Pain Disguised as Convenience
"Is that rain?" I hear her call out as I look down at my cycling computer, reading a bone-chilling 1% Celsius. We are 50 kilometers outside of my adopted city, Barcelona; the temperature is dropping, we are approaching our next climb and that stuff falling out of the sky is indeed rain…this is going to be a good day! What follows is one man's take on doing the annual Rapha Festive 500, a challenge to ride 500 kilometers between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.
The thought of doing this challenge did not excite me; the days had been cold, the skies grey and my mood poor! Why is riding 500 kilometers in a week going to matter? Yes, just like most humans, sometimes I suck. Begrudgingly, slipping into my padded lycra overalls, I head out for my first day of riding. My heart rate is high; my butt is engaged in a severe argument with my saddle and all the road ahead of me continues to do is go up! Was this challenge something I should have committed to?
As I crest over the top of the Collserola Mountain Range, I can see the sun peeking through the cloud cover in the next valley; my heart has calmed down and the road has decided to head downward for the first time all day. Within minutes, the entire mood of the day and the challenge ahead has changed: I do want this and if my body has a problem with it, tough!
The first two days were unsurprising, filled with classic base miles. Slow and steady, "wait for the legs to talk to you”, as my former coach used to tell me. The big conversation with my legs came during my first group ride on the third day. As the group approached the first real climb of the day, my legs started to move with purpose, as if they had conceded to defeat and were finally asking me, "is this what you want us to do?” It was what I wanted from my legs, but there are sadly no magic solutions for fitness (disclaimer, anyone with the last name of Armstrong might disagree with this opinion) and with over 100 kilometers still planned for the day, I eased back into a comfortable state of discomfort. My body, mind and soul were no longer arguing with each other. For the first time in several years, a sense of calmness came over me as I turned over the kilometers.
Through the challenge, I was joined on most days by my Catalan training partner, friend and co-worker, Carla. Being young, ambitious and utterly obsessed with cycling, Carla is the living embodiment of David Stoller from Breaking Away. Long conversations filled with laughs as we rolled through Barcelona, talking about unique Catalan traditions, such as the beating of the Caga Tio, made even the most extended rides seem rather short. At some point, our attention on the challenge faded away, leaving us to enjoy the pure simplicity of pedaling a bicycle through some of the most magnificent roads in the world.
What started as a challenge turned into a revelation. I did not expect to gain much, if anything, long lasting from this experience, but I had proven myself wrong. Years filled with the forced acceptance of the end of my racing days had blinded me to new paths ahead. I had filled my days with the lure of convenience, choosing to skip rides more often than deciding to explore new roads. Cycling is a tough sport, but it provides a fantastic lifestyle: the people you meet, the experiences you share and the internal satisfaction that comes from overcoming the challenges ahead of you. I will never race in the Tour de France, but I am more than happy to ride to the top of an Alpine pass, in good fitness, and watch as the pros go by, celebrating their efforts with a nicely chilled glass of champagne! Somewhere within the 500 kilometers the joy and importance of a good challenge came back to me. My relationship with cycling has changed since my younger days, but I can see that my new relationship is going to be pretty amazing.