Monday, November 28

The Psychology of Long Rides


This post is the first in a three part series on "psychology." I will also be covering the Psychology of Climbing and the Psychology of the Descent. Way back in 1992 when I first enrolled in college I declared my major as "psychology" (my eventual degree was in Geography with a dual specialization in Urban & Regional Planning and GIS). Therefore I am almost completely and totally unqualified to write on the subject. Enjoy!


Some biked miles are enjoyable. The sun is on your face, the wind is in your hair, your bike feels light as the ether...biketopia. Some miles make you want to ride forever.


But then after you've been pedaling a few dozen miles toward forever you begin to enter cycling hell. Your hands tingle and spasm. Your feet are numb and cold. You rear-end aches and your back and neck are stiff. The bike is hard and every bump in the road jars your teeth. Those miles are misery, suffering...mental anguish.

Many cyclists never reach their true threshold while riding. Most people never suffer to their fullest potential. And yet the threshold is there, the potential awaits and The Wall that you can hit lurks in the mist ahead.

Long bike rides, those going beyond what a person is used to riding on any given day, are similar to long runs, long hikes, long swims...all those endurance activities that begin to require greater resolve to push through. For some a long bike ride could be 20 miles. I remember the first time my wife rode more than 20 miles in one push. It was an important milestone. I can remember the first time I rode more than 30 miles in a day. For the kids a 10 mile ride under their own power is a big deal. And though I've ridden greater distances these days my magic number seems to be somewhere past 50. Hopefully by next August it will be somewhere past 100.

Deciding to ride the Triple Bypass in 2009 pushed me into longer and longer rides. I did a fifty miler before work one morning. I pushed my training rides beyond 50, beyond 60, beyond 75...on up to 80 miles the weekend before the ride. The TBP itself was 120 miles. I remember watching my cyclocomputer click over from 99.9 to 100. And I almost crashed because when it did I was bombing down the west side of Vail Pass on a curvy, wet multiuse path.

Me, in Avon, Colorado

However, my long distance disposition didn't begin with cycling. As a teenager I ran cross country. The fall of my 8th grade year I signed up for the Springboro Junior High CC team. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never really considered myself a runner. I knew that the other team sports were not my cup of tea and I wanted to do something. Actually, I can't really remember why I signed up.

Well, I found my athletic home. I ran two years and only stopped because my family moved back to Kentucky and the school there didn't have a cross country team. I tried track, but the coach had me running the mile, and the pace was too fast. Cross country was the forge where I began to be beaten into the fine athlete you see before you today. Our very first junior high meet changed my perception of what a human being could endure.

It was a cold day. We stood at the starting line wearing our thin running clothes under heavy sweatpants and sweatshirts. I watched in amazement as our competitors stripped down just before the race. Reluctantly my novice teammates and I did the same. Youthful bravado kept me from complaining at the bitter cold that was settling into my bones in the minutes leading up to the start. Then, just before the race began the sky began to spit snow. I laughed out loud, but my mind was being forever reformed to revel in that sort of adversity. I would grow to seek it out as I got older.

I ran two years of cross country and won a varsity letter my freshman year. My coach taught me to hold nothing back, but at the end of the race to find the reserves to kick hard and sprint the last hundred yards or two. I still revel the "kick." And while I didn't continue in organized competitive running I did keep running as a part of my life well into my 30s...sort of.

I became an obsessive hiker after high school. My hiking exploits reached their pinnacle on a backpacking trip to the Smokies over Christmas break one year. I went with a friend, in fact the trip was his idea, and I ended up hiking twenty eight miles in a twenty four hour period. The last seven miles were miserable. My legs were wasted, but somehow I kept walking, in the dark, in the cold, all the way back to the trailhead. We stopped for pizza in Gatlinburg. I almost had to crawl from the truck to the restaurant.

Cycling has followed a similar pattern in my life. Different activity, same approaches, same mindset...

One strategy I've employed through the years was to rough out a route in my mind and just go for it. Don't plot the exact mileage or elevation gain, don't over think it, just go. Take enough stuff to remain self-sufficient and just make it work. Those are the rides that sharpen the soul, those that reset the psyche and allow you to build yourself back up from being completely beaten down to your constituent parts. It takes an experienced mind to approach endurance rides in this manner. You have to be 100% confident in your own abilities. You have to be 100% confident in your Jedi mind control. Giving up and calling a friend to come bail you out cannot be an option. And ages ago before cell phones I made some rides and hikes that were big on consequence like that. Getting hailed on is one of those cycling rites of passage you never forget.

My other, more normal, plan is to map the route, know the mileage, know the total elevation and the crux climbs along the way. I try to note potential resupply points, public restrooms, alternate routes in case of a need to bail, etc, etc. I find that these sorts of rides become those that are less likely to succeed because they are even less likely to happen. But my confidence levels swell and I also find that what seems to be near my limits in the planning stages is usually far less overwhelming once I get out on the road or trail.

Either way, you suffer long when you've got a lot of miles behind you. You can go out to the edge of what's possible, hold nothing back, face down your demons and then head back. And the ride home is the pursuit of relief, the quest from pain, the escape of all that dogs you on the bike.

Distance alone is a trial. Distance cominbed with cold, rain or wind can truly test your mental grit. And for that reason alone you should go out on your bike and chase those limits.

Along the Dirty Bismarck

You can find suffering on the bike, and if you can deal with the suffering you can find a state of mind that will help you to get through all kinds of adversity. When I really started pushing what I believed was possible on the bike back in the late 90s I found my mind was better suited to deal with challenging rock climbs. I recognized that if I could ride 40-50 miles on the bike and suffer through the discomfort that activity provided then I could probably wrassle an 80 foot finger crack into submission with much less effort and mental strain. And I was right.

Somewhere in the Kentucky River Valley

Of course trying to forge a resistance to adversity on the bike is a cheat. Right? Because the bike supports you well beyond the limits of your own flesh and bone frame. Steve Johnson (pro cyclist) said:

"Cycling is unique. No other sport lets you go like that - where there's only the bike left to hold you up. If you ran as hard, you'd fall over. Your legs wouldn't support you."

She met the man with the hammer

But physical trials aside I have my own personal demons I fight. Sometimes the long ride is the escape from the demons, sometimes the ride is the battle, and other times I find demons along the way. But on the far side of a long, hard ride you find yourself a bit stronger of mind and leg and it just feels good.

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