Through some of the challenges that I’ve undertaken, I think it is probably clear that I like riding my bike. I’ve written about it as well, I’m sure; but I don’t know if I’ve ever really talked about where the love affair started.
When I was 15, I cycled from London to Chamonix with my dad. It was a tough eight days for me at the time. I had only started cycling a year (at most) beforehand and had never ridden anywhere close to that much in a single week. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite being introduced to pain in places that I didn’t know could hurt.
However, on the final climb of the final day, something changed. It’s the last climb you have to ascend before reaching Chamonix, and one that I’ve now done over 40 times. I’ve built an intimate relationship with this 4-kilometre hill over the years, and it’s a topic that I could probably dedicate a whole post to.
Riding up it on this occasion, I found a sense of flow that I had never experienced before. I rode well beyond my ability at that time, and squeezed everything out of every single pedal stroke. I was so immersed in the effort that, for those 15 minutes, nothing else mattered.
To paraphrase Edmund Hillary, it wasn’t the mountain that I conquered, but myself. From that moment, my passion was sealed for years to come.
I recently listened to a podcast in which Hugh Jackman was talking about his relatively late arrival to the acting scene. When speaking of his performances on stage, he mentioned how it instantly felt right – as if he had been born to do it.
I felt the same thing on that climb; which is a little weird for me to say aloud. Hugh Jackman is a world-famous actor, and, could rightly claim to be amongst the best in the world. I know for a fact that I’m not destined for Tour de France victory nor Olympic gold, so stating that I was born to ride bikes, might be a little excessive.
I enjoy riding my bike most of the time. Sometimes it’s a chore (accumulated fatigue and British winters are common causes of this), but it’s still a pastime I tend to take pleasure in, even at the worst of times. During the good times, I truly love it – especially in the Alps. Occasionally though, there are moments worth more than that. Where it goes beyond a hobby, passion, or obsession, and becomes the only thing I know how to do. The only thing I want to do, and the only thing I should do.
These moments that exceed all others are few and far between. One notable one from my trip around the world came on day 97 on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. The 208-kilometre day ended with a long climb in relentless rain and fading light. As the pain in my legs increased, I came alive. My senses were both numbed and enhanced at the same time. I had laser-like focus whilst thinking of nothing but turning the pedals. After a day spent on one of the most stunning roads I’ve had the pleasure of riding on, I felt at one with my bike, and once again found that sense of purpose and invincibility.
I’ve fallen in and out of love with cycling over the last couple years, through some emotional moments and decisions. But, on Wednesday (22nd July), I went for a ride that reminded me why I do it. I’ve been in heaven for the last few weeks, training in the Alps with my mates, but this ride went beyond that.
I had seven hours on my training plan. Seven hours is a long time to ride a bike. Given my background (cycling round the world and stuff), this duration is about the limit that I my body can readily handle without fatiguing too much to be a detriment to my overall training (I have a race coming up in a few weeks).
I was also to do this ride on my time-trial (TT) bike – which is the bike I will be racing on. To summarise the difference from a normal road bike: it’s more aerodynamic (faster), but a lot less comfortable (in order to get used to it, I need to spend time riding it). I had also planned a flat route, to mimic the course I will be racing. This is easier said than done in the Alps, and meant riding up and down the valley floor, primarily on fairly busy roads.
[Road bike vs. TT bike pictured below for context, both taken from races last year]
The first hour was painful. My body needed time to relax into this new position. My shoulders were sore, my bum was aching, and my glutes were on the limit of their flexibility. Even so, the increase in speed that came with the bike was intoxicating.
I couldn’t carry food and water for the whole ride, so I arrived back at my car to replenish both at around the four-hour mark. I felt good, but the day was starting to warm up considerably and I could already tell that I was pushing my physical boundaries.
Over the next two hours, I started to fade. The heat held above 30 degrees and I began to feel the effects of it. Light-headedness set in as my body struggled to keep my core temperature down.
I pulled into a shop, and bought a big bottle of water and a coke. I cooled off, rehydrated (partially) then carried on, feeling refreshed.
The last hour was different. Within five minutes I could feel it coming, building. The feeling I live for. My shoulders were relaxed, and my legs loose. As my bike started to glide, I let go of the fear that I might ride too hard too early and opened up. I pushed, turning the screw ever tighter. Intent on finding my limits I continued to ask my legs for more, and mile after mile they responded. I met no resistance. Instead I found myself wanting every second to last longer. Determined to savour every moment. I was alive – to an extent that I have only previously equalled and never surpassed.
Everything clicked. Perhaps it was the caffeine, or rehydrating, or cooling down, or the tailwind (or a combination of all), who knows? But it happened – a perfect hour.
When seven hours ticked over, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to ride forever in that moment. But I didn’t. I stuck to the plan and instead pulled up to my car, full of adrenaline and truly content.
I don’t know whether everyone experiences these moments or not. It’s very common for people to romanticise sport – particularly cycling. I also don’t know why these moments present themselves when they do, and not at other times. What I do know, is that they occur irrespective of ability. I felt the same feeling as a novice, and now as something quite a way above that. The trend appears to show that as I get stronger and faster, these moments require longer and harder rides. As if it’s when I’m reaching my limit, when I’ve earned the greatest reward, that they present themselves.
Fast-forward a few days, and I’m feeling tired. I have three days left of this training block before a few consecutive days rest. I’m paying the price for that seven-hour day, I haven’t stopped eating since and I need every hour of sleep that I’m losing to this blog. But I wouldn’t change it. That ride validated everything that I’m doing right now.
In future posts I may touch on the lower points of my relationship with, not just cycling, but competitive sport, and my own mind. How I’ve ended up in my current situation and the relationship that I now have with both cycling and triathlon. For now, the main point is that my passion for riding bikes has not been unwavering. There have been blips and prolonged moments of doubt, but they ultimately serve to make these moments of true clarity all the more special.
I had a close call with a car yesterday (I’m absolutely fine, no need to worry). It wasn’t my fault, and I had very little control over the situation. But it made me think. It scared me. I don’t ride my bike to take those kinds of risk. They are an unfortunate consequence of what I love to do. The positive is that they make me realise I do love it, because I don’t think it would be worth it if I didn’t.
I don’t know what my future holds – even with regards to cycling. It could theoretically end before the year is up (not likely), but even if that were to happen, moments like the ride on Wednesday make me realise that none of the hours I’ve put in have been in vain. Even if it all comes to a sudden end, if one day I wake up and decide I want something else, I’ll never regret the times I’ve spent on a bike. To regret them would be to deny who I really am.
A couple of other pictures from this week: