We seek each other out, and before you know it theres’s a gang. The composition isn’t always the same, cast members rotate and come and go, but drawn together by similar ability on the bike, schedules that overlap, a shared outlook, we head out on to the road as a tight knit mini-peloton. Throughout the year we take it in turns to lead the charge, do the lions share at the front, to be first cresting each hill.
The rouleurs drive the pace on the flat, the climbers dart from their slipstream to contest the KOM points competition. The fittest, or just the canniest, will be riding strong to the very end, towing the weary the remaining miles back into town. Each contribution is individual, but at the heart of it is the fact we, more or less, balancing differentials going upwards or going fast, are on the same level.
But every year, about this time as autumn turns to winter, I find myself increasingly out of sync with the group. I let myself get lazy, cycling is put on the back burner, pushed lower down the pecking order. Until the wheels of fitness finally become out of true – I get dropped from the group. Every ride I slip further down the line, with every hill I fall further behind. They wait with diminishing patience. I claw and fight to keep up until my will breaks and I resort to my own diminished pace. It shouldn’t take me by surprise, it happens every year.
Eventually I avoid the group, to spare their patience, and to spare me the suffering. The only solution is to head out alone, to start rebuilding the foundations of fitness. When the air turns cold I want to suck it in at a regular pace, to ride smoothly up the inclines, steadily along the flat – when you’re riding alone speed is irrelevant.
Some people are able to ride the same year round, competing for every town sign or Strava segment in January as if it were July, but I’m not one of them. Staleness creeps up quickly, boredom and tiredness seem to set in just when least welcome. This has nothing to do with any particular training philosophies – of intensity versus endurance, or buying into the myth of long steady miles – just the knowledge (from experience) that I need to ride differently at different times each year.
Winter training is something of an endurance event all of its own, with at least a vague pacing strategy worked out and loosely adhered to. Like any time trial, filled with energy and enthusiasm, it’s easy to set off too quickly. Then by midway you begin to feel its effects and your morale drops, take the foot off the gas. But get it right and you can build steadily and carefully, aiming to emerge from winter fitter, faster and your eagerness for competition growing with every ride.
Finally one Sunday morning comes around when you feel ready to rejoin the company of the fast moving group. It’s time to test yourself against your peers, to gauge your winters progress. Riding back at the front of the line, doing your turns hands resting easily on the hoods, pulling the chain of riders along. Already recovered from the effort, you wait patiently for the stragglers at the top of each hill. You shoot the breeze, memories of suffering at the back those months ago long forgotten – back at home, back in the group.