Cyclocross Magazine columnist Paul Warloski profiles his return to cyclocross after a near-devastating injury. Follow Paul as he takes us along for a ride of trials and tribulations of a cyclocrosser with a refreshed perspective. If you missed it, check out Paul’s last column, Finding Perspective.
Flow – Or Learning Not to Think
by Paul Warloski
I dragged my friend Angie up to a Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike (WEMS) race in Green Bay in early June. As part of my new training focus for ’cross, I’m riding a lot more on the mountain bike to work on my technical skills.
Riding for three hours seemed like a great way to practice. I had no intention to be aggressive and serious about racing. I didn’t pre-ride the course, I didn’t even warm up.
The Suamico course was a lot of fun: a nice balance of singletrack and fire roads. When the race started LeMans-style, I leisurely jogged up to the bike.
Once on the bike, though, the competitive instincts kicked in, and I jammed into a big gear and passed as many people as I could.
Since I wasn’t really racing, I wasn’t very aggressive in getting around a racer who was pretty slow in the singletrack. So I just pedaled, getting used to the trail.
The weather, which had already been November-cold for May, turned worse, spitting rain. It felt like ’cross weather, and I was happy!
I passed a lot of people, and was only passed by one guy, an elite racer. I plowed through the middle of the mud puddles because that was the most fun. The whole day, despite the cold and my increasingly frozen feet, was very high on the WFQ (Warloski Fun Quotient)!
I really concentrated in the single-track, especially in the corners. I thought about minimizing braking, on carving through a corner with my outside foot pushing down hard, on looking ahead, not down.
The hours spent at Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike park this winter seemed to pay off. I felt more comfortable in the technical stuff than ever.
By the third and last lap, I think I was beginning to see things that weren’t really there. The course was a little twisty as it turned back on itself. I swear there was a rider just ahead of me. So I rode a little harder, trying to trick myself into not thinking as much through the corners.
I never caught him. At the finish, I saw a guy in the same kit, but he told me he finished several minutes ago. I’ve been told that people doing 24-hour and 12-hour races start to “see” things in the woods. If I had done the six-hour, I might have been seeing the pink elephants.
After the race, Angie and I talked about the race. At one point, she said she loved just being able to not think at all during the race, just ride.
Huh? Not think? I was analyzing every corner, trying to figure out how to ride it. I asked her about that. She told me she just rides with a clear mind.
Angie’s ride sounds zen-ish, emptying your mind, purposefully not thinking. I’ve practiced zen before, mostly with little success. I have, to put it mildly, a lot of energy, and I’ve never had much success sitting still, much less quieting my brain.
I want to learn to be mind-less on the bike, enjoying and living in the moment, losing the expectations. (I promise I’m not going to get all new-agey, Dr. Phil on you.) I want to learn to just have fun while racing as hard as I can.
At the yoga class I take to be more flexible, I’m focusing more on breathing instead of the physical movement.
I’m learning to rewire my brain to accept the results that come, rather than focus on getting results.
Part of my goal this year is to just ride my bike and be more like Angie, not think when I corner or ride through the technical stuff. Some of that is being more comfortable, of course, as I get technically better on the mountain bike with practice.
I want to be more mindful — or maybe it’s mindlessness — as I ride. Or maybe it’s a different sense of purpose: changing how I think about what I do.
And keeping positive is a lot easier when I’m rested. I recently did a weekly group ride on Thursdays called the “Beat Down.” I’ve been riding a lot, lifting heavy three days a week to build my strength back up, plus teaching squirrel-y seventh graders at the end of the school year. I’ve been tired, just on the good edge of over-training.
Pre-crash, I was always at the front of the Beat Down. On the first ride of the season, I didn’t last half of it in the front group, and I struggled to get back to my car in one piece. And again the next week, I took the short cut home after getting dropped because my legs were so thick.
I allowed myself a moment or two of self-pity for what had been, then changed how I was thinking: I kept telling myself this was one of those survival, “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger” kind of rides. I pictured how much stronger I was getting with all the hard training.
I was so tired after the ride, I couldn’t think. I got lost driving home. I suppose that is one way to enter mindlessness: ride yourself into the ground.
And I know my teammates and friends will tell me I have no problem being mindless; I just want it to happen more on the bike while I’m racing.
So the mindlessness is a goal for the year. Learn to just pedal the bike in that moment while riding as fast as I can.
At least I’m not sitting, trying to calm my mind, staring at a wall.
Thanks for reading.
Paul Warloski races cyclocross for the My Wife Inc cyclocross team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is 47 and a middle school English teacher. He was nearly killed in a 2009 crash when a large pick up truck broadsided him on a training ride. He maintains an irregular blog at http://warloski.blogspot.com.