Solitude in the city is never quite what it seems. The next person is only a thin concrete wall away, a busy road within earshot, a 24 hour supermarket open for business close by. But on a bike you can escape and leave it behind, close the front door and pedal yourself into the middle of nowhere.
You, an empty road, horses in a field, and the wind filling your ears.
My winter training has differed in one significant way from previous years – it’s been undertaken almost entirely alone. I have a bible (written by Joe Friel) and it decrees that riding alone is the most effective way to train. But as I hope has been made abundantly clear on this blog, effectiveness is not a singular aim I attempt to achieve in training. Yet unlike the core strength exercises and the pedalling drills to hone technique, I’ve actually stuck to this commandment. I’ve clocked up hours and miles alone – yet it’s rarely felt lonely.
The advantages of the solo ride are many. You can start when you want, and never be late. Can go as far and as fast as you want. Go where you want, up as few hills, in as many circles, backtrack, take shortcuts. Stop for a pee when called for (and there’s a convenient amount of shrubbery at hand). Linger to take a photo. Get lost and have no one to blame but yourself, and no one blaming yourself but yourself. Punctures might need mending, but they’re never someone else’s. When it rains you can seek shelter, or just stay in bed. No one tells you to MTFU. Bad days and tired legs can remain your own secret.
For a motivated rider there are few disadvantages. But if you want to race then the solitude can not last – eventually you will have to seek out ‘competition’.
“Hell is the rhythm of others” wrote Paul Fournel. After several weeks of careful training, long solo rides taking on headwinds single-handed, the sensations of form begin to emerge. An optimism starts to take hold, a belief in your own immortal speed. Until the illusion crumbles the moment you attempt to hold the wheels of a fast moving group. Suddenly gradients aren’t spun up in a light gear, bum planted snugly on the saddle – it’s nose to the bar tape, digging in, desperately stamping on the pedals to stay in contact. These are totally different sensations, and it’s like being shaken awake from a cosy winter’s slumber.
To set yourself against a competitive group is inevitable as the season draws closer and, hopefully, after the initial jolt the enthusiasm for competition is relearned. The reward for grovelling on the wheels of others will be those delicious opportunities of returning the favour, to be the enthusiastic host to a light lunch of suffering.
But more than the competition, what the solo rider misses most is the conversation. A group of cyclists is united not just by the action of pedalling but by the common interest in it. Somehow the specifics are always forgotten, but good conversation is the perfect background to a good ride. We talk about everything and nothing, and even, at times when the wind is strong, much of it is barely understood. But best of all, conversation is the perfect modulator of pace; it’s impossible to hold down an interesting discussion when the effort is too vigorous.
So cherish the silence on the long solo rides of winter. But beware joining a group riding in silence – it’s unlikely to allow you the breath to enjoy the scenery.