Cycling hell or training nirvana?

© Michael Lokner

“Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, half in love with oblivion” – Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places.

Frost and nerves distort and inflate the expressions of the riders bombing through Richmond Park. Gritting teeth like firemen plunging into collapsing buildings; it’s hard to decide whether that mask of exertion is a physical reaction to the burning muscles or whether it’s an expression of the madness that drove them out of bed at unsociable hours and into the hours of fire. Coffee and Sunday morning radio – are you kidding?

It won’t do to think long about it right now. Training, I’m told, is good for you, like vitamins or having savings. Make it part of a routine, don’t think about it. Just do it, as a shoemaker once said.

When I signed up to a triathlon, I unwittingly made a few assumptions. One was that the main obstacle to being good in anything was the time you were or weren’t able to spend in becoming competitive. Climbing the most aggressive hill the park has to offer for the third time in a morning, that misguided thought is blown away in the dust of a pack of passing cyclists, dressed in uniform and peaceful as they glide by like some ethereal dragon. Confidence shattered, the hill swings and spirals upwards.

Is training not a test of time, but instead a test of sanity? Years in the saddle riding towards a destination teach very simple lessons about perseverance and finding pleasure in the experience. Months of going round in circles seems to be unpicking that, wearing away at the gears. Wasn’t it Einstein who said something about insanity being repetition of the same activity with the expectation of different results? And here was a smart man that loved cycling and gave geniuses for years to come reason to think cycling had something to do with geniuses. Maybe it does, but someone should check whether our physicist squeezed into lycras and stuffed that explosion of hair beneath a helmet to try and beat his time before breakfast.

More probable, as with any number of technical-minded so-and-so’s, it was the elegance and simplicity of the bicycle that were the key to charming the old brainbox. Even as I crank out the fourth set of two-hour circuits in a week, the equations that determine work, power and speed don’t lose their maddening consistency.

Advanced robotics

Another German, Ralf Hutter of the influential and enigmatic band Kraftwerk, was asked by the press about his inspiration, he pointed to his bicycle. The fusion between man and machine, an axiom that sat at the heart of much of the music he made, was a virtue that, in Hutter’s view, cycling exhibited uber alles. Just as critics of his music have objected to its coldness and lack of emotional depth, the interchange between flesh and steel that is cycling creates uncomfortable questions about both bicycle and rider.

Cycle training is a question of developing a more effective interaction between you and your bike. Doesn’t sound like fun to me. If you imagine a race and the pre-emptive training for it as one long ride up a mountain, you, the rider are supposed to get better as the course gets harder, before the final push at the end. In that journey, the mind isn’t that useful beyond giving out just enough impulse to get a zombie out of bed and into some tights.

Another Sunday and I find myself doing just that. Today I will be looking for different results by repeating the same thing. Yet, I have found resolve in understanding that to train for something I have to become a mechanism of my will. A machine may have a breaking point, but without a mind it doesn’t have any concept of it. I need to become fearless. I need to make sure I never read Stephen R Covey.

Japanese author Haruki Marukami’s book What I talk about when I talk about running, meanwhile, is his attempt to explain and perhaps understand what running is to him. He highlights the difference between someone who runs and a runner. Pain, he argues, is part of the identity of the runner – you can’t run without pain and you wouldn’t want to. Discipline is required. Murakami describes running as if it were an out of body experience where the thoughts and the doubt and the pain that occur in his limbs happen somewhere else and can be engaged with or ignored at his choosing.

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky,” he writes. “Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.”

Like running, cycling tells us something about ourselves. Spiritual enlightenment all over the place, it’s a job to hang on to the handlebars and measure my cadence at the same time. Still, thoughts about thoughts are better than thoughts about going up this hill. Damn it.

Much of what he knew he learned from cycling

Having spent weeks thinking that the only way to put up with training is to lose my mind, I’ve started to ask what it means to train. Looking back on Murakami’s vaguely buddhist interpretation of the physical experience of running a marathon and the complete mind-numbing exhaustion that’s been creeping up on me after each ride, I wonder if being a successful athlete isn’t about first removing all sense of self and embarking on some quasi-meditative spirit quest. If that’s true it’s a very odd quest, strewn with energy bars, padded shorts and plenty of endless chatting about the arrival or otherwise of ‘the bonk’…not so odd after all.

No, it’s different. Becoming a triathlete or a sportif rider or whatever is more of an exercise in belief. Sport teaches us about the mental nothingness of a purely physical experience, but it also shows us how we can turn our ambitions into reality. OK, lots of sport is about sweaty folk putting some invasive balls into each others’ goals, but it’s not as easy to imagine what psychological instinct that refers to. Especially if you’ve seen the Williams’ sisters play tennis.

So, I write a mantra: I am a triathlete, it is what I do. On the next weekend ride it’s on my lips as I arrive at the cusp of a rise. During my next swim, it echoes with every rhythmic crawl stroke.

I’m climbing the mountain, removing that voice of consciousness, building a triathlete with every kilometre covered. I have the petrol of self belief and clarity of purpose. A girl at the office asks me what I’m up to this weekend; ‘training’ I say. She says I should just say exercise and stop trying to sound like a Star Trek captain.

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