Roadies love numbers, right? Average power, FTP (opens in new tab) watts, QOM time to beat on that-there climb out of Kent. Well, I’m afraid to say that this Christmas/New Year period I have near abandoned the watt-o-meter, and my distance numbers have been laughable for a road riding tech editor*. Not because I’ve not been riding, but because I’ve been cheating on the road bike, big time. Even when it’s wet and mushy (thanks for the ongoing earworm, Cardi B).
Why? Well, at the moment, predominantly because ‘weather’. Temperatures haven’t been far above 2ºC for what feels like weeks, and when it’s not foggy the sky is sheeting down dumps of precipitation ready and waiting to transform itself into a tarmac ice-rink overnight. It's likely that I'm being paranoid, but where I live it's impossible to get out without going up and I’d rather be paranoid than an extra statistic amid the A&E count.
Why else? Typically, if it's not kit testing, then road riding for me comes under the umbrella of ‘training’; the carrots on sticks for 2020 were the Nationals with character; Lincoln, the Cicle Classic. A year of cancellations later and my TSS score (opens in new tab) has been such that if my future competitor’s 20-hour-training-week Instagram/Facebook posts are anything to go by I’d likely be dropped before the first hairpin anyway.
Bad weather, no racing (opens in new tab): those are negative reasons so you’d think I’d be feeling a bit sorry for myself. But honestly, I’m really not; I feel a little bit free if anything. There’s a third reason: and it’s just because it’s been so much damn fun.
A lot of the joy I take from cycling comes from nailing something new. Previously, that might have been having the guts to put in the 11/10 effort required to break from the bunch, finally winning a sprint, making that solo breakaway stick with a little (lot of) help from my teammates. With all those opportunities for firsts swept away, all I have left to focus on is power targets and RPM. Numbers. And I’m afraid without the opportunity to put them to good use I’m past being inspired by the sheer self-congratulatory achievement of a new FTP.
More inspiring firsts need to be sought – and what better place to find them than a whole new playground?
Firsts like staying planted on that rocky, rooty climb, managing that roller for the first time without having to dab a foot, keeping the tyres rubber side down whilst the back wheel squirms across a clay pit. Off-of-the-road terrain varies so greatly that you only have to travel from one ridge to the other to find an almost entirely different jungle gym to play with without being more than 10km from home. All of this renders a wealth of opportunity to discover new ‘firsts’ – if often preceded by hilarious failures like the time I landed arse side down, in front of two elderly ladies, on an off-camber grassy descent into the aptly named Happy Valley.
There’s even more opportunity for firsts when you’re riding a largely inappropriate bike propped up by a skill level akin to a trainee clown at the first unicycle lesson. And in the UK, there is a lot of terrain that a gravel bike (opens in new tab) is frankly completely inappropriate for (opens in new tab). That's half the fun, though.
The off-road miles through December have severely messed with my annual 2020 mileage target. The numbers are down, badly. But my concern level is hovering somewhere between 'should I start ironing socks' (no) and 'have I made too many pigs in blankets' (also no), eg on the very low priority end of the scale.
An alternative method of staying fit during the dearth of outdoor racing could have been getting the indoor bug, and I’ll not write it off, pending what 2021 has to offer us. For now I’ve completed only two Zwift (opens in new tab) races: one was a bunch race that yielded a 20-minute power best, the other a time trial where I struggled to pedal continuously for more than 2 minutes before taking 30-seconds “why am I doing this??” breaks only to discover the power meter was warped and I was effectively completing 10 x 2 minute blocks of sheer desperation. Fair to say the experience put me off (especially with the results of my HIIT session printed among the pages of Cycling Weekly), but I can see that there’s a lot of potential for future motivation there and I've seen this discipline provide a lot of joy for friends.
The current detraction from indoor racing, and the attraction of getting off-road, is deeper than tech exasperation, however: only one of the above takes place outside and inhabits enough brain space alone to render numbers entirely irrelevant**. Varying terrain means that average speed signifies the sum total of zero and I still don't know or care what 'grit' and 'flow' dictate. And in a year where there have been enough bad, sad numbers on the News at Ten to put us off forever, that’s no sacrifice.
(* Don't worry, I'll be back to normal in time to test all the new tech for 2021...)
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