Tuesday, June 28, 2005

It's A Lifestyle

I don't think people really understand how demanding competitive cycling really is.

When I tell people "I'm a cyclist, a bike racer", they nod and say "oh, cool." After the leg-shaving explanation and the admission that wearing tight, padded pants is actually quite nice, the conversation usually turns to how much time I spend riding.

Surprise and alarm usually follows.

It's impossible for "normal" people to comprehend the amount of work it takes to really be a successful (or at least even aspire to be a successful) bike racer. Even in Cat 5, to really make an impression on the peloton you must spend hours upon hours in the saddle, every day, every week. It isn't until you find yourself near the end of a four hour training ride---in mid-July 95 degree heat---that the true nature of the sport comes crashing down on your head. It's hard. Damn hard. Most people don't stand a chance in a real bike race.

Last week I rode more than 300 miles---about 16 hours of saddle time. That's all I could work into my busy schedule (employment and my relationship being the other time-consumers). They say that it takes at least 20 hours a week to be competitive in a Belgian kermese, which makes me feel pretty insignificant in comparison. The true hard men of cycling, the Belgian amateurs, must devote huge chunks of time to what amounts to a hobby---if they want even a sliver of success. That's a lot to ask of anyone.

But yet they still do it, and to a quantitatively lesser extent, so do I. I climb the same steep hills over and over until my legs explode. The craters I leave behind on the pavement must be huge, but I don't have time to look back. I ride the same circuits around town until my head hurts from boredom, my mind counting down each second until I reach three, four, five hours in the saddle and can finally go home. I chase down cars going 35 or faster just to spend a few seconds in a slipstream that doesn't smell like sweat and chain lube. I suffer, sweat and ache, every day that I can.

And yet I still love it.