When I got home from the office yesterday I wanted a nap. I was tired, my legs a little sore and for the first time in a long, long time, I wanted to just take a day off. It had rained an hour before so not only was it quite hot (90 F), it was ridiculously muggy.
Last week was a 250 mile week. 235 the week before. July 11th was my last real day off the bike. I had 56 miles in as of Tuesday and I should end up with another 150 between Saturday and Sunday… Surely a day off wouldn’t hurt?! Now, for some folks 250 miles isn’t all that big a deal, but for me it is. Full time husband, full time dad, full time job… Pulling thirteen hours a week from that to ride a bike isn’t easy. On the other hand, a fella’s gotta stay fit somehow.
I suited up anyway. Pumped up the tires, ratcheted the shoes down and rode. Slow. I kept it around 16-17 mph and took almost a full hour to ride 16 miles. High cadence, easy gear, and I just rolled on down the road. There were several points along that ride that I hoped nobody saw me because I was going so slow. I had to constantly battle the thought that I should be pedaling just a little harder – surely 18 or 19 mph would be better, I was already feeling a lot better after all. I almost lost that battle in my melon when I dropped down to 15 mph on the way up a small roller.
I didn’t lose though. I kept it slow and steady, kept my cadence up and my speed down. My breathing was steady and easy and I barely needed my mouth open to draw enough air to maintain the pace. In fact, that’s often my test for whether or not I’m rolling out too fast… I’ll close my mouth and just breathe through my nose. If I can’t do that for a half-mile without coming up short of breath, I’m going too fast. On returning home I ate a great dinner and ended up falling asleep before 8 pm on the couch, watching a movie with my daughters. I slept till 3 this morning and woke up recharged and ready to tackle another day. My legs (and attitude) having completely turned around.
I don’t write in much depth about riding slow, other than to include it as something I do so I can ride daily without smoking my legs, because it’s really kind of boring. On the other hand, it’s an integral part of my being able to ride a lot and really fast when I want to. I’ve tried going all out too often and once I get to those spots like yesterday, where all of the miles finally catch up to me, my ability to maintain a decent speed slides drastically.
Starting at the beginning, two years ago I was pretty crazy with the notion of being fast. I thought taking a slow day, a really slow day (or three), in a week was wasting an opportunity to get faster. I thought that, because I could ride so much faster than the average person, my slow days should still be relatively fast. If I wasn’t breathing heavy, even on the slow days, then I was wasting my time. I tried to adhere to the “easy gear, fast cadence” ideal but my idea of slow was way too fast. To make it worse, this desire to always get a “workout” out of a bike ride made me insufferable to ride with for my wife. I was so concerned “getting my workout in” that when my wife couldn’t keep up with my easy pace of 18-19 mph I would become agitated, thinking I was squandering an opportunity to get faster. Eventually I’d come up on some dead legs syndrome and have to take a day or two off to reboot them. My best consecutive streak of cycling back then was thirteen days in a row before I had to rest. Now I’ve been over 22 and currently have an 18 day streak going.
Last year, I tried to do things a little differently. I kept my speeds the same but I took every Monday off, whether I needed it or not. I let a lot of nice days go by so I could “rest up”. I worked on lightening up on my wife a little bit but still harbored a bit of a resentment that she wouldn’t try a little harder – and I’m sure she could feel what I was feeling, even if I tried to hide it. I have no doubt that I was a pain in the ass, at least a little bit, to ride with. I did get faster though. My best Tuesday night average went from 21 mph to 22. A fair jump.
Over the winter I had a change of heart. Part of the blame went to Tour de France coverage from last year (a couple of blogging friends who cover the Tour [thanks Sheree] and backed what I’d heard up) when it was let out that a typical rest day included three hours on the turbo trainer to keep the legs spun up… This made a lot of problems I’d had on Tuesday nights the year before make sense. I was taking a day off at exactly the wrong time – Monday, the day before the club ride. Not only that, I figured if the pros can ride that hard every day, surely I could do the same at a much easier pace, no? The final straw came in the form of a tip from a pro cyclist. I read an article in which it was stated that the problem with most amateur cyclists is that their hard efforts aren’t hard enough and their easy efforts aren’t easy enough. I could completely relate this to the way I’d been cycling for three years. I would have argued that my hard efforts were hard enough back then but when I really looked at it without emotion, they couldn’t have been hard enough because my easy efforts were too hard and always pulling from the reservoir.
And that was the perspective I needed. All of a sudden, 16 mph rides could be enjoyed rather than viewed as time wasted and cycling hasn’t been the same since. My wife and I can enjoy slower rides together and because of those slower bike rides she’s gotten a lot faster, to a point where she can hang with the boys on all but our toughest, longest days. I keep my legs spun up, I have more in the tank when I need it and I’ve actually managed to surpass some of the guys who I used to rely on to pull me around a route. I am becoming the horse I always wanted to be, by riding slower – and I enjoy the sport a lot more for it.
Finally, there is a flip-side to that coin. This isn’t perfect or infallible… If I want to stay fast and continue to get faster, I still have to put in the work on the hard days – but that’s never been my problem.