Great ride we shout to each other, as we peel off towards our respective homes on a Saturday afternoon. One final look down at the Garmin to reveal the damage done to the legs; usually in order of distance and then average speed. We are riding for fun, to stay fit, because we like it and well, because we did the week before too. It’s not competitive, and it’s not a race. Is it?
None of us are ever going to achieve anything in cycling and it’s primarily because we haven’t set out to do so. Sure, we have climbed some big old mountains now (did I mention Ventoux and Alp D’Huez) but we did that because they were there, they formed part of great cycling holidays and we wanted something to keep our mind on the fitness during the fat storing winter months. But we still primarily do it for ourselves.
We are riding along on a nice piece of flat road and in your own mind a little section, or if we are true cyclists secteur, defined only by the traffic lights or other interruption a couple of miles ahead. Without explanation, notice of intent or history someone kicks the pedals, drops the hands and with a grunt it all takes off. From riding along at a comfortable pace, watching the road, breathing well and just enjoying the tranquility of the mind we are in the nearest any of us will get to ‘race state’. The heart rate rushes as we start to think who is at the front, how long will they stay there and at what speed. A quick glance down at the Garmin might show a speed of 25mph and you tell your mind to relax, to breath slower but deeper and to try and kid yourself that you can maintain this for a few miles – in order that you can kick on right at the very end.
Hunched over the handlebars you become more aware of your cadence and overall bike form. Are my elbows tucked in, are my knees pivoting over the pedals squarely and am I pulling the pedal stroke round, or just aggressively stamping down with all my might. You want to go faster, you want to think about racing past, but you also hope that you can just hold it where you are for just that bit longer as it’s balanced perfectly between too fast and not fast enough. The self confidence and even excitement starts to kick in as you quietly remind yourself just how great cycling is, why you left a quiet house that morning at 7.45pm and how alive you feel.
Bang – someone’s come past
Bang – someone’s come past and tucked in at the front and true to form, has carried the speed that got them into the road ahead and there is now a gap. The former leader now peels away and it’s your turn to grab that wheel and the pressure from your fellow riders behind is on you. The leader doesn’t want you to catch him, he wants you to know he’s feeling strong and able to maintain that pace. You grunt through some more pedal strokes, focused only on that 25mm wide strip of rubber hoping your missile lock vision will pull you in. It does, just. You are there, you are back in the game, your heart rate drops a few beats and you compose yourself for the few seconds it takes convince the rider behind that you are comfortable even if they are not.
This is real riding. This is how you feel alive and this feels fast, exhilarating, exhausting and fun. This is the feeling you want to keep for the whole ride, at least most of it anyway, and if you could capture this mood, this state of mind off the bike, you know you would be pretty invisible there too. But you can’t, anymore than you resist the temptation to push faster the moment that wheel moves aside to leave the open road down to you to lead. Without the wind break just maintaining the same speed would have been difficult, but your head doesn’t work like that at that moment so you find a bigger gear and push harder. For a split second, and if you are lucky maybe more, it was the right move and you know for sure if you looked round you will be creating the gap on your friends you secretly wanted. But you haven’t and the moment you realise the lactic acid bites into your legs and simultaneously sends a message to your brain that your lungs have run out of oxygen. You try for one last push, tilting your head and leaning into the wind as if it might even help lunge the bike forward faster, gasping as much in exasperation as for much needed fuel for your lungs.
That’s where it all immediately and abruptly ends. As your breath starts to slow down, the nonchalant mechanical buzz of the free rolling wheels is suddenly your best friend. That glory of hitting the double white line first will have to wait for another section or maybe even another day. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a ride, a ride with good friends you remind yourself, but you can be sure of beating the bastards on another day. If it’s the last thing you ever do!