Friday, 24 December 2010

Find your peloton: the power of collective effort

2009 was a big cycling year for me. At the start of the year, in the depths of the European winter, I did a five week bike tour all around Spain and was forever changed for the experience. Cycling for me became a way to escape stress, to connect with nature and above all, to become a stronger person.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought myself a gleaming, yellow De Rosa road bike fitted with drop bars and smooth Italian curves. Compared to the clunky mountain bike that I'd hauled up Spanish mountains with 30 kg of luggage strapped to the sides, this was a dream to ride and I could not get enough.

Every weekend, I'd go for long rides down the coast, pushing the distance a bit further each time. If I could convince friends to come along, we'd ride together, but quite often I'd go alone.

Half way through the year I decided to set myself a real challenge - a double century ride. A century is 100 miles, so all up I was in for 323 km, quite a bit further than I'd ever ridden before. No-one else was keen, so it was just gonna be me.

The morning of the big day, I woke at 3AM, went for a quick 5k run (cycling didn't count as cross training) and hopped on the bike with a backpack full of food. For the first four hours before it got light, I rode laps around the Yarra Boulevard, fighting my sleepiness with caffeine tablets and affirmatory, Lleyton Hewitt style cries ("Come on!").

When the sun rose and other cyclists started showing up (how lazy they were to rise at 6:00), things started clicking for me and I amped up the intensity. The caffeine was kicking in and I was feeling good! I got to Beach rd and attacked, locking my hands on the handlebars and my teeth in a half crazed death grin. The road was mine and I would not let anyone stay on my wheel. Down the final stretch to Mordialloc, I outsprinted three middle aged men on beautiful, carbon bikes to take out the "Aggressive prick" award. It felt damn good.

I soon regretted this burst of exuberance. My legs now felt like flimsy plastic straws that would crumple if I put any force through the pedals. I gingerly kept on riding, grinding out the km, not enjoying it so much any more.

By the time I got to Sorrento, I was really hurting. I'd done 200 km, but right at that point, I was as far as I could get from home and my confidence was evaporating. As if to reinforce this, the sun retreated behind some awfully threatening rain clouds. Eek.

I felt very alone, and very conscious of my weaknesses. There weren't many other options though besides getting back on the bike, so I took a deep breath to centre myself and started riding. It was slow, it was painful and it was not very enjoyable. At the rate I was going, I wouldn't get home until about 10 pm. Argh. Shoulders slumped, I pedalled along feebly, trying to dissociate myself from everything.

Then, just when I was at my lowest ebb, my saviour came past. He was a slightly pudgy guy on a nice looking bike and he breezed past with a smile on his face. I wanted that smile! I forced myself to get out of the saddle and ride hard to catch up. He looked over and breezily remarked "Nice day for it". Suddenly it was.

We rode together for 20 km, chatting about iron man triathlons and mountain biking in the Otways and the pain in my legs drifted away. Riding was no longer a struggle, I was enjoying it again. When he peeled off, I kept riding, filled with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

I didn't fully grasp the lesson then, but it's very clear to me now. In cycling, and in life, challenges are only challenging when you tackle them alone. Even the longest, toughest stage in the tour de vie (tour of life) can be quickly overcome, when you're riding with a peloton. What's more, you'll probably have fun in the process!

For an effective way to 'find your peloton', read my post on Goal Achievement Micronetworks.

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