Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ride Your Own Ride

I did a shorter brevet the other weekend, 100k, and had a fun time. My friend John Climaldi hooked up with me for the first part of the ride, and it was good to have the company. We had a fun conversation going, but after about 25 miles or so, John pulled ahead to ride with some other folks he knew. He ended up finishing half an hour or so before I did.

It was surprising that we stayed together for as long as we did, when it gets down to it. John was on a Redline 925 fixie, and I was on my Tour Easy. Also, I had ridden 25 miles to get to the ride start, so I'd done 50 miles by the time we split up. None of this is to make excuses for "getting beat"; it just seems inconceivable that our speed profiles would overlap at all, given our radically different equipment. I bring it up because it brought home for me another facet of one of the classic cycling maxims: "Ride your own ride."

Ride your own ride. On recreational rides, on brevets, and in races. I have had more fun and more success when I've approached rides firmly grounded in the reality of my own limitations.

First of all, the wisdom of this approach should be self-evident for recreational rides. Especially when you have two riders of differing capabilities or who are on different platforms, as John and I were. It is a recipe for madness to try to fit the square peg of the quick descending, (ostensibly) slower climbing performance profile of a 'bent into the round hole of a roadbike paceline. You'll go crazy, blowing up your legs on the climbs and riding your brakes on the roll-outs.

But this holds, even for races?

Yep. I contend that it does. In its most basic sense, knowing your capabilities and staying within them is the key to finishing strong. Push yourself, by all means, and don't lose the guy in front of you's wheel if you can help it. But if you blow up, you'll spend the whole rest of the race limping, and that speed you got while you were burning through your matchbook won't make up for the miles of misery in the final calculus.

But maybe on a more profound level, I realized something very important about "riding my own ride" this last racing season. And that is, I have two twin goals in racing that kind of contradict each other. One is to win. The other is to use that will to win, combine it with excellent competition, and use that motivation to see just what I am capable of. To leave every last drop of blood, sweat, and tears on the course. These goals contradict each other because, if I just wanted to win, I wouldn't seek out strong competition -- I'd just race against patsies all the time. But if I don't really care about winning, then I lose some of the fuel that I need to get as much out of myself as possible. So it's kind of funny to try to hold those two opposing ideas at the same time, but I find that, ultimately, if I pushed myself beyond what I thought I could do, it was a good race wherever I ended up placing.

So that's the thing about riding your own ride -- it changes how you physically tackle the ride, but it also changes the yardstick by which you are measured on the ride. If your aim when you race (or ride a brevet, or whatever) is something internal like seeing just what you are personally capable of, then it only makes sense to ride in such a way that you are intimately in tune with your capabilities.

Here's an example. Suppose you have a buddy that is just a little bit faster than you are. You race all the time, just out on the local roads, and he always seems to nip you in the end. You resolve that this year, you are going to beat him, so you go out and train and train and train. And you go out on a ride together, and your usual friendly competition emerges. He gets the drop on you, but this time you hang tough and you don't lose his wheel. You're just about to pull around him and see if you can haul up next to (and hopefully past) this guy when he gets a flat. So of course you "beat" him easily. But is the monkey really off your back? Have you actually measured anything other than your ability to beat a guy with zero psi in his rear tire? In order to actually be satisfying, to be meaningful, your victory has to be the result of something internal to yourself, not some external factor.

Conversely, in one of the races that I've ridden that I am most proud of, I came in fourth. It was the 2005 edition of Wasco, where I hit a rock and got a pinch flat a few miles into a 75 mile road race. It would have been very easy to just bag it right there, but I employed a certain amount of quick thinking, a dash of resourcefulness, and a pretty good dose of mental toughness to get back into it. The folks that I felt were my chief competition got a ten or twelve minute head start on me, and I didn't think I had a chance against that kind of handicap, but I got back on the bike anyway. I am proud that I managed to claw my way back onto the podium, but I am even more proud that I didn't fold when I was dealt a potentially crippling blow.

Finally, I would just like to say that, by these standards, the folks who finished in the last hour of the Furnace Creek 508 are superheroes. Those are the folks who kept pedaling not just through Saturday night, but all of Sunday night, who soaked up every bit of hot and cold that the desert could throw at them, who lived with all of the accumulating pain for every moment that I did plus another 12 hours, who subsisted on that godawful Perpetuem or whatever for another 12 hours, who reached the last time station outside of Amboy after the official left and went home, and who still had 60 miles and a major climb left, and who had to be wondering if they would push their bodies over the red line only to come up a minute short of an official finish -- those people who did all that and still didn't throw in the towel, those people are f***ing badasses.

Here they are:
Emily "Archaeopteryx" O'Brien (Women's Fixed Gear, 47:23:23)
Sandy "Blandy Dragons" Mohr-Bader, Blake "Blandy Dragons" Bader (MixedTandem, 47:22:02)
Steve "Giant Water Bug" Gray (Men's Solo, 47:55:50)
Mike "Red Wolf" DeNoma (Men's Solo, 47:55:57)

And of course, Patty-Jo Struve, who finished RAO in 47:40 this year also belongs on the list.