When I started cycling, I knew I was in for a long haul. You simply can’t, with the purchase of a bicycle, undo the results of 49 years of poor living habits. It takes time and effort to undo all that.
I settled in and decided to be happy with whatever performance level I was at, at any given time. For the most part, I’ve succeeded.
That does not, however, preclude the desire to improve. Happy with what I’ve got, thanks so much, but if I can improve on it, fine. If not, also fine, just fine in a different way.
It’s a fairly common question on the 50+ Forum: How much can I expect to improve? I never had to ask the question myself, only follow the threads of those who had.
The general purpose answer was that without any specific training program, just cycling regularly, going with the flow, and accepting whatever challenges come along the way, the 50+ cyclist can reasonably expect to improve for five years or so.
Specific training remains effective well into the 70s, but as age increases, so does both the commitment required to the training program, and the length of time required. In other words, no slacking, and it’ll take longer than it would have in your 20s. Makes perfect sense, even if you’re disappointed by the news.
For me, it’s always been about, when does it get easier? Yes, according to Greg LeMond, “It never gets easier, you just get faster”. But I’d ride with others who made it seem like they were cycling with a level of ease and grace that I hadn’t been able to achieve.
I could do it, but I was struggling, and they seemed to be loafing along. I’d long ago learned not to compare my insides with someone else’s outsides. But this was different. It seemed to be a valid comparison.
So I toughed it out, worked on what I was able to work on, and didn’t worry about the rest.
Two years ago, in my sixth season of cycling, I had a glimpse of it. I trained and trained for the Highlander Cycle Tour, and when the rubber met the road, I aced it.
Okay, I did the lighter, Corkscrew route instead of the Quads Hilla, and even then, I did the 70-miler instead of the century. But the final big climb, out of Naples north towards Bristol—a climb I’d dreaded since I’d first seen it four years earlier—was a walk in the park.
It was the first time in my life I felt that the label, “athlete” applied to me. Skipped right over that, actually, and went directly to “endurance athlete”.
A switch flipped that day.
Last year I worked hard, chasing goals that weren’t firm in my mind. I didn’t know what I was hoping to achieve, and so, I didn’t know how to achieve it, and I still don’t know if I actually did. But, the miles flowed.
This year, my eighth season, started with a lot of whining. Mainly it was the weather, and whining about the weather is something you don’t really expect out of a four-seasons, all-conditions cyclist. But I whined nonetheless. Then I stopped.
It turns out that right about the time I stopped whining about the weather, two things happened. I found out it was the worst spring for cycling that the industry has seen in a good long time. Whole multinationals have revised their 2013 sales forecasts down because of this year’s spring. So it wasn’t just me.
Second, I decided on a goal for the year. A goal that I thought was frivolous. I decided to see how fast I could be, but keeping my heart rate as low as possible—zones one and two.
I’d spent years cycling primarily in zones three and four. So throttling back was the challenge. Doing so whilst maintaining a good clip added some spice.
Then suddenly, everything became easy.
This month alone, I hit a personal best on my long loop home, then bested it two weeks later. I wasn’t even trying. Just riding home from work.
I haven’t done as much climbing as usual, but on club rides, the hills are all so easy that I’m the first up them and there’s little to no huffing and puffing.
Suddenly, I’m not only keeping up with the fast group, I’m leading it.
Of course, bear in mind that the RBC is a recreational club, not a racing club, and the real hammerheads in the club choose different rides than I have to. So “fast” and “fast group” are both relative terms. But still, on the same rides I used to be stuck in between the fast group and the slow group, essentially riding solo.
Usually I take a rest day on Fridays. The Day Rides this year have been mainly for the stop-and-smell-the-roses riders. I ride to ride, not to stop, so I’ve not done any.
Yesterday, up popped a nice 29-miler, map 24 starting in Mendon Ponds Park, at a more reasonable (IMHO) pace, which I expected would attract the riders I wanted to ride with.
Things panned out. The old carcass felt pretty good at 6am, and we were on the road by 8am for the 9am start.
Six of us formed up for the fast group and we had a wonderful ride. Okay, so it was the Tour de Chipseal. The chipseal was so fresh that on one road, we had to wait for the sprayers and gravel trucks and rollers to put it down.
(Ever resourceful, I used the delay to find a tree that looked a little parched—a real challenge given the wet spring.)
The skills I’ve developed riding the dirt and gravel roads in Canada came into play. I was smooth, confident, and well off the front in the chipseal.
I like my cobbled climbs in the cemetery because it gives me practice on standing climbs with poor surfaces. There’s a trick to keeping the wheel both on the ground and maintaining traction. That came into play on the fresh chipseal. You don’t want to spin the gravel off the top, especially with the guys who just put it there watching.
The climbs were easy. The flats were easy. I rode the brakes on the descents in order to stay with the the group. The bike itself seemed to pick the perfect line, every time.
It was easy.
It’s not the first ride this season where I’ve noticed this. In fact, for the past several weeks, nearly every ride is easy. And for those that aren’t, there’s been a simple explanation.
That’s not to say I don’t get a workout. I do. Today in particular I knew coming home that I’m going to feel it tomorrow and Sunday. I had to employ Jens Voight’s trick, “Shut up, legs” so I wouldn’t bail and take a shorter, easier route home.
Maybe easy isn’t the right word. It’s a lightness of power that flows effortlessly. I have to work to produce the power, but it’s effortless to do so, and it’s always right there on tap, ready when I need it.
There’s grace in my bike-handling, and even my pedal stroke. On two rides recently, two different riders have complimented me on the smoothness of my pedal stroke, that my cadence and smooth circles were textbook.
Souplesse is a word from the French, meaning suppleness, softness, adaptability, flexibility, or fluidity. It’s those last two, flexibility and fluidity, that are goal of all serious cyclists. I’m daring to think I’ve achieved it, and not for just a few moments here and there.
And I’m grateful for it.
Souplesse is what’s defining this year, and it’s what I’ve been waiting for all along.