The human body perceives warmth as pain when the temperature hits around 130 degrees. I was flirting more with pain than warmth as the hot water in the shower drenched my head and upper back. I let the water run off my face and breathed in little water droplets, which soothed my raw lungs. A can of Juengling rested on the soap dish, ready to help me celebrate my first day back in the saddle after a forced 8 week layoff from riding. A small celebration was in order.
A couple preliminary rides last week and this week set the stage for a real training ride. Those rides were short things at Hains Point, which is as flat as a pool table and not difficult, even on days where the wind is a bit tough. Those rides didn't tell me much, except that I could turn the pedals.
But could I work? Could I break a sweat, and not break myself? Would my back hold? I didn't know.
After the usual pre-ride religious observations - balms for the bottom, emoluments for the knees, multiple layers of bright colored vestments - I hit the road on the fixed gear and formulated an easy, 25 mile course. Some short hills meant it would have a few brief efforts in it, tied together with a couple long false flat slogs, but there would be nothing really difficult.
After about 10 minutes of pedaling, it was clear that aliens kidnapped my spin and replaced my legs with a couple worn out, mis-manufactured square gears left over from the failure of the Soviet Union.
In addition to all the other shortcomings it points out, the fixed gear bicycle relentlessly points out poor pedaling technique, giving one's legs two or three reminders per revolution. One could argue that the main purpose of riding these outmoded monowagens is to make the sensations of riding more vivid to the rider. These sensations include the feeling of pedaling squares. Slowly burning rub spots under the sitbones, from pedaling all the time and rarely standing. Another slow burn in the legs on longer uphills because no downshift is available. A training fixie also vivifies this searing pain in the face, which occurs after you punch yourself in the nose as hard as possible for determining that the way to start rehab after a long forced break is to ride a fixie 25 miles in 45 degree temps and high winds.
Life is more vivid on a fixed gear, and more colorful - and not all the color comes from the blood running out of your nose and onto your jersey as a result of that ill-considered self-punch. Because the fixie removes a lot of the thinking and fiddling from the ride, you have time to think.
Pedaling along mindful of my deficiencies in form and fitness, I pondered what it means to be fit, and riding well. The answer isn't as simple as having put in sufficient base miles and more specialized training efforts. In a way, that part is easy. But there is a substantial mental component that is key to riding well. The key mental element is confidence. When you ride with confidence, your legs are stronger because your mind manages them better.
Although it is easily destroyed, confidence doesn't come easily. You can't get a package of it for Christmas, then go out and kick ass. You have to earn confidence, to build it up.
Confidence is undercut by a thousand different things. Bad diet decisions, training layoffs, getting a beating on a group ride where you normally prosper, injuries, simple bad days on the bike... all these things eat away at confidence as surely as rust eats steel. It's more insidious than rust, however, since you can't sand off and repaint a lack of confidence. It's far more stubborn than that, something I'm aware of from last year's foot surgery and this winter's back problems.
The way to regain that confidence is to earn it back. Real confidence has to be earned and built up over time. It's easy to get something that seems like confidence but which has no real benefits to it; that's false self esteem. It's easy to get because we say a lot of nice things to each other because we're all nice people, but nice isn't always what people need to hear, even if it's what they want to hear.
The danger of having a lot of friends who are nice people is that you can start believing their kind utterances and start feasting on their good wishes. Good wishes and support are wonderful, but they are emotional candy. They may pick you up when you're down, and give you an incentive to get out on the road and build yourself up, but the effect is ephemeral, and short lived. So they are important, but once you're on the road and pedaling, they dont' provide lasting help.
Real confidence, the kind that doesn't desert you in a pinch, has to be forged. Like a base metal, you need to get torched and get hammered on, and come through the experience beaten into better shape, with all those surplus impurities knocked out of you. If you want your confidence, your mental attitude, to be a useful tool, it has to be beaten into shape, ground on, and honed. Without the clanging and sparks, you'll never be sure that your confidence in your fitness and your ability to prevail is genuine. There will always be a nagging doubt in your mind that you don't deserve to be in that lead group, or hanging onto your buddy who just attacked on a hill. You can't afford to have nagging doubts if you want to ride well, and this is true no matter what your fitness or ability level.
Confidence was a problem for me yesterday. At three or four points in the ride, I was struggling. My effort level wasn't that high. We're not talking about extended periods with a 180 bpm heartrate. It's just that everything hurt. At one point my knees would be creaking. At another, my lungs were burning. After a hill, my hamstrings were cramping. It was slow, and felt slow. But I hung in there and kept pedaling, telling myself I just needed to keep going, and it would pass.
Sure enough, once I got past the midway point of the ride, my legs started to loosen up. They still didn't have any big efforts in them, but my spin got a little better, and the breathing came a bit easier. The cramps eased off, and soon enough, I was rolling into Crofton, hopping the curb and pedaling into my back yard.
It wasn't a good kind of hurt that I felt at that point; it was a bad, ill-used sort of feeling. The first thing my wife said to me was, "you look really haggard." But I was looking haggard at the end of the ride and I had earned the right to look bad. The nagging fear that my back wouldn't hold up proved irrational, and I proved to myself that I can get through a ride of decent length despite the layoff, and despite the discomfort of the ride itself. It was the first hammer blow on the block of metal I hope to build back up into a decent cyclist.
It's not all sunshine and roses right now, but the track is clear in front of me, and the spots where I'll put my feet are well-trod. I've got a little bit of confidence now, and that will feed my ability and desire to keep working at it.
Importantly, the meditative time I spent let me gain some insight into praise and discipline and work and how they relate to performance, lessons I will apply not only to my riding, but also to how I raise my son. Praise and confidence must be earned, not given freely, because if they are given freely they may not be solid, and because they are not linked to an identifiable cost, they will not be esteemed because they came too cheaply. My praise has to focus on his real accomplishments, where he's worked hard.
At the doctor's this week, getting my pre-flight clearance, the Doc commented on my blood pressure, which has been borderline hypertensive since Christmas. It's back down now to the normal range, which he found unusual. "I know," I said. "I've ridden my bike a few times in the last week." This drew a chuckle but it illustrates my point: tangible effort and tangible achievement are the progenitors of real success. That's something we deserve to be praised for, and something that should be a source of real confidence.