Cycling isn’t selfish. It’s about giving: giving the absolute best of yourself for others, for your team, for your sport.
I am acutely aware that what I do for a living constitutes a leisure activity, or what some might call a hobby. Don’t get me wrong. I have worked very hard for a long time to make a career out of racing bikes. But I am lucky — privileged — that this opportunity exists for me and that I can earn a paycheck by pedaling two-wheeled racing machines.
Like many people, I want to believe my existence bears some meaning, to serve a purpose beyond myself in this life and maybe, just maybe, to leave the world a better place because I was in it. Sure, that’s probably ego talking, but it’s a ubiquitous and arguably legitimate concern. And let’s face it: racing bicycles doesn’t exactly eradicate world hunger.
Cycling holds great meaning for me, though that meaning can be difficult to articulate or defend (philosophically or practically). I often question myself. Am I wasting my time, my intellect, my energy on something totally selfish and devoid of real impact?
I don’t think so, but I’m not always sure.
This quote comes closest to capturing what cycling means to me:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman
Racing bicycles makes me come alive, and most days that’s good enough for me — most, but not all. When I hit setbacks or disappointments, doubt creeps in stronger than ever.
Two weeks ago, I raced the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. Building back after breaking my pelvis earlier this year required a reassessment of my original season objectives. I had time to build respectable form, and to get in a couple of races ahead of Pro Challenge — Cascade Cycling Classic and Tour of the Catskills — to bump up my top end. It would be tight, and the preparation would not be enough to render top form.
A crash at Cascade broke my bike, and while I was okay, it meant I would miss Tour of the Catskills, a key race in my preparation for Pro Challenge. This meant starting Pro Challenge with less than 4 days of racing my legs, while most of the peloton would be racing on nearly a full season’s worth of race intensity. It happens — the unexpected, the general chaos of life. Rather than fight it, I focused on controlling my controllables and reseting objectives and expectations.
All of this is necessary to roll with the punches, but man, does it ever do a number on one’s head! Even with adjusted expectations — sub-par performances tend to erode confidence, motivation, and, yes, purpose.
While in Colorado before the race, I got to visit with my nieces in Fort Collins. One of them, at 8 years old, had been reading about influential women in history, and had taken to calling them Courageous Leaders. In keeping with the theme of women forging positive change, my sister-in-law explained to her that previously, women could not race the Pro Challenge, but that we had convinced the organizers to include a women’s race this year. My niece looked at me with wide eyes and said,
“Auntie Amber, you’re a Courageous Leader?”
My heart melted. And suddenly I realized how important it really was to start this race, form or no form.
Symbolism matters. The women’s race and the teams, fans, media, and crowds who came out to support it — they all mattered in a big way.
At the race, my teammates and I met a family who had flown out specifically for the women’s event, because their daughters race mountain bikes and because they wanted their daughters to see the pro women compete.
Regardless of whether my nieces ever race bikes, or whether that family’s daughters go on to pursue pro careers, this race meant something. And it means something to be a woman racing bicycles.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given a talk in a classroom, and after introducing myself as a professional cyclist, heard the young students say “I didn’t know girls could do that!”
Racing bicycles is not a normal profession. It’s not something most people think of when they consider potential career options. It certainly may not be a great option for a lot of people. But what I love about this job is that it might inspire young women to consider that possibilities exist for them that they haven’t even imagined, that the world offers more possibility that they previously believed.
Symbolism matters. And if racing bicycles as a woman can symbolize a world of greater possibility, then maybe this funny hobby career of mine means something, too.
by Mary Oliver
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapping light crowding the black,
Nobody could count all of them—
the muskrats swimming
can reach out and touch
only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided–
and that one wears an orange blight–
and this one is a glossy cheek
half nibbled away–
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled–
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing–
that the light is everything–that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
And shouldn’t we all?
poem from House of Light (1990)
Thursday of last week, I posted this update:
#TBT to 7 weeks ago: I couldn’t walk. Today I did intervals. On my bike. Outside. For reals.
Sounds remarkable, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: it is not remarkable, not in the least. I did a million tiny, tedious, unremarkable things to progress to this point.
The concept of “marginal gains,” popularized by Dave Brailsford, posits that if you improve various aspects of your training and performance by 1%, the aggregate will result in significant gains toward your goal. The marginal gains theory makes sense, but there is one big caveat: in practice, 1% gains are very, very boring.
A 1% gain rarely constitutes a breakthrough or gush of motivation, and more often than not, a 1% gain requires great effort and focus on something extremely tedious. There are no bragging rights for going to bed early every night or for daily hip stabilization exercises with a wimpy elastic band. Nonetheless, small gains are real gains and often necessary to advance toward a goal.
Here are some examples of the terribly unremarkable, boring little things I’ve done to inch my way back to the bike:
– Bed rest; move as little as possible.
– Crutch from couch to wheelchair and back.
– X-rays show no fracture displacement from traveling home.
– Incrementally more crutch relative to wheelchair.
– Officially begin PT: stand with crutches, partially shift weight left-right; standing heel raises.
– Pool therapy: walk forward/backward; move each leg forward/back/left/right.
– Graduate from wheelchair to full-time crutches.
– Mini knee extensions (just enough to engage quads); lying hip abduction with wimpy elastic band resistance; glute bridges; low-resistance “pedaling” on the recumbent bicycle.
– Ditch one crutch; start walking very short distances sans crutches.
– X-rays show good bone callus formation.
– Light weight hamstring curls and leg press; add weight to leg extensions; 4-way contra-kicks with wimpy elastic band; more pedaling on the recumbent.
– Test some easy pedaling on my real bike on the stationary trainer. No pain – success!
– Officially crutchless.
– X-rays look good enough to try riding outdoors.
– Leg press; leg curl; leg extensions; single-leg dead lifts (no weight); 4-way contra-kicks; sideways step-ups; planks; bodyweight lunges.
As you can see, it wasn’t much of a stretch to try some efforts on the bike in week 7.
Most of us set goals not because we want to do a lot of boring things, but because those goals speak to the heart and offer an inviting path. Yet even the most exciting goals will at times demand tedium.
I love bikes. I love the exploring, the challenges, the races, the intensity. To accomplish my goals, however, I must also do boring things: for example, riding back and forth on the same stretch of road to repeat interval efforts, or worse, repeating those efforts while staring at a wall from the stationary trainer. It is important to set goals that truly capture your spirit, because no matter what, you will eventually need to do some very boring things to realize those goals.
If you really want to achieve excellence, learn to find beauty in tedium.
Invitations for aesthetic experience are everywhere, even among the most boring of boring tasks. One of my favorite authors and thinkers, Abraham Maslow, nails this concept as the ability to “transform means-activity into end-experience so that even instrumental activity is enjoyed as if it were end activity.” More recently, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refined this idea and called it the “flow” state. Athletes call it “being in the zone.”
Let’s take one of my PT exercises as an example: steps-ups. I stand with a stair to my side, step up sideways onto the stair with one foot, then step down. It is neither complicated nor challenging. There is nothing inherently engaging about step-ups. But I can make it engaging, by consciously following the motor pathways at work: activate core, then gluteus and quadriceps, stabilize knee, combine into one fluid motion, repeat. Suddenly this boring, repetitive task captivates my full attention: to perform it well and with grace becomes an engaging challenge.
Training yourself to fully engage in necessary but otherwise boring tasks is one of the great secrets to the mastery of any discipline, or the accomplishment of any goal. The good news is that your ability to access a state of flow is a skill you can train and improve. The training is known simply as Mindfulness. Be present with your task. Can you improve? Can you do so with grace?
It is not realistic to be “present” and “mindful” all of the time. But what is realistic is to consciously choose your approach to accomplishing boring tasks in service of your goals. You can let your disinterest get the best of you, roll your eyes and slog through the motions to get the task done. Or, you can choose to engage, to be better, to perform even trivial tasks with grace.
Extraordinary gains and performances are, by definition, out of the ordinary. Paradoxically, we trivialize the very ordinary steps that lead to and enable the extraordinary. Extraordinary and ordinary: the one depends upon the other. What from the outside can appear extraordinary (e.g. riding a bike again seven weeks after breaking one’s pelvis), might in reality be simply one more step forward in a long series of very ordinary steps.
In a way, extraordinary breakthroughs can be seen as ordinary: the inevitable, logical progression of preceeding small gains — that next 1%. Likewise, seemingly trivial gains can be seen as extraordinary: each a unique opportunity to connect with and realize a better version of yourself. Seen in this light, every little boring step becomes a possibility for elevation, for enjoyment, and even for celebration.
You can choose to see challenge and beauty where before you had seen none.
You can learn to see beauty in tedium.
“When in a hurry, take the long sure path.”
While I can’t remember where I stumbled across this gem of a quote*, I’m glad I did. The truth in it applies to many aspects of life, but perhaps none more apt than recovering from injury.
For a good chunk of time following the crash, I was on bed rest. There isn’t much you can do with a broken pelvis, so my training plan looked something like this:
I’m making progress and celebrating small victories, but with each, I want more and struggle with patience. I desperately want to be healed, feel whole, and find my form again.
I am in a hurry.
But this is exactly when to choose the long sure path.
We athletes love to believe that we’re special, that our vascularization and muscle tone (for which we admittedly dedicate great effort) grant superhuman healing abilities and allow us to hurry back to competition faster than the average jane. While those adaptations certainly don’t hurt, we are nonetheless very human indeed and rely on the same physiological healing processes as all other human beings. My human body needs rest and time and very tedious physical therapy exercises to re-gain mobility and stability, which must come before the training necessary to re-gain strength and speed.
Sure, I could let desperation get the better of me and attempt to shortcut to VO2max efforts and five hour training rides, but that would be hubris. I would have to bypass critical steps and risk further injury, further setbacks. There are no shortcuts without consequences.
When in a hurry, take the long sure path.
The long sure path requires grounding expectations in reality. For me, that means letting go of ego and meeting myself very honestly where I am. A great deal of my personal identity rests on my strength and speed on a bike. I know my first rides outside will demonstrate — quite harshly — how very far I am from my usual strength and speed. (My ego winces just thinking about it.)
But there is no shame in those first difficult, slow steps. Humility, yes — humility as the corollary of respect for the path ahead, for what I know it will demand of me.
We all travel many paths, and can define them in arbitrary ways of our choosing. For this path, I chose to reset my Zero Point. The next phase — getting back to training on the bike — will require letting go of my ego (getting out of my own way again) to start rebuilding.
My athlete ego would prefer to hide away from the world during this phase. My athlete ego would not want anyone to see me on a bike until I’d reached some arbitrary threshold of form, to avoid judgement. (She calls herself a pro? But look how slow she is! She has no quads!) My athlete ego would love to buy into the fantasy that being an athlete makes me special.
But this is a fact: I am not special. I am a human being. I happen to love racing bikes, but being an athlete does not give me a special pass to shortcut the healing process or the training process.
I am like you, whoever you are. We are human. We have goals and want to reach them, the sooner the better. We are in a hurry. So let’s take the long sure path.
Setting aside my ego, I’m going to post all of my slow, humbling rides to Strava as I build back, starting with my first ride outside since the crash — today. I realize that “slow and humbling” is relative, but so are most things in life. Your Zero Point is different from mine, as are your goals and measures of progress, but probably for both of us, the beginning is the hardest part.
All things considered, sharing these early rides will be hard for me. I’m sure plenty of folks will look at my files and judge away. I’m going to work on choosing not to care about that. I’m not going to pretend that this process wasn’t slow and difficult and humbling. I am, after all, a human being.
So, my fellow human being, will you join me? Chances are, you’re looking to improve something. Maybe you’re also a cyclist, and would like to be stronger. Maybe you’d just like to get outside and move more.
Well, every path to a goal has a beginning. Meet yourself where you are. Decide to begin. The first steps are hard and feel very far way from where you want to be. But that is the nature of a path: you are always furthest from the end at the beginning. And that is okay. We are on the long sure path.
You can find me on Strava by clicking here.
Why not start with me? Sign up on Strava and record your walks, runs, or rides. Post your profile here, and we can progress together.
You don’t have to be fast. You don’t have to beat anybody.
And keep going.
*If you know the reference for this quote, please let me know!