If there is something that professional cyclists and fighters have in common, it’s that they must face themselves every time that they compete. The fighter is fighting against an opponent who is looking for weaknesses and blind spots. The opponent has carefully studied the weaknesses and wants to surprise the fighter with something different and unknown. This means that the fighter is ultimately fighting against their own weaknesses.
But cycling is different because it is a team sport. For example, a professional race such as Le tour de France is one of the hardest races in professional cycling. Extending 2,162 miles all over the country, the objective for each cyclist is to get the best cumulative time per stage in order to win the yellow jersey. But they can’t do it alone. They need to rely on their team, the peloton, their strategy director and luck. Now, assuming all of the other teams have the same advantages and that everyone is drug-free, winning becomes a product of the will. It becomes an inward effort to achieve perfection, and that is, at last, a battle against yourself.
When it comes to amateur cycling, just the idea of doing a race like “Le tour de France” becomes dreamlike. It is the equivalent of trying to reach the NBA finals while being a street baller. So, what do the nonprofessionals do when it comes to cycling? We set the bar low and strive for a century ride, a 100-mile ride with the goal of surviving. Many amateur riders feel a sense of pride when they finish it. An ultimate milestone for the everyday person, but a walk in the park for the professional. Nevertheless, few people can be professional cyclists for many different reasons, but so many individuals can do 100 miles on a bicycle. And when it’s accomplished, it comes as a shock. Your initial mental limitation has been broken with a hammer. At least that’s how I felt on my first century ride.
The Day of the Ride
It was six in the morning and cold. The Central Coast of California was covered with fog and I felt sick. The night before, I slept for a couple of hours and my stomach was bothering me. The strain of thoughts exploding in my head telling me to go back to bed weren’t easy to ignore. Every reason that my brain was proposing to myself as to why it is a bad idea to go out was brilliantly presented and I felt like a madman for ignoring them. But I got up, put on my shorts, my shirt, my helmet and my glasses, grabbed my water bottles and my PB&Js and finally hopped on my 1980s Univega Bicycle.
The Century Ride
I rode north toward Big Sur, California on Highway 1. The road was full of hills and there was wind coming from the west. I felt great for the first 30 miles, mainly because I was excited about the end goal. But my legs started failing around mile 35. Getting cramps in my thighs, I had to pull over for five minutes. I was in extreme pain and started thinking about going back, so I stretched a little, had something to drink and got back on deciding to take it real slow and concentrate on riding my bike instead of finishing the century ride.
I took it one pedal at a time, but the cramps kept coming back and my stomach was not having it. So, I pulled over, stretched and cursed at everything around me — f-this, f-this-bike, f-the-ocean — you get the idea. And I repeated the process. After a while, my legs got used to the rigorous climbing of hills and the wind. Shortly after, the sun finally appeared for the first time during the day. So now everything was great — there was sunshine, my legs were feeling better and I had more energy.
This continued for almost 30 miles until I got to mile 74. This time there was no cramping, but my whole body was telling me to knock it off. It was extreme exhaustion followed by headaches. So, I got off the trail to rest for a little, cry, curse at everything around me, eat, drink water, finish crying and then get back on my bike. What followed was pain.
I was on the last 30 miles of the ride and the feeling of wanting to finish overtook my patience. It made the whole process less enjoyable and more miserable. I was living in the future for most of the last leg of my ride, but 10 miles before the finish, I was in the middle of a climb that seemed to have no end. Pulling over to the side, I gave up. I gave it all and my body was shaking. Overwhelmed with finishing, I couldn’t deal with it. For a reason unknown to me, I realized that I had forgot to enjoy the ride and the scenery around me. So, I sat in silence looking at the sky listening to my breathing. There is nothing, I thought. So, getting up and taking it slow, I focused on the pedals and the sky and my breathing. When I finished the century ride, it felt like nothing.
When you finish the century ride, it feels like a dream. Your body is confused from the abuse and your brain is still in shock. There is still the flourishing happiness and feeling of accomplishment. It gets better as time passes and your brain starts processing the event. The story you tell yourself is that of the century ride and how amateur riders see it as an accomplishment. But I decided to look at it differently.
Finishing a century ride means the ability to shut your brain off from the conscious experience and to let “nothingness” guide you. I know it makes no sense, but I genuinely think this is what professionals know how to do best. When you are faced with a setting such as a fight or a long ride, you need to shut your brain down in order to survive it. Otherwise, if you start controlling the variables around you focusing on the future, you degrade your will to win. Instead, when “nothingness” replaces the anxiety and the micro-manager inside of you, you get in “the zone.” Many people have heard of this term, but they know it as a clichéd phrases that is thrown around too often.
I believe that you must go through the pain in order to understand such words. In this case, the mediator for the pain is the century ride. The importance of doing one is not the fact that it is an accomplishment, but the fact that you conquered your brain. You went to war with yourself, and you won the battle of the day. The self-defeating, pleasure-craving and lazy that exists in some of us can be put into perspective when you embark on a century ride. It is important that you do one — if you can.