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:

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.

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