The word "epic" gets overused a lot, but my injury-induced winter layoff was epic in scope. By "layoff," I do not mean "spent a lot of time cross country skiing, swimming and lifting weights." What I mean is, "did nothing except lie on my back, do office work upside down on a notepad, and ate." I would have liked to do more, but the combination of searing pain in my back, and searing fear of the return of the searing pain, kept me off the bike (and yea, verily, thy trainer too) until the back was relatively healthy. ("Relatively healthy" in my case means "mildly painful with a constant reminder that you aren't supposed to lift heavy shit after you're 40.")
If there were an Olympics for de-training, this performance would have qualified me for the decathlon. It would have been so strong, that I would have been able to skip the quarterfinals and semis, and proceed straight to the finals. People would be asking if I was doping to achieve this level of excellence. In fact, I was.
Attaining such a remarkable level of dissipation is not without consequences. The usual painful reminders of too much time off the bike are present - I can pedal squares that would put Pythagoras to shame. On even the mildest upward grade, I huff and puff in a manner that would blow the Superdome down, along with any three large former Arkansas Razorbacks. Plus my knees keep bouncing off my gut when I'm on the hoods, or perhaps it's my gut that keeps bouncing off my knees, I'm not sure. There's some bouncing of something off of something else there, and it doesn't help.
But that stuff is familiar to every roadie who takes a few months off and then has to try to squeeze into last year's jersey. I'm so good at this de-training, however, that I'm wayyyy past that point. The rest of you suck at de-training compared to me. I'm like a UCI Pro of de-training, and the rest of you are looking for the Cat 5 registration table of the de-training competition.
I'm so de-trained that my legs are actually confused about what we're doing when we go for a ride.
I was out for a ride and about halfway through, I heard the right leg ask, "What the fuck?" A couple minutes later, the left leg said, "You got me dude. Let me ask the colon. He knows some shit. "
Fine, my legs weren't actually speaking. But it felt like they were. This is the first time I've managed to put in three consecutive days of concerted effort since last Fall. My legs felt physically confused. There's no other way to describe it. How did this happen? And what are the consequences when your legs wander around as if they had Alzheimers?
Sunday was an easy ride. I took the Redline out to Rosaryville for one last spin on it. I bought a Salsa Big Momma the other week - a full boinger 29'er being my concession to the doc's order not to mountain bike. Hey, it's not mountain biking if it's got more than one gear and a rear suspension, right? Most of the Redline's parts are migrating over to that new Salsa. I may keep the old Redline frame, but odds are it's going to meet its fate on E-Bay and if I take up single speeding again it's going to be on something sinfully light. So I wanted to have a breakup ride with the old girl, which I did for 90 minutes or so. And yes, my back definitely felt it. Sayanora, Redline.
Monday, I did maybe 30 or 32 miles on a loop I refer to as Piney Orchard / Millersville / Crownsville Loop. That uniquely innovative name stems from the fact that I ride from home up to Piney Orchard, then over to Crownsville via Millersville, then back home, with a couple little detours thrown in for good measure. (I've been debating adding the Dairy Farm and Hog Farm monikers to the name, but the committee is still out on whether we need that bovine/porcine literary flourish on a simple loop ride). POMCL was a pretty nice ride, though the stiff wind made for some interesting moments. When the legs are not great, a 5 mile long stretch of front quartering wind seems like nothing so much as an expression of nature's malice toward those who would test Newton's First Law by applying force to make an object at rest begin movement. There are a couple hills of three or four minutes duration on that ride, and the legs never opened up so I paid dearly for my attempt to ride twice in a 26 hour period. It wasn't a bad ride, but at no point did I think, "Gee, this is fun."
Today I decided to head south on Pax River Road, and to muddle about down near Greenock and Galesville. This isn't a hard ride, but it's entirely up and down. There is nothing flat on it - it is either false flat up or down, little kickers up and down, or hills, up and down. It's possible to almost get a rhythm on it; parts of the route make up the Davidsonville Rides (weekday and Saturday) and though it defies attempts to ride with rhythm, a skillful rider can pick his spots. This route worked out to three ticks under 50 miles - no great distance, but roughly equal to the longest ride I've taken thus far in 2010.
Unfortunately, to exercise skill and to take advantage of the terrain, one needs to have compliant legs. My legs were not compliant, and in fact seemed as if they were fighting me for most of the ride. I'd start down a hill and try to spin, and the legs would grumble and stop at maybe 110 RPM. That's ridiculous; I can spin 130 with ease, and top 160 for a minute or two at a time. It's like the legs were losing the signal or something.
Going uphill, I found that I couldn't really grind up over little kickers. My usual fatboy climbing technique involves rolling into the kicker at speed then doing a short sprint over the top. That didn't work at all. There just wasn't any sprint in my legs.
Worst of all, on the false flats, I couldn't get on top of the pedals. This was terrible because the only place I'm ever really strong is on false flats. I can do some things on them. I tried, honestly, but my legs felt confused, as if they couldn't figure out how to spin smoothly. There were brief flashes of suplesse, but they disappeared quickly.
About two thirds of the way through the ride, it occurred to me that perhaps my legs were blocked because my mind is a bit blocked. Whenever we recover from an injury, the physical recovery is only a part of what we have to do. The mental part is perhaps as large of a challenge. The mind erects more barriers than the body ever can because it's a lot more innovative. The legs and lungs, they are Yoda like. There's no try; only do or not do. The mind comes up with a lot of excuses the legs and lungs could never think of.
Was it my mind though? I found myself going up hills today under very low power. My seeming inability to turn the pedals preyed on me. "Is a nerve in my back pinched, limiting my ability to use my legs to generate power?" When I did have decent power, it would evaporate after a few minutes and my legs would lose coordination.
On the other hand, I kept reminding myself, "dude, you have no base whatsoever. Shut up and pedal. It's always like this, just worse right now due to the long layoff."
It didn't help that when I did clear a hill, I'd be cruising 11, 12, 14 MPH for a while until the legs started working again. They didn't hurt; it's just that they wouldn't move any better than they did. It's not like I was going real hard anywhere; I was trying to keep it at a conversational pace and rarely working until I was panting or had burning legs. But modest levels of effort wiped me out repeatedly. My Powertap was no help here either; that fucker is completely on the blink right now and it reflects steadily decreasing wattage under steady state efforts. So if I start up a hill and hold a steady 700 watts (perceived) and maintain 18 MPH, the indicated wattage keeps dropping and by the time I crest the hill it's down to 7 watts. Thanks, fucker! Like I needed that...
The internal dialogue - which boiled down to "dude, yer fuckt" versus "ah, you'll be okay, mate" - went on for close to two hours. "Dude, yer fuckt" naturally had the upper hand for most of the ride, because it's always easier to be destructive and negative than productive and positive.
Still I hung in there, promising myself I'd get home, chill out, have a nice lunch with my wife, and then forget about the disappointments of the day.
The question kept on gnawing at my brain though, eating away at the underpinnings of confidence. Eventually I sat down to write this, to try to get over the hump and maybe make peace with where I am.
The final stats on the ride were 47 miles in 2:40. Power? Hell if I know.
It took until just now to figure out that the way to gauge the ride was to divide the mileage by the time, and figure out my average pace. Turns out 47 divided by 2.66 hours works out to 17.66 MPH.
That's not blazing fast by any stretch, but it is about where a Zone 2 ride ought to be.
The diagnosis? There's nothing wrong with my legs that a couple thousand more Zone 2 miles can't cure. Wouldn't hurt to lose some weight.
The nagging doubt about my back isn't going to die off, ever, because the disc will not return to pre-injury condition no matter what happens. There may be some physical limiters to my performance. The physical limiters are unrelated to the mental limiters, however. Today's ride was partly about getting a little base in, but in retrospect it was largely about killing off one little nagging, unjustified doubt in an auditorium full of doubting voices in my mind.
To ride well, you have to be able to perform up to your physical limits at a given time. You can't reach even modest limits if you have mental doubts, nagging voices, arguing that you can't or shouldn't push your limits. They will distract you from your task. They will cause you to limit your performance out of fear, discouragement, or lack of focus. They are an unnecessary part of your riding psyche. You have to get rid of those voices or they will be screaming at you on a hard ride, in a race, or if you're sitting on your sofa thinking about hitting the local road loop.
There's no way to silence those voices by arguing with them. The only way to shut them up is to take them out on the road, and kill them, pedal stroke by pedal stroke.