Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
November is the flattest, dullest month to be a road rider in the UK. It is cold, but not yet cold enough that it feels brave going out. It is wet and windy. The days are short, the lovely warm evenings no more than a memory. And as the summer recedes, the perspective of time helps you realise that what felt like an achievement in August was in reality only a slightly-less-embarrassing-than-usual kick back against the long slow slide to the grave.
Personally I struggle with the lack of targets to motivate me at this time of year. Next season is far away. Once upon a time I’d have been hard at work doing the winter miles. But at least a decade ago I realised that winter miles only count after Christmas. And anyway, by the time you’ve done 25 winters of gradually turning your brake blocks into black goo, you’ve got as much aimless riding stored up in your legs as you ever will. Honestly, I’m finished with winter training from a performance point of view.
Of course, I still diligently go out to trundle around the place, only now it’s out of habit and nameless dread. So I’m always looking for ways to make a winter ride more interesting.
For instance, on a drab waste of an afternoon with my friend Bernard last week, I tried to liven things up.
“To make this less boring, how about we do 40 minutes of race pace through-and-off?” I said. “Properly on the rivet.”
“Interesting,” said Barnard. “Here’s a counter-offer –to make this less boring, how about we go the Rat café and have a nice slice of Bakewell tart?”
(He calls it the Rat café because once, some years ago, when he picked up his helmet to leave a rat jumped out of it and ran away. Every time he’s been there since he reminds the owner about this incident and gets given a free cake to shut the hell up. I do not get free cake, so find the place less attractive, despite the rats.)
We don’t often agree when it comes to adding a bit of interest. We’ve tried looking for new routes – but in November neither of us wants to do especially long rides, and round here by the time you’ve ruled out the busier roads and avoided the Saffron Walden one-way-system (where people with horns and forked tails are often seen on fact-finding trips) there’s not an infinity of available road.
We’ve reversed the direction of a route – what we find every time is that there was a good reason for doing it the way we normally do, like a right-turn junction that takes ten minutes to get out of, or a pothole round a blind bend that you wallop every single time as if it’s something you’ll approvingly make a note of later in your training log. (“Pothole impact – 9/10, puncture and 3 broken spokes. New Pothole Best!”)
We’ve tried doing it slower – but then you feel obliged to go further, and with grim November inevitability, it starts sleeting at the very moment you’d have arrived home from a shorter, faster ride.
When it comes down to it, my go-to is always to put in some intervals, or a race-pace effort. It makes it feel like a proper day out, it breaks up the big blocks of time, and if Bernard is with me, the way the noise of him sitting on my wheel moaning fades away into silence tells me I’ve still got it. It just makes everything more entertaining. I do the same thing on a turbo trainer, I even used to attack in races out of sheer boredom.
And just as unvaryingly, Bernard’s go to for a bit of added something is a Bakewell tart. It’s so very hard to know who’s right.
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