Long Haul: The pitfalls of peaking too early in the season



It’s a long season. Too long, sometimes.

Every season has this cycle. First, of impatience and pent-up anticipation that makes you willing to train in the cold and race in the rain in March. Then of improving form and growing aspirations that motivate you to train harder. And perhaps, in May and June, some results come, to reward you for the work and raise your confidence.

And then, at a certain point, perhaps in July, you realise you’ve peaked and plateaued. Or is it just that everyone got fit and fast, too? Either way, it’s more difficult to get in the breaks, and harder for the breaks to stick.

Then come vacations, parties, weddings, family gatherings, heatwaves, barbecues and beer. And before you know it, the dog days of summer.

All of a sudden, the absolute compulsion to get up before daylight and do some hard miles on nothing but a bottle of water seems negotiable. What seemed immutably fixed points in a life organised around training sessions, recovery and races, become optional.

Why knock yourself out getting up before daybreak? You could go out later in the day and do a couple of hours before evening. Why suffer in the heat to do intervals when you already have so many miles in your legs; just an easy spin will do. Must you live like a monk all summer and never drink a beer on a Friday night because you’re riding the next day?

That sort of rhetorical question is a classic symptom of the mid-season malaise. What happens here is that the usual interior monologue (“Get up, go out, get it done”) is gradually replaced by a dialogue (“Must I? Oh, all right, then”).

This, of course, is fatal for the mad monomaniacal tunnel-vision focus that cycling demands, because it means thinking like a normal person. And that opens up the possibility of a life that doesn’t revolve around things bike-related. Unthinkable, I know, but it happens.

There comes a point where all the rituals of getting ready to ride — filling bottles, pulling on bibs, stuffing jersey pockets, checking tyre pressures, wiping lenses — start to seem like unbelievably tedious chores. How can that checklist of tasks go from cherished to despised so seamlessly?

It can seem uncanny and unsettling to separate yourself from this catechism of stuff and procedures — your very identity is bound up with observing them; won’t you fall apart if you stop? I know that feeling very well, so I am here to tell you: if you didn’t upload a ride to Strava today, you still exist. “I Zwift, therefore I am”, is not actually what René Descartes had in mind. Again, unthinkable, but true.

Friends and family may also have trouble adjusting to this new cognitive reality. After all, you have thoroughly conditioned them to have extremely low expectations of your availability for and interest in much else, including them. Expect some initial scepticism, and even resistance, from loved ones to the idea that there is a person who is you without the cycling.

But a greater heresy here abides. The whole sheen and glamour of riding for a living also wears off. Instead of thinking about professionals with admiration and envy, you come to view their plight with pity: imagine having to ride hundreds of miles a week, in all weathers, and being too tired most of the time to do anything but desperately plug the calorie deficit and sleep.

And try this for glamourous: doing your laundry with a bunch of soggy, gritty, stinky cycle wear in a fog of fatigue, knowing that your whole existence essentially boils down to this cycle of wash, rinse, repeat. Don’t you feel so lucky that’s not your life?

I find a parallel process in my degree of interest in the big events of the racing season. For the Spring Classics, I’m obsessed. I have to watch the last 40k of all the cobbled races. You get to know who has form, who the players are going to be, and judge which courses will suit whom.

Some of that enthusiasm carries over into the Giro and the Dauphiné, but already my attention span for a three-week stage race is waning. By the time of the Tour, I can take it or leave it. I’ll read the reports the next day, maybe look over the highlights of a queen stage, but if I miss a day or two entirely, so be it. As for the Vuelta, forget it. The Giro di Lombardia just seems a Spring Classic that got lost.

So, by now you’re wondering what you can do with all the extra time you’ll have. If your answer involves hitting the gym for an aggressive new routine of cross-training and free weights designed to turn you into a bulging-thighed sprinter for next season, good luck. But I think you’d be missing an opportunity for personal growth here.

Or rather, personal sloth. Sleep, I had forgotten, is one of the great pleasures of life. And you’re really missing out if you treat it in a perfunctory, instrumental way — as just another input in your training regime. To sleep, perchance to dream, takes time and practice, too. Anyone can be a mediocre sleeper, but to excel demands real commitment and dedication. And at least 10,000 hours.

Note that I’m not advocating diving into a vat of ice-cream or a jar of whisky. And I know that the siren song of cycling, the gentle whirr of chain and sprockets and the hiss of tyre on tarmac, will lure me back soon enough. But a glimpse of life on the other side only makes the return sweeter. It’s a long season; sometimes it’s good just not to ride.

Originally published in issue 66 of Rouleur

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