Spring is a time of both optimism and realism for the cyclist. The weather improves, and so does your conditioning if you ride enough, but every ride is a struggle with your limits. Last weekend, at the end of a cool, damp and disappointing month of March, I set out to test my limits and get a feel for how much I needed to work on before I could comfortably ride a flat century in May.
Part of what gets me on the roads is joy and anticipation. What also gets me on the road is worry and determination. Sensible riders train. Sensible riders plan. Sensible riders are aware of their limits. Every spring I set out to find mine. I’m not entirely sensible.
Some things are predictable when you break out of your winter patterns and get outside. Your first obstacle is not your legs, but your lungs. They’re a limit, because if you’re like me and your indoor workouts aren’t much more than basic muscle maintenance, pulling in big gasps of cold air is a shock to the system. You’re not used to it, but you can’t avoid it. Climbs end in gasping and puffing, and the only cure is to keep moving. I ride short rides after work to get my system warmed up and working, so the lungs have expanded their limits recently.
Your second obstacle is the one you expect. Your muscles are not ready. Climbs hurt, short distances feel long, and you wonder why the fitness you were trying to hold on to during indoor workouts managed to escape you. Part of this comes from being limited by your clothing. Tights, arm and leg warmers, base layers, jackets, heavy gloves, shoe covers, and any combination of heavy, constricting things you wear to keep the cold out limit you in a way you never expect. It makes an unexpected warm day when you can shed layers feel like a reward.
Your equipment feels like a limit when you’re not in form. Every spring I get a full mechanical check. New cables, chain and anything else I need. Sadly, doing so eliminates a very useful excuse for not riding well – the bike already had a tune up, so the limit is me. I just keep the cranks turning and push against those limits.
Saturday’s ride was hard to dress for. It was 40 degrees when I set out, and closer to 60 degrees when I finished. I did okay – I was slightly cold on the way out, and slightly warm on the way back, but I didn’t suffer too much for the temperature. The distance was 54 miles. Good for this time of year. The course was hilly, which was a challenge. I worried about it, which was normal.
My goals were to work my legs and to ride smart. The first goal was easy. Finishing the ride would work me enough. The second was the real challenge. In this case, riding smart is pushing my limits without crashing into those limits and breaking down or bonking.
Oddly, I felt better than I expected to feel. I lacked long rides, but I got more out of repeated shorter rides during the week than I expected. Since I was an unofficial ride leader (assisting my friend Ron, who helpfully volunteered me for the job) and since I know the route, I spent much of the ride at or near the front of the group. After one pleasant descent, I knew I was facing a long climb. At the base, I shifted into the small ring in front and set up a good cadence, knowing that I had at least 3 or 4 taller cogs on my cassette to use if necessary. I only hoped that I wouldn’t use them all. At the top, about a mile later, I hadn’t used my tallest gear and nobody had passed or dropped me. In fact, as we waited for stragglers, including ride leaders, I was complemented on keeping a steady pace. For a blissful moment, I was a climber. It let me forget for just a moment that “real” climbers are usually about 6 inches shorter than I am, and weigh between 50 and 70 pounds less than I do. I am the cycling equivalent of a gorilla. I rely on power to cope with the disadvantages of my size. Starting out in the small ring and working at a strong, steady cadence was smart riding.
Later in the ride we bypassed the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the District of Columbia to try a path made from a cut off section of road. It was much steeper than anywhere else on that ride, and it was long enough to hurt. I started cranking up the hill slowly with everyone else. At some point we have all done what I did next. I engaged the right-hand shift lever only to be thwarted by the upper limit screw of my rear derailleur. I was out of mechanical help. I had hit a limit, and I had to suffer on my own. Suffering ensued, but I persevered. I think everyone suffered on that climb, but that is the nature of cycling and hills.
Now I’ll take a brief detour into the wonderful topic of gearing. My friend Carol, who doesn’t have a self-deluded bone in her body, insists that if you buy those gears, you should use them all. It helps you ride smart. My own point of view is that there are a lot of options, and whatever you choose to use should be based on both your wants and the style of riding you do. I also have some personal demons. I’ll get to them in a moment. I have one bike with compact fifty tooth outer and 34 tooth inner (50-34) chainrings, but the bike I ride most has mid-range chainrings (52-36). I am not a racer, so I don’t want to handicap myself by using standard (53-39) chainrings, but I like to ride fast on occasion. The personal demons I mentioned absolutely refuse to allow me to ride on triple chainrings. I did ride them at one time, but the tallest gear ratios ended up being quite lonely and seldom used, and mechanically, a double setup makes more sense for me. That and the snobbery my personal demons insist upon make my gear choices a little smaller than they could be. My cassette is 11-speed, with cogs ranging from eleven to twenty-eight teeth (11-28). I could probably use a taller gear or two, but when I got the bike, I didn’t have a taller cassette option. When I get another bike, I will probably buy a taller cassette, perhaps an 11-34, because like most people, I always want to have a taller gear to go to, but I’ll keep the 52-36 chainrings, because they feel right. I don’t spend a lot of time in my tallest cogs on the cassette and the small ring in front, but that choice is determined by every individual’s limits. Many of those limits are as much psychological as physical. I can push a 36-28 combination on the climbs that I ride. Short steep climbs are always hard. I like the challenge. Some climbs make me long for a 36-34, or even a 34-34 to keep my aging legs engaged. However, most of my riding is done in the big chainring and the middle of the cassette, and sacrificing gears in that spot to get easier climbing would also be an adjustment. Psychological limits will determine that choice. I may look for a taller cassette, such as an 11-30 an 11-32 before I get another bike, but I want that decision to be practical. I’m able to ride well with that 11-28 for now.
By the time I finished the ride, my legs were tired. I expected that. After some well-deserved beer and some good conversation at ride’s end, I went home feeling tired, with my limits slightly expanded, and my mind eased somewhat. My recovery ride the following day was just as important as pushing my limits on Saturday. I had to keep the legs moving and expand those limits if I wanted to reach my goals. An easy ride after a hard day will get your legs used to the work they need to do. Recovery isn’t just rest, it is also being smart in your training.
Every rider has had what I’ve heard described as a “Martha Reeves moment”. Those moments are named after the classic Motown song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, where you have nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide. You just suffer a little and hope that you don’t crash hard into your limits. Martha Reeves speaks to me a lot when I’m riding. I can’t run, and I can’t hide. I can persevere though, and usually I do. The key is to know where my limits are. The goal is to expand them.