does in running, pushing through a little bit of adversity isn’t as hard and the consequences of doing so aren’t near as bad.  Second, even if you can’t back off – say you’re riding with a club, you an often come to feel significantly better just by hanging on for a few minutes longer.  A few weeks ago, I was struggling to keep up with the club.  We were well north of 28 mph, even passing 30 mph every now and again… absolutely hammering.  Maybe seven miles in, I got to thinking it was just too much but I didn’t want to give up the speed and a really good draft (there were between 20 & 30 of us) so I decided to try to stick it out for just a little longer.  Ten minutes later, still around 28 mph, and I’d relaxed, my breathing and heart rate calmed down and I was holding on like we were only at 25.

One of the better suggestions I’ve ever heard (and chosen to remember on a consistent basis) is “don’t quit when you’re feeling bad”.  While that might sound sarcastic or facetious, it’s not.  I’ve found that I can push through a lot more difficulty than a I could running (without injuring myself).  I covered confidence the other day, so I won’t go back into that, but I will get a little deeper into the thinking aspect of speed on a bike.  First, speed is attained through distance and intensity.  The higher the intensity and the more miles you put into holding that intensity, the faster one gets.  This is why I can easily spin away from my wife while she struggles at the pace we are going (though she’s catching up – it’s getting a lot harder).  I train at higher speeds and over greater distances.  The thinking comes in during those times when it starts getting tough and I want to lay off instead of holding the speed.  Instead of my default being “okay, I’ll listen to my body and back off”, it’s “I’m faster than this (giving up), I’m stronger than this, I can hold on for just a little longer, I’ll feel better in a minute.”  I don’t slow down but I do, usually, end up feeling much better after a few miles.

I obviously have my limits, just like anyone else – I’m not racing with the Cat 4 guys and I could if I gave it a little more effort, but my effort matches my desire for where I want to be.  I don’t have to be any faster.  On the other hand, should I ever have the desire to speed up a little bit, to “take it to another level of fast”, I know the first place to start:  The gray matter between my ears.  The legs will come around soon enough.

To conclude, it’s often difficult to accept or even acknowledge mental weakness, as if to do so would imply physical weakness.  To tie the two together, mental and physical weakness, one makes a vastly egregious mistake:  One assumes that one’s thoughts are as valid as physical strength.  Think about this; if I say that you’re a loser, does that make it so?  Now, what if you have that thought.  You think, “I’m a loser”.  Does that make it so?  I say that it does not.  What makes it so is the actions one takes.  For instance, if I were to think, “I want to go live in the mountains as a monk”, does that make me a monk?  Of course it doesn’t.  What makes me a monk is actually following through with the actions…  Or giving the thought validity.  It means accepting that initial thought and taking action on it.

Thinking about how smoked I feel when I’m out riding doesn’t necessarily mean I’m smoked…  Thinking about how I want to quit and take it easy, doesn’t mean I have to do it.  I can discard that thought, treat it as my brain does a dream (as taking out the garbage).  That thought only has validity when I sit up and quit.  Try this, instead:  Discard that initial thought that you want to sit up and spin back easy.  Treat it as a rotten apple core.  Pitch it.  Then see if your situation improves.  Then do it again.  And again.  If your experience is anything like mine, more often than not, you’ll find you weren’t as done as you thought.

The main point is, don’t buy the hype created in the gray matter.  Do your best, be happy with it, and let the rest work out in the wash.  After all, it’s just riding a bike, dude.

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20 Comments

  1. Haha, basically you are describing Yoga on a bike. Find the ease in the effort. I think this feeling of wanting to quit is triggered when the brain realizes that this situation is going to be uncomfortable, the nervous system, our great protector from danger, kicks in and tenses us up even more. Now, the trick is not to give into the drama that the nervous system is creating and just breathe and relax into the effort. Suddenly, the nervous system starts backing off. Having said all that… Cycling always wrecks me. I should probably hop on my bike when insomnia comes calling because for me, there is no better sleeping aid.

    • bgddyjim says:

      First, shhhh… Don’t tell anybody about the whole yoga thing. 😉

      Second, nothing like a nice bunch of miles to knock you out! Been sleeping like a baby for two months now!

      • Aaw c’mon, you’re already wearing tight Lycra gear, how’s the Yoga adding to the embarrassment? Besides, I was just talking about the mental/spiritual side and that is the same in most martial arts. 😝

        I never know how I made it through triathlons. i always wanted to sleep right after the bike ride….

      • bgddyjim says:

        Now see, and this is interesting… I could deal with the actual physical part of yoga. It’s the mental or spiritual part of it that just isn’t for me. I would do a disservice to people who really care about yoga to show up and I’m just not going to do that to them.

        As for the Lycra, well it is what it is. 😁

      • But the spiritual part just goes as far as you want it to go. And you perfectly described it anyway. I think thought that with the big Yoga trend in the U.S. the spiritual bit has been blown out of proportion and is often much exaggerated. I read the American Yoga teacher articles and often wish I had the same drugs they have 😜

      • bgddyjim says:

        And that last sentence is exactly why I don’t participate. They don’t need me laughing at how they seek to feel good. Better to stick with what works for me. 😎

      • Well, that’s what it really is about. Find your own center, make the practice your own. Incense sticks or not.

  2. bribikes says:

    I think I will be rereading this post several times in the coming weeks…
    I want to be a worthy companion for my road bike!

    • bgddyjim says:

      There are technically two correct ways for me to reply… My response is, do it! Show that bike who’s boss and be one of the fastest cyclists in your neck of the woods! That’s how I approached speed. I was all fired up and I wanted to be a good addition to local cycling (and be worthy of my bike). So I say, good on ya!

      Then there’s the more reserved answer (the “not me” answer) that goes like this: You don’t have to feel worthy to your bike, don’t worry about the speed yet, just have fun, yada, yada, yada… Let’s just say I’m much happier for doing it the way I did. I LOVE being fast and I worked my butt off for it.

      Whatever you do, enjoy it. If it’s too much, back off a little till you enjoy yourself again. Enjoyment is King (or Queen), however you may choose to do that.

      • bribikes says:

        Solid advice. I feel this dichotomy in myself as well. There is the sensible, rational, adult part of me that is slightly miffed that I even bought a road bike. “Biking is for transportation!” It says.

        But then there is the imp part of me, the part that wants to push the limits, the part that wants to fly.

        I have always listened to the sensible part of myself rather well, but winter biking shifted the balance of power. The imp voice won and won gloriously and whenever my sensible self rears its head, the imp voice taunts it with the success of winter.

        It is up to me now, which voice do I allow to dominate my thinking? Either way I can have fun. But I think I know which way will be more fun 😉 We shall see!

      • bgddyjim says:

        Oh, you can have your cake and eat it too! You’ll be adding miles to your commute in no time just because 30 minutes to ride home from work won’t be enough… And you’ll still be sensible on those days when you have to get somewhere fast! It’s a win-win!

      • bribikes says:

        It’s true, the sensible part of me should be entirely satisfied!

  3. Sue Slaght says:

    Jim I agree with you completely. When I started cycling 5 years ago I had all kinds of negative talk going on. Once I learned to get comfortable with the uncomfortable things started turning around. I’m no superstar but your article resonates with me.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks Sue. We don’t have to be a hammer to have negative thoughts… In the end, I would be shocked if most people, no matter how fast, try to do their best. While I appreciate the inference, my article was meant for we non-superstars. Superstars have shrinks for that stuff. Or something. 😎

  4. tischcaylor says:

    Great post. Lots of good stuff here, but I especially like the apple core concept.

  5. Brother – I read this post while eating lunch today and decided I was going to give everything on the way home. Result: 90 seconds off my previous PR that I set yesterday and I achieved a long time goal – into the 48 minutes. I had never broken 50. Thank you. You inspired me to be better.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Awesome man! You were CRUISIN’! First, I’m stoked that you smoked your PR and second, I’m thankful I could help you get there. Congratulations man.

  6. […] hit a record time on my way home on Friday. I was reading one of my favourite blogs at lunch and Jim inspired me to leave nothing on the table on the way home so I dropped the hammer. […]

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