Week 5 – Silence

Towards the end of last week’s post, I mentioned that I had three days remaining in my current training block. I also previously mentioned, that I’ve had a number of friends join me whilst I’ve been here in the Alps. Two of them – let’s call them Bobby and Jimmy – were with me since I arrived at the beginning of July. As they are both cyclists, and I am currently focused on triathlon, our training schedules didn’t always match up. However, for the final three days of the block, we all had the same thing planned – a six-hour ride, a five-hour ride, and a three-hour ride.

We hadn’t ridden all together in a few days, and starting the first of those rides, the atmosphere was already different to normal. After three hard weeks of training, we were all beginning to feel the fatigue setting in. 

It’s a feeling that I don’t think many people outside of sport are familiar with. It’s not like the sleep deprivation that comes with writing a book or finishing a degree. It’s not just in your head, it’s in every fibre of your body – all the way through to your bones. I’m not saying it’s any worse or more taxing than working 16-hours per day, or raising a child (not that I know what that’s like), it’s just different.

The three of us have not only spent many hours on the bike with each other, we have also lived together for much of this year. Yet, in this state of perpetual exhaustion, conversation wasn’t flowing. Even Bobby, who usually displays an irritating compulsion to fill any silence with his voice, rode along quietly. Each of us just riding – getting the work done. Bobby had headphones in and is the strongest of the three of us. I rode along, wondering if, or how, my legs would respond if one of the other two decided to increase the pressure on the pedals.

Myself on the left, ‘Jimmy’ on the right.

None of us had any hard efforts planned on that ride. Once again, I find myself close to talking about the intricacies of training methods, but in essence, the full six hours was supposed to be steady.

As we reached the base of the day’s main climb – the Col de Joux Plane – Bobby increased the pace. Jimmy didn’t take the bait – he stuck to his training plan as all of us should have, and rode at the same controlled power all the way up. He’s the type of guy that coaches (and probably mothers and teachers) love, because he does what he’s told.

I wasn’t so well behaved. I pressed on, determined not to let Bobby ride away on his own. I didn’t succeed, but I enjoyed testing my body, despite the 35-degree heat.

The effort, and the separation, released the tension. A sense of conversational normality resumed as we regrouped at the summit and continued for the final three hours of the day – for a while. The heat almost broke me later on. The sun made me pay dearly for chasing Bobby up the climb and I spent the last hour grovelling over my bike.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

The following day, with five hours planned, the same silence descended over our trio for the first few hours. As the day heated up, I made a mature decision and stuck to the plan. I rode steady. But it was too late. The damage had been done; if not the day before, then at some point in the last three weeks. As we started the penultimate ascent of the day, the temperature reached 40 degrees and my body checked out. Bobby and Jimmy rode steady, as planned, but I rode slower. All I could do was watch as the gap to their rear wheels grew, with them soon pulling out of sight.

It’s been a while since I’ve cracked like that. It’s a pretty humbling experience to get dropped when you know the others aren’t even trying that hard. Ever since I rode around the world and tackled excessive temperatures in Asia and North America, I have always felt as though my body deals with the heat pretty well. On Tuesday I learnt the hard way that heat acclimation does not last forever. It was a very long 90 minutes getting home after that.

The final day of the training block was also the final day in France for Bob and Jim – they were due to drive back to the UK the following day. Since they’d been here for almost a month, they decided it would be a shame to leave before doing a walk in the mountains. Well, Jimmy decided that – Bobby grudgingly agreed.

Walking, and particularly hiking, had been actively avoided throughout the trip so as not to interfere with the cycling; but now, with all three of us approaching a few rest days, it was the perfect opportunity. We planned to walk up to La Jonction, which I wrote a little bit about in my Week 2 post.

In order to make time for the 5-hour walk in the afternoon, we made plans to set off on our final ride an hour earlier than usual. Nothing extreme, but it was a change that all of us felt.

Waking up early compounded the silence. In a zombie-like fashion, we ate breakfast and got ready, exchanging as few words as possible. Any uninformed observer would have assumed that we hated each other. By the time we rolled out, you could’ve counted the number of spoken sentences on two hands.

The silence continued through at least the first hour of the ride. Even amongst three guys as close as us, the fatigue and the quiet created a strange tension. Every slight increase in pace was noted by the others. A silent war broke out between me and Bobby. Riding side by side, but battling for control over the speed of our little group. One determined to increase the pace by constantly edging in front, the other defiantly holding back. Again, no words were spoken, we just rode, silently berating the other. Each of us would deny this war occurring if asked, but we both knew what was happening.

Tension eased as the ride progressed. Conversation began to flow as we got ever closer to the end. Only three hours on this day. No efforts, and no one cracked. The ride ended without drama. The training block ended for everyone – and finally, it was time to rest (after we walked up and down a very big hill).

Taking a couple of cyclists out of their comfort zone.

I found it interesting to take a step back and observe this change happening. I’ve often noticed it in myself as the training load builds up – my temper shortens and patience becomes an almost impossible practice. Seeing how it manifests in a group dynamic was amusing. As everyone got snappier, I think silence was merely a way of avoiding confrontation. At times like that, even the most innocent of statements could prove intensely irritating. Perhaps it was our closeness that allowed this change to occur. All of us know when nothing needs to be said, and there’s no social expectation to fill the void.

If nothing else, this observation serves to demonstrate the importance of rest and recovery. Resting is a crucial part of the training process, and one that many young or new athletes neglect (myself included).

I think it’s tricky because a common assumption is that the more you train, the better you get; which, to an extent, is true. However, it’s during the recovery phase that your body improves. When you’re resting, your body heals the damaged muscles and makes adaptations in response to the training. This occurs on a micro level in between each training session – when you go to bed and sleep each night, but also on a macro level when you take rest days at the end of a big training block.

I had someone say to me last year, “I don’t know how someone can be so active and train so hard, and yet be so lazy at the same time”. What they saw was the fact that I’d train, and then happily spend the rest of the day in bed. But that’s what my body needed. That’s how you improve. [Side note: I was working full-time last year, so that would have been on a weekend.]

As an athlete, if your sole focus is performance, any time that you’re not training, you want to be recovering. So if you’re not sleeping, you at least want to be lying down.

There’s a famous cycling quote that goes: ‘never stand when you can lean, never lean when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down’. This ethos has forever been ingrained in cycling. Now, as the human body is better understood, it is common practice across all elite sport.

It doesn’t necessarily align with the ideals of normal society, and it’s a concept that many normal people (i.e. those with a healthy work-life balance) struggle with. However, if you look at a professional athlete, that’s what they’ll be doing. 

So, following four weeks of riding, I now find myself enjoying the last of four much-needed rest days. I rode my bike yesterday, and went for a short swim, but both were very gentle. I’m feeling refreshed, both mentally and physically. Tomorrow, the process starts again, with my final few weeks of training before my race in September.


A couple of finishing points:

1 – Although they won’t read this, I should probably say that despite what the above might suggest, I’ve loved having Bobby and Jimmy here with me.

2 – Bobby and Jimmy are not their real names. No clue where I got them from.

Tom.

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