I dropped into a race last weekend. I wasn’t there to compete or write stories, I was there to take advantage of the hot chip trailer in the car park and to catch up with friends. (Both were great.)
During the post-winter chatter there was a frequently recurring theme: the patient comeback from illness, injury or other reasons for time off two wheels. Some people phrased this conversation in the positive; infectiously happy to be out on the bike in the warm spring sun.
Others, despite being back on the bike in the warm spring sun, recounted crashes, horror stories and bled frustration. Cyclists are funny like that. They so badly want to ride faster all the time, a trajectory that is physiologically impossible, that they become upset when something gets in their way.
Standing there equipped with my own string of stories, I jumped on my bike and thought about the things that help with regaining the groove again after a good length break, rather than the things that hold people back.
Time, a training plan, and riding three hours for a serve of hot chips certainly help. Some other, less obvious, highlights are below.
1. Quit the negatives
It’s important to be honest with how you’re feeling, but you don’t need to share the negatives with everyone you see. Try swapping out some of the “can’ts” with “cans” and see how the way you feel changes as a result of the different conversations this generates.
So, you can’t climb (or descend) that hill very fast at the moment? You can build up to it again. And you can certainly have fun trying. You can ride with people who’ll wait at the top. Or, heaven forbid, you can ride somewhere else.
2. Ride with people who make you feel good
If your form isn’t where you left it at the end of last summer, avoid riding with people that have a go fast or go home mentality. Ride with people whose pace and attitude match your own right now. Riding’s supposed to be fun, right?
3. Ditch the data
If you’re a Strava addict, or are most motivated when chasing a new personal record on a favourite road or trail, stop teasing yourself with numbers and get back to riding on feel. Fitness will come. Knowing your body and its limits right now is more important than creating new PBs.
4. Seek routes that are playful and fun
When you’re feeling good, it’s really satisfying riding routes that require strength, endurance and technique. When you don’t have those things at your disposal, seek out playful trails or entertaining roads that encourage your muscles, skills and fitness to come back as a by-product of having a great time.
5. Avoid putting the pressure on
While races and hard rides with mates are motivating when you’re at your peak, they can be a stark reminder of how far you have to go. Test yourself in lower pressure situations before you’re hanging off the back of a group, wishing you’d given it another month.
6. Learn to say no
You might not have the strength for riding most days of the week just yet. Or, with muscle waste and your confidence on the fritz, you might not be ready to take that jump line, hit that technical descent or challenge yourself with back to back hill repeats.
Listen to your instincts and keep an eye on your energy levels. Right now is about feeling comfortable on the bike again. Learn to say no if something feels like a little too much. Push the red zone when you’re ready, the opportunity will still be there.
7. Don’t be in such a rush
It took you time to gain your fitness before, it took you time to lose it, and it’ll take you time to get it back. Cycling is full of these ups and downs. Unless you’re on a pro contract, allow yourself the luxury of time. And while you’re at it, enjoy the different experiences you have on the bike while you rebuild.
8. Celebrate the wins
As you start to feel better on the bike again, make sure to celebrate small victories. Climbing without feeling like you’re going to die. The moment your bike feels light again. Wearing out your bibs and needing to order a new pair. Feeling happily and healthily smashed.
Changes in ability and form are part and parcel of riding bikes. If getting your fitness back was as simple as dropping into the lost and found office, there’d be a date you could mark on the calendar that magically revealed when you’d feel like your old self again.
Instead, be realistic, apply some common sense, and take proactive steps to keep the journey fun. Besides, any time on the bike is better than more time on the couch.