January 10, 2021

Getting the Best Out of the Worst

Welcome to 2021 ...

But, before we get all wistful and begin predictions on how great this year will be, I just want to take a breath and hope for a second that we're all not just fooling ourselves.  2020 taught me a LOT, and even if "normal" is never really normal again I have a lot of tools in the shed to at least make it easier to navigate things.  

As I look down the barrel ...ahem ... to the hopeful horizon of this new year, some thoughts.

The commute is dead

"We're not even considering having anyone back in an office until the end of 2nd quarter."

Those words sorta hung in the virtual air during our last executive conference call last month.  No matter what happens with the virus, the data is in, and working from home is not the slacker-ridden filth-storm all of the naysayers assumed it might be.  We are more productive, happier, and - yeah... at the end of the day, because a lot of folks don't know how to clock out when the laptop is 20-paces from the couch, they're getting a lot of bang for their buck out of us these days.  The office lease is up this year, too ... and with all of this evidence in place why would ANYone renew it?

(update:  harrowing statement was revised later:  "we're not going back to the office until 2022, at the earliest.")    What is "commuting," again??
That in mind, I have been looking at the bikes lately and wondering why I still have a rear rack mounted.  It's basically a REALLY heavy taillight mount, and has been since March 13th, 2020.  Fenders.... well, granted, on a must-finish brevet they are worth their weight.  On a commute, they're essential ... even on nice summer days, the bike trail is usually riddled with run-off, puddles, mud, dust ... there are always sprinklers running somewhere along the way ... I don't think I can bring myself to remove the fenders, even if it "never rains".  All told, the concept of "riding to work", which has been a massive chunk of my annual mileage since before this blog existed, is sorta dead.  I'm also inherently lazy, no matter what my mileage numbers look like.  Without the NEED to ride in the morning, I don't.  I have long since traded it for extra sleep.  No matter how much I try to trick myself into riding a quick AM loop to my own house, I haven't done it.  I'm looking forward to the time when I could actually wake up, ride to some cool coffee shop and hang out for a spell, and then ride back home for work ----- without the crushing anxiety and COVID worry that accompanies my personality type.  I could see adding that into my morning routine.  Right now, it's just not something I'm willing to do.  I'll give it a few more months, and maybe my morning commute comes back in that sort of guise.  For now... the rack is still mounted.  I keep getting these inklings that as soon as I undo those bolts, they'll call us back to the office.

I also forget that the rack and my commuting panniers can also enable touring.... just keep 'em, dude... think ahead.

All told - when it comes to cycling in general, riding back and forth to work is terrific ... but the only thing it really prepared me for was ... well, riding 12 miles at a time.  Yes, you CAN gain fitness within that framework, but my commute miles were largely spent in "no man's land".  Not losing fitness, but not really gaining anything either.  The rest days always too hard... the hard days not hard enough.  Finally being free from that framework has allowed me to switch to longer lunch rides, where I can apply a bit more training theory.  I'm still terrible at it ... but, I think I'm farther along than I would have been had 2020 been "normal".  2021 will be more about embracing this new framework, instead of wondering if I'll ever ride to and from a particular building again.

And maybe removing the rear rack.   Maybe.  

Getting the best out of the worst

Sometimes I need to get pushed outside of the box to move forward.  Maybe that's the case for all of us.  2020 was weird in so many ways, so it's no surprise that my mileage fell into the same category.  "Weird."  Many would say "fake", and part of me agrees ... more on that in a bit.  

I never really latched onto the concept of the 100km ride, but this year I managed to rack up thirty-four (*) of them.  When it was warmer, they were all genuine, outdoor gravel adventure rides ... not terribly fast (never are), but all within RUSA guidelines for the distance.  Turns out, for me, 2020 was terrific brevet training for a lot of the little intangible things.  The goal was as-little-as-possible contact with stores or towns, and sometimes I managed zero-contact rides with no stops at all.  Well, not including stops in the shade.  Ultimately, running into a C-store, once I was okay with it, really wasn't that big of a deal.  Just be sensible.  Put on the mask, go get what I need, and get out.... you know, like normal (but with a mask).  This has helped me get better at the get-in/get-out concept, which - on control efficiency - has always been a problem of mine.  I dawdle.  I'm WAY better at it now.  

Go Longer

While brevets should be manageable for all skill levels, it came up in a recent conversation that having controls too close together can become a crutch.  Sure, the sport will - and should - stretch people; but, for new riders used to charity events, passing a store every 20 miles or so - even if it isn't a control - is really helpful when easing into rando.  For me, again with the laziness.... I often leaned on them a little TOO much.  I either hydrate too often, or, carry too little to stretch much beyond 30 miles between controls.  While most would consider this to be reasonable, it isn't always practical.  Some of the longer events get into areas where it can be 45-60 miles between towns, and sometimes you're lucky if you get a store at all ... sometimes it's a water pump or a vending machine that might be working that day.  My "pack everything" 100km solo missions this summer helped me better understand how much I can carry, how much bike weight doesn't matter, how many calories I actually need, and how to manage pace and effort when it is just stupid hot and there is no store to fall into for 30-minutes of air conditioned recovery.  In a "normal" year, I'd never have tried it ... and while I won't know until later this year if it pays off, I have to think it will be something I can pull from.  

Fake Miles?

(*) Fake miles...  ultimately, my bubble popped.  I occasionally suffer from burnout, in a bad way.  As much as I'd like to be one of those guys that can just perpetually keep knocking out 800-mile months, I reach a point where just getting dressed for a ride starts to feel like a struggle.  This is all mental: anxiety, stress, mental fatigue, way too much internal dialogue, self-doubt, excuse-making, fear.  Sparking this, during one of those personal 100km rides in late summer, I had a close-call with an automobile and it rattled me pretty good.  I wish I had the ability to just let things roll off my back so I can move forward - but even at my age I still struggle.  I've been working a lot on mindfulness this year, for that and many other issues, but sometimes various feelings and incidents are at the front of my mind like a brick wall that I cannot scale.  As a result, the existence of a single car on any given road pegged my needle immediately as "too much traffic."  ANY wind is hurricane force.  If it's below 60 degrees F, it's "freezing".  By mid-October, just the slightest drop in temperatures was enough for me to justify spending the rest of the year inside.  All the winter gear, past experience ... didn't matter.  The upswing in COVID cases didn't help the process.  I wasn't going out there.  I dove into work, worked through lunch, and worked late, skipped taking vacation.

Another part of my brain, however, was still keen on various numbers and goals. I mounted the road bike into the trainer, activated a Zwift account, and took to cyberspace.  This was also something I'd never have previously considered doing at the lengths I did in late 2020.  I've used TrainerRoad before in Jan/Feb to get high intensity and threshold training - which has always paid off - but never for more than an hour at a sitting.  Cut to today, I have effectively ruined the bearings in the trainer's roller, have flattened and worn out the tread on a perfectly good tire, and watched most of the first season of the Original Star Trek series while finishing a virtual challenge that saw me ultimately stacking up seventeen of the years thirty-four 100km events inside the garage.  If I hadn't had the permission to finish the rides indoors, the challenges would not have been completed.  I'm confident of that.  

What I learned from riding seventeen metric centuries on an indoor trainer is summarized as pure saddle time and mental patience.  I cannot say it's any easier or harder than riding the same mileage outdoors; but I can tell you that it is extremely uncomfortable.  Without the floating feedback from the road to keep muscles and tendons from locking up, without the ability to coast, without the rewarding distractions of fresh air and scenery ... yeah.  It may be fake mileage ... but I begin to understand why a few ultra-distance professionals offer that if you can't ride RAAM (for example) on the indoor trainer, you probably can't ride it in real life.  A local gravel legend even took the concept to the outdoors itself ... gravel racers often poo-poo riding on pavement as "junk miles" ... and he often retorts "if you can't ride a double century on pavement, you can't ride it on gravel."  There is truth in that.  "Fake" or "Junk" miles still have their place, and trust me: being able to sit on a trainer for four hours, even with tiny breaks, makes riding outside feel like cheating.

Would I ever do it again?   Probably not.  The translation to actual outdoor road speed is absolutely disappointing - especially in my case, using a classic trainer.  Apparently, I can hammer out 62 miles in under three hours in this virtual world, but in real life?  Heck no.  While I can sit on a bike for far longer now at a stretch, climbing real hills with real wind resistance? ... yeah, I'm no faster outdoors than I was in September.  Has the time indoors helped?  In some ways, yes.  Indoor training is just a tool, and what I did this fall is largely incorrect use of that tool.

Indoor training is not "worthless", however ... if that were the case, professionals wouldn't do it at all.  But, slogging away on an indoor trainer for three hours is not "training" unless I make it "training".  At the end of the day, all I was doing was "getting the number".  Investing in a smart trainer would help me get closer to a real experience, and would genuinely provide real, focused, measurable training; but, honestly, If I had a grand to spend on anything I'd be riding a far nicer bicycle.  All told, I don't think upgrading my indoor experience helps me improve as a rider the way riding outdoors year-round has in the past.  I need cross training - not "more cycling", so, dollar for dollar, I'd buy a rowing machine.  In any case, I'm cancelling my Zwift membership and putting the old, worn-out classic trainer in the dumpster.  Partly because the bearings are shot, but partly because it's time for me to just "get out there" again.  That's not a judgment on indoor training - that's something I need to do, for many reasons.  Despite matching my 2019 mileage and getting some gains, all told I have still gained the wrong kind of weight, and have gotten very soft with regards to the weather.  Gotta work on this.  Soon.

I'm still glad I did it.  If 2020 was about trying something new, that accomplishment was a biggie.  Goals achieved, gains achieved in butt-time, pure cardio, and mental patience ... but, I don't think an "indoor 12-hr challenge" is in my future; and while I'm proud of my ridiculous result - yeah, it's sorta ridiculous.  I may be able to sit on a bike for longer now, and that will certainly help - but now I need to get back outside and learn how to sit on a bike for longer when it is cold and windy.  If it really is absolutely nasty outdoors, then I probably need the break anyways ... especially considering what I mentioned earlier about burnout still being a very real thing for me.  But, today, the combination of 2020's massive late-season base will absolutely pay off this year, and I'm happy with the result.  Should the asterisk be there?  Well, I'll be the first to put it there.  With my brain, and the challenges of 2020, I'm glad riding indoors was an option.  I'd hate to see what condition I would be in right now had I not logged those trainer miles.  Even if there was no pavement passing under my tires, my legs, resting pulse, my backside, and how I feel riding outside again each convince me it was, indeed, "real".  Not fake ... just different.  Like 2020.  YMMV.

Addendum:  (1/18/21)
Added in a few days later, yeah ... the above may come across as "harsh" in places with regards to indoor training.  My season (2020) would be in the dumpster without Zwift, however.  People will have their opinions on it, but, when the goal is just good training without the hassles of traffic and finding the right stretch of road, man... it's REALLY hard to replicate what indoor training can do for the aspiring cyclist.  Heart rate control, managing effort, endurance, FTP gains ... especially for riders who don't have the benefit of power meters on their outdoor bike ... there is a lot to be discovered indoors, and honestly -- while I am not in a hurry to stay inside, the benefits the experience have provided are already paying back on the road.  I've used it even in the best of years, including last year, just to focus on improving fitness.  Most of the time when I ride outdoors I am not focused on such things, and the trainer forces focus.  It is efficient.  Using TrainerRoad in the past has yielded big gains, and Zwift has been terrific throughout this very odd season.  Would I replace all of my outdoor riding with it?  Of course not ... I'm not sure any of us would.  But, doing those hard indoor miles, whether they are "real" or not, is no different than yoga, stretching, lifting weights ... it prepares and enables more enjoyment once you're back outside again.  I convinced myself that 3-hour tempo sessions didn't get me anything but a raw number, but, I've already seen evidence to suggest otherwise.  I ultimately do plan to invest in a better indoor trainer for even more improvements in the future, based on real power numbers and utilizing variable resistance.  For now, well, I have taped-up the vents on my shoes and busted out the gloves, because I have to be ready for cold brevet starts, for sure.  One thing the trainer definitely doesn't prepare me for are headwinds and chilled legs!  But, seriously, make no mistake:  if you want to get faster or better at climbing, tempo, sprints, or "whatever", using an indoor trainer and a structured training plan will get you there.  It's not a bad investment at all.

Here We Go Again

Even though I finished with the first chapter of my return to school back in August, with the last assignment turned in and the final grades posted, I knew I wasn't finished.  I took the fall 2020 semester off, yet as I write this I'm only a few days away from starting the graduate portion of my education journey.  The online, compressed format will afford me a Masters degree in only 20 months ... but, it's another 20 months of saying "maybe" to myself and my riding buddies.  

It will pay off.  It will pay off.  /repeat/ ....

If anything, I am already used to the routine and have a good idea from others on what to expect.  It should actually be less hectic, in some ways, than the accelerated undergrad program proved to be.  So, with high hopes, I just need to give myself permission to take a break and go ride.  The 2021 brevet schedule is out, and I have a plan.  Time to execute.  I will absolutely NEED the mental breaks that randonneuring provides.  A good, long ride ... yes, challenging, but challenging in a way that returns energy to handling life's (and schools) challenges.  In any case, this post serves as a small preamble to the forthcoming silence ... this basically means the fingers will be typing for academic purposes only, and that once again the blog will get a little stagnant.

By the time I post again, heck... maybe things WILL be "normal" again.  Whatever that means.  It is impossible to know what life will bring, but worrying about it is pointless.  It isn't always about what we've been handed ... it's what we can make of it.  Even though 2020 was very "weird" in a lot of ways, even from a cycling standpoint, I think I managed to make the best out of the worst.

I'm looking forward to spending a little time outside now, taking some photos, and always, always learning a little bit more about myself, how I can improve, and how I can help others.
Hopefully 2020 yielded some positives for all of you, as well - as "weird" as it was.  

Cheers, friends -- and thanks for reading!