Finding Cycling Strength in Numbers

About a month ago, I wrote a post on Cycling (not) by the numbers in which I made the case for just cycling without measuring anything. No mileage, no miles per hour, no time, no average heart rate, no personal bests, no watts, no nothing. Just me and the bike, headed down the road. Here’s what I said:

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.

Yes, I recall writing that. And feeling that. And doing that, too. I added that I’d report back (but with no statistics). So here’s my report.

It seemed like a great idea, just letting myself ride when I wanted, where I wanted, as long as I wanted, without feeling obligated to keep track, do training rides, set up any external expectations or goals. In effect, I was trying to embrace Intuitive Cycling (by the way, I just made up this term).

What could Intuitive Cycling mean? Taking a cue from the notion of Intuitive Eating (which I wrote about last week here and am still working on), maybe something like this modification (from Tracy’s original post):

  1. reject the training mentality
  2. honor your need for various types, intensities and durations of cycling
  3. make peace with your speed, whatever it is at the time
  4. challenge the Strava police
  5. feel your fatigue on the bike (and stop when you want)
  6. discover the satisfaction factor: know when your ride is long enough
  7. cope with your emotions without using your Garmin all the time
  8. respect your body, whether you are in or out of the saddle
  9. exercise: feel the difference between different routes, modes and times for cycling
  10. honor your health with gentle motivation for the cycling you want (and don’t want)

While some of my alterations are a little tongue-in-cheek (#4 is for you, Samantha!), the idea behind this sort of cycling was to take all expectations off the table and just focus on the experience of turning the cranks, looking around at the scenery, and enjoying moving through space.

Well, how did it go?

Honestly, it was kind of a bust.

Not this sort of bust:

Rather this.

Meaning this:

Why? A number of factors contributed to my failure to complete a month of spontaneous intuitive cycling. These included having caught a cold, battling more than usually fierce allergy symptoms, dealing with big work pressures and work travel, and letting life complications sap my enthusiasm for movement. On any given day, my verve for cycling was not very high, and since I didn’t often feel the intuitive urge for movement on two wheels (due to stresses, time crunches, etc.), I didn’t actually ride much.

However, this week I did two 25+ mile rides, and was on the bike a bit in addition. How did that happen? I went to Cape Cod for a mini-break with my good friend and cycling buddy Pata for a little R&R (relaxation and riding). We had a lovely ride together on the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  Here’s a nice water view from the trail, which is flat and very pretty (if rather pollen-y this week).

Pata suggested to me that if I wanted to get in better cycling shape, maybe I should start easy, with say two 20+ mile rides this week, and see how that goes. What a sensible and doable idea, I thought! Of course, this would mean reengaging with numbers on the bike:

  1. Distance traveled during a ride
  2. Number of rides completed during a seven-day period

Yes, I thought, I can do that. I want to do that. I can hold myself accountable to that. So I did, riding 26 miles with Pata, and then 25 miles Saturday. The latter ride wasn’t pretty—it was solitary, sweaty, pollen-y, and I had to stop twice because my saddle kept slipping (despite my repeated efforts to tighten and retighten the seat post bolt. Argh.) Still, I got it done. And I feel great about it.

It’s certainly true that we need to listen to our bodies, our inner voices, our intuitions about how we are feeling. And it’s good to let go of external constraints and expectations and just be in the moment, doing what our feelings dictate. But for me right now, I’m extremely happy to take up some cycling techniques that actively require use of—yes—numbers:

  1. Making training plans
  2. Planning and meeting short-term goals
  3. Planning and preparing for longer-term goals
  4. Committing to some group rides
  5. Committing to riding for X miles at a time, Y times a week
  6. Track my progress on distance, time, even (gulp) speed
  7. Reassessing and increasing those short-term goals as I meet them
  8. Seeking out support from other cyclists when my enthusiasm or energy is flagging

Once again, I’ll report back on how this new strategy goes. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons expressing my new numeric optimism:

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