Weekends with Womack

Cycling (not) by the numbers

I love cycling, and finally the weather here in New England is conducive to regular bike riding. Commuters are everywhere, and road cyclists and mountain bikers are out and training. There’s even a Spring Bike Wash this weekend in Boston, co-hosted by the Boston Police Department and the Boston Cyclists Union. I wish I were attending—my bikes could certainly use a little of this:


The racing season is also well under way, and lots of people are already competing. My friend Cathy is below, along with some racers for the unsanctioned but very well-attended Rasputitsa race in Vermont:



Cycling is more than just a sport of endurance, coordination, strength, and grit. It’s also a sport that loves numbers, in particular those involving weighing and measuring.

What do we measure? Just about everything:

  • Distance traveled on rides
  • Distance traveled each week, month, etc.
  • Hours in the saddle
  • Heart rates—average, highs, etc.
  • Watts expended—average, highs, etc.
  • Amount of climbing per ride
  • Personal bests for each of the above
  • KOM and QOM (King and Queen of the Mountain) records for hill climbs

Just to name a few. To make all this data gathering easier, we have heart rate monitors, bike computers, power meters, and software like Strava to analyze our progress.


And there’s the weighing: we weigh ourselves. We also weigh our bikes—in particular every part of the bike. There’s even a term for persons who attend obsessively to the weight of gear: weight weenie. If you want to know the weight of any and every component of a bike, the internet is at your disposal—you can go here.

In the cycling community, there’s an assumption that all this weighing and measuring is important for assessing one’s progress in training and making progress towards goals—for racing, planning long bike tours, doing century or charity rides, etc. I’ve done plenty of training, logging miles and time, worn my heart rate monitor for specialized workouts, and certainly weighed myself a lot.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working more and riding less, and I’m less fit than I was. This translates directly to less power and endurance and speed on the bike. The bike doesn’t lie. However, I’m on the brink of a sabbatical—8 months of research leave to work on academic projects (related to eating, health and behavior change—more on this in posts to come!), and I will have time to get some of that fitness back. And this is something I want very much. I miss riding with fit friends, riding comfortably for long distances, and having biking be the default mode of local transport and the default weekend activity.

But the thought of all that weighing and measuring is feeling too much of a burden—knowing how slowly I’m riding, exactly how hard I’m working does not feel like the right thing to do now. I do have some goals this year: I’m doing 50 miles in the Bikes Not Bombs charity ride again this June (I blogged about this last year here ) and The NYC Century in September (the 75-mile route). I also want to do some multi-day bike trips in New England. And I want to do some organized club rides as well.

These are all reasonable goals, as I’ve met all of them before. But this year I’m feeling a little fearful and a lot rebellious. It’s been a very work-intensive school year, and I haven’t been able to really relax mentally or physically. Right now, the last thing I want is another set of reporting requirements for leisure time activity.

So what’s a stubborn cyclist to do?

Get out and ride—no expectations, no goals, no numbers. I want to rediscover the fire inside, the motivation, the joy, the pain (yes, that too) and the satisfaction that comes from getting sweaty, gritty, greasy, muddy and happy on a bike. I’ll report back (with no statistics, though). In the meantime, I should buy some more degreaser, as I’m expecting to be sporting a chain tattoo pretty often.

chain tattoo

11 thoughts on “Cycling (not) by the numbers

  1. No numbers? Not even speed and distance? I’d find that tough. Let me know how that goes. Enjoy!

    1. Yes, this is a temporary situation (in particular wrt distance), but for now, I know the distances of most of my rides, so am riding for time, or just to go on a ride I like. Will certainly report back!

  2. Catherine, I’m a fairly serious cyclist. And 2 years ago, I removed the cyclocomputer from my road bike handlebars and I have loved it. I wear my heart rate monitor watch, but I lost the chest strap, so no heartbeat measuring either! I just sort of time my rides, this is a 2 hour ride, this is a 2.5 hour ride. And if I want to know how far, I estimate from google maps or sometimes mapmyride. I admit to the occasional “interval” but it’s usually just chasing someone who passed me, or going hard to that sign up ahead. I don’t have a scale, so when someone asked me my weight (in relation to my climbing ability), I had to give a 5 kg ballpark. I’m fit and happy, so I agree with your strategy–no measuring! You will love it.

    1. Thanks for the comments; I have used a HR monitor for intervals, and may again (provided I can find my strap…), but I appreciate hearing from other cyclists that they do lots of “intuitive riding”, if I may use that phrase.. 🙂

  3. “Get out and ride—no expectations, no goals, no numbers. I want to rediscover the fire inside, the motivation, the joy, the pain (yes, that too) and the satisfaction that comes from getting sweaty, gritty, greasy, muddy and happy on a bike. I’ll report back (with no statistics, though). ”

    Just ride your heart and pleasure every day, Catherine. I will be the same after my head injury. I’m hoping in about a month. I get enormous lectures of cycling too soon with a risk of a 2nd fall, after lst head injury without sufficient recovery…from my doctor-emergency medicine sister. This is what is happening and destroying the professional hockey players, cumulative brain damage from multiple head injuries. It’s in all the news and medical iiterature now.

    Then if you want put on the cyclometer sometimes when you are training –yourself.

    I gave up the cyclometer over a decade ago. It would have destroyed my long-term cycling motivation…which by now is cycling for last 25 yrs.
    Would suggest you go for a long endurance ride for 5-6 hrs. in 1 day to gain stamina –either just yourself or with 1 other person. You can build on this over time and up the ante quickly in this way (since you’re an experienced cyclist anyway), without stressing/beating up yourself out or worrying much at all.

    Before doing the training group rides. Gives you total mental space to become stronger and self-encouraging without benchmarking against a lot of other riders.

    1. HI Jean– do keep us posted on your recovery, and by all means, taking it slow is not a bad idea! The roads, your bike, all of it will be here when you return. I love reading your posts and comments, and will look forward to more as you continue getting better. take care!

  4. I usually know approx. my cycling distance since my partner keeps his cyclometer on anyway.

    In every Canadian city where I’ve lived and cycled (Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary) I have had for each city, about 5-6 favourite bike routes that I did/do often and hence, (I still visit these cities if I’m not living in one of them.)

    I know the distance for each of route. I guess I know the distance for approx. a minimum of 30 medium-long urban bike routes in Canada. 🙂 Over 80% of all these routes have at least 1 hill 8-12% or more. Same routes with hills, I have cycled up with completely full panniers of groceries. About 20-35 lbs. of additional weight.

    So that’s another training component –go grocery shopping and mount those hills!!!

    1. Hill repeats with full panniers– now, that’s a challenge! One of my cycling friends who reads this blog– Karen T– once said if they held a criterium race, but on commuter bikes with full panniers, she would win, as she’s used to hauling loads (and a son!) on her bikes. And she’s in great shape!

  5. Several years ago my computer broke, and I raced for quite a while without much more measuring that a watch for intervals a couple of times a week…(occasionally I would find my HRM, but then lose it again). Last year I got my garmin really going again to follow the training plan Nicole drew up for me for TSE. It was interesting and motivating for a while. But overall I prefer without. It’s helpful for intervals and actual races (knowing how much longer you need to suffer — I don’t like doing races without a distance measure anymore!), but for just riding I wouldn’t bother. Too easy to keep trying to better your last time!

  6. Hey Rachel– thanks for the comments. I did ride Sat (although I missed the LUNA ride; was writing the blog post) and did the weenie loop, but with no watch, no HR monitor. It’s funny– I did look to see the time when I left, and saw when I got home, and my time seemed about the same… Still, I’d like to improve my time. It’s hard to stay away– those numbers are seductive…

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