the off-season pt 2
There’s a word in the popular lexicon that describes the experience of my winter workouts. It’s a low-brow, generic expression of negativity that, when I hear others use it, I think, “gee, can’t you do any better than that?”. The word is “sucks”. Pedaling my bike, without going anywhere, staring straight ahead at a broken TV for an hour or more, responding to the electronic instructions from my interval timer, sucks. Sequestering myself in my dungeon of a basement, legs burning, cobwebs sticking to my head, soaking with sweat and gasping for air, sucks. It’s what I do about five times a week from December to March. I make this effort to burn some calories and maintain a modicum of fitness for the upcoming cycling season.
I’m not a racer anymore, and even when I was, I wasn’t very good. But that’s not to say that bicycle racing hasn’t been very, very good for me. Decades ago, at a time in my life when I could have been perfectly happy sitting on a bar stool, I fell into a group of friends who pushed me to ride farther, faster and longer. Whether I was ever any good as a competitive cyclist, or not, is now beside the point. There were great life lessons learned from training and racing and doing hard things. Cycling connected me with some great people who taught me how to set goals and how to work toward them. They taught me how to eat right, and how to be intentional about living a healthy lifestyle, and how to face fear, and how to encourage others. Cycling has gotten me up off the sofa and out into my community where I have seen, first hand, lives other than my own. I’ve learned the backroads of the surrounding counties, and I know where all the little towns are without having to look at a map. Mountain biking, especially, has taken me into some stunningly beautiful places that I otherwise would never have seen. And, I’ve developed some great riding habits that continue to serve me well.
Down here in my mid-winter dungeon, as I sweat puddles and fog the windows, my imagination runs wild, placing me into various bike racing scenarios. I see myself breaking away from the peloton, pulling a teammate to a victorious sprint. I see myself on the time trial course: head down, focused on the cadences of my breathing, my heart and my spin. I see myself on one of the big classic climbs of mountain biking, like Leadville’s Powerline: my body near the breaking point, my mind struggling to remain calm.
In reality, the racing scene has gone on without me for a number of years and in fact, may not even be aware I was ever around in the first place. The current crew of active local racers doesn’t even know who I am. There's a "who's this dude?" vibe when I show up for local cycling events. I’m forgotten and irrelevant. While my race resume isn’t as complete as I’d like it to be, I’ve done some big events, and in my own mind, I still see myself there.
As I get older, it is harder to stay strong and it is harder to keep off the extra weight that I seem destined to carry around. Changing careers and evolving priorities have eaten into the time I used to spend on the bike. I have to work harder just to maintain the form I have, and honestly, the will to work harder isn’t always there. Sometime around the end of January, it starts getting easy to skip these sessions down in the dungeon, because, let’s face it, they suck.
I go into every off-season with the optimism that I’ll take these basement sessions seriously and emerge in the springtime, stronger than before. This coming year, I’ve committed to dipping my toe back into the competitive waters: I have a couple of mountain bike races on my calendar, and I’m excited to return, in a tentative way, to the sport that has taught me so much. There are stories like this all over the sporting world: has-been runners, cyclists, skiers, blowing the dust off their histories for one more run. There’s something inspirational - maybe addictive - about being around people pushing themselves hard and exploring their limits. I may not be much of a racer anymore, but my experience in the sport is a huge part of who I’ve become, and to try it again is a positive affirmation that I’m still me.
Frankly, at this stage of my life, I’m thrilled that trying to race again is even an option: my body seems up to it, my wife says, “if you want to” and my doctor says, “heck, yes”. The races are still months away, and I’ll need those months to get ready. For now, I remain here, in the basement, with the cobwebs, the broken TV and my imagination. Doing this sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as not doing it.