Thoughts on getting into cycling
How road cycling changed my life and made me a better person.
Three and a half years ago I was profoundly unfit and overweight. I had trouble with my mood, I slept badly, had very little energy and hardly ever wanted to leave the house.
In 2014, I rode nearly 10,000 kilometres and climbed over 90,000 metres on my bike. I weigh 22 kilos (49 pounds) less than I did in 2011, and more than 30 kilos (66 pounds) less than my peak weight. I spent more than 16 entire days outside on my bike, I made new friends, was productive at work and felt great most of the time.
This is a time of year when many people decide to make a change in their lives to become more healthy, to lose some weight or to eliminate some harmful behaviour. Many of them will be met with skepticism or piss-taking, but I want to encourage you to support people you know who are making a change, no matter how small.
Hopefully some thoughts about how I went from being obese to being fit and healthy will help some of those trying to do the same. My experience is with road cycling, but I think a great deal of it is generalisable to other activities.
The key thing is to find something you enjoy doing. I had tried gym memberships, personal training, running and squash and none of them did it for me. They’re all perfectly good activities, they just weren’t right for me. Find what’s right for you.
You have to start somewhere. Don’t be put off by how silly you might feel on a bike. Just get on it and ride until you’re knackered. For me, in May 2011, that was the 7 km commute home on a Boris bike. This year, I rode 300 km in a single ride for the first time. You can make vast gains if you try.
Don’t be intimidated by better riders. There will always be someone better than you at your chosen discipline. Don’t worry about it; just aim to improve.
Real friends are the ones who will encourage you. You’ll find that road cyclists are in general a very friendly bunch. If they know you’re a beginner, they’ll help you out with all sorts of encouragement and technical advice. They’ll wait for you if you’re slower than them and they’ll cut their ride short if you need to pack it in. Make sure you pay it forward; when you’re more experienced, you’ll be able to help others get into cycling. Don’t forget how invaluable the help you received was.
There are no rules. As with any field of human activity, you’ll find that there are plenty of snobs in road cycling. They’ll tell you that there are special rules for how to dress and how to set up your bike, from the size of the water bottles you are “allowed” to carry, to the size or number of your gears. Ignore them. Wear whatever is comfortable, set your bike up so that you’re comfortable and make adjustments as and when you see fit. If you get into it enough, it’s definitely worth getting a professional bike fitting, but don’t wait for that; just ride your bike.
Some people are tools. Just ignore them and get on with riding the way you want to ride. Maybe they think everything is a race, or make unflattering remarks about your weight, fitness, skills or equipment. Screw them. Just ride your bike.
Being outside in beautiful surroundings is one of the most fulfilling experiences I know of. There’s no feeling like being on a mountain road surrounded by high peaks, snow, snowmelt, wildlife, trees and remote huts. For me, cycling is always fun, but there’s no better cycling than that in the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees. This year I’ll ride in the Dolomites for the first time, and I can’t wait.
To start with, just riding will make you quicker. If, like I was, you are starting from a base of no exercise whatsoever, you’ll find that just riding your bike around will make you quicker. They call these “early gains”. You’ll feel incredible, and you’ll probably feel like you’re near your maximum potential. You’ll be nowhere near it.
The human body — including yours — is capable of way, way more than most people think. Early on in my cycling journey I was passed in Richmond Park by a guy who looked a bit like the late Marco Pantani. The major difference was that he had only one leg. He went past me while breathing through his nose, while I was at my then limit. On this year’s La Marmotte sportive, I was passed by a another guy with one leg. He later went on to complete all three Haute Route sportives — the toughest there are. There’s always more you can do.
Only listen to others who push themselves. Plenty of people will tell you that you are pushing yourself too hard. These people are never people who do endurance sports like cycling. I have only ever once been told that I was pushing myself too hard by someone who knew what they were talking about.
Set clear goals. My long term goal is to be able to complete the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge, which sees a small group riding 100 high mountain passes in 10 days, riding more than 160 kilometres (100 miles) per day. It’s a big challenge, and not one I’m ready for yet. Having stretching goals is important, but you need to be realistic about how long it will take you to be ready; for me it’ll have been three years of training by the time I start the Cent Cols. My medium term goal is to be able to ride the La Marmotte sportive (mass participation timed ride) in less than 9 hours. All my training supports these goals. Your goals will likely be different, so design training to help you achieve them.
Training is a destructive process. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Training is a process whereby you tell the body that it needs some new capabilities. This happens because you cause temporary damage to your muscles during exercise, and the body responds by rebuilding them stronger than they were before. This is called the “training effect”, what some people call “no pain, no gain”. If you’re constantly riding short distances at a very comfortable pace, you’re probably not going to get much better. You need to get comfortable being out of breath and having sore muscles.
Listen to your body. You can’t get better without rest. Train hard and rest when you are tired. For me, the best way is to track your resting heart rate by measuring it every morning when you wake up. I use the Cardiio app on my iPhone, which tracks a £50 heart rate monitor very closely. I take a day off if my resting heart rate is elevated by more than 10 beats per minute. That happens if I am tired or ill.
Take advice with a pinch of salt. There are those — including a very good friend of mine — who insist that you should do all your winter training on a fixed gear bike. People will tell you to ride fasted, or to only ride when you’ve eaten properly. They’ll tell you that high intensity intervals are the way forward, or that to go faster you have to go slower. Work out what works for you. Don’t be stubborn; be prepared to change things when they stop working. Equally, don’t just reject advice because it contradicts what you currently do. You can learn a lot from the experience of others, so be open to their encouragement and help.
Quantify your rides, or don’t. There are people who will tell you that you should ride without a bike computer to collect data about your rides. And there are those (I’m one) who never ride without a heart rate monitor, speed sensor and power meter. There’s no right answer. I enjoy analysing data after a ride — I’m a programmer by trade so I treat training as an extended debugging session for my body — but if you get more out of being free of technology then that’s fine too.
Performance nutrition products are mostly expensive junk. You need to learn to eat on the bike if you’re going to ride long distances. I can now do anything up to four hours of moderate to high intensity effort without food, but more than that and I have to eat. I take real food with me, not gels and “performance” bars. I’ve made my own flapjacks at a fraction of the price of sports nutrition products, or mixed my own energy drinks out of maltodextrin powder, fruit juice and water. I often see inexperienced cyclists downing energy gels by the cartload. I sometimes take a gel with me on very important rides, but I take it only if I absolutely have to, and then only very late on.
You can’t lose weight by exercise alone. For the first 10kg of weight loss, I didn’t really change my diet. The weight fell off and my expectation was that the losses would continue indefinitely. However, I hit a plateau of about 97kg that I couldn’t break through, despite hard training at an average of about 10 hours a week. I experimented with low carb diets, which worked well for me in delivering weight loss, but I found it almost impossible to perform on the bike without the carbs. A no-win situation. The solution was working with a coach to define a training programme and diet that was personalised to my body. As a result I’ve now lost a further 10kgs and have ambitious targets to lose more. At the same time, I’ve added power, which is hard to do. Having the help of a professional coach was absolutely invaluable.
Being fat and unfit is a choice. Every piece of food you put in your mouth is your choice. If you’re eating more than you burn, you’ll put weight on. If you eat less than you burn, you’ll lose weight. It’s really as simple as that. You haven’t got big bones. Inside every fat person is a healthy person waiting to be revealed. I know from long experience that if you’re obese, you’ll seize on any excuse or rationale to explain it, any excuse other than that you eat too much and don’t do enough exercise. I know this sounds harsh, but it was absolutely true of me. I’d have told you to fuck off and gone off in a sulk if you’d told me this four years ago, but it doesn’t make it any the less true.
No food tastes better than recovery food. Some of most delicious food I’ve ever eaten has been the food I’ve eaten directly after a big effort. Tuna on toast tastes better than almost anything in the world if you’ve just done a really hard ride. Dry chicken and plain pasta tastes like three star Michelin fare if you’ve just crossed some huge cols in the Pyrenees.
There is no correct form of cycling. There are dozens of disciplines in cycling, and you will be able to find people who will tell you that their chosen favourite is the one true form. That’s nonsense. If you like doing time trials, do them. Or if you like doing long, hilly sportives like I do, then do them. Find something you like, set clear goals, and enjoy yourself. It’s really that simple.
Sportives are great fun. Mass participation timed rides are great fun if you ask me. People take the piss out of them because sometimes people refer to sportives as races when they are not. People take the piss out of them because sometimes people use bizarre equipment or have nasty crashes. People take the piss out of them because you have to pay to ride on roads that are ordinarily free to ride (they ignore the convenience factors of having feed stations and support vehicles, and especially the extra fun of riding on closed roads). None of this matters. It’s all about having fun. If you ride in a sportive and enjoy it, great. If you don’t enjoy it, try some other style of riding. But don’t do down other people’s effort or enthusiasms. Just let them get on with it or, ideally, encourage them.
Learn how to maintain your bike. When I started riding I had no idea how to fix a puncture, or that you need to lubricate your chain regularly, never mind how to adjust a derailleur or build a bike from scratch. There are certain things that you need to be able to do to keep your bike in working order, like cleaning it, replacing brake pads, repairing punctures and reindexing your gears. All of these are really easy and there are loads of helpful instructional videos on YouTube to help you out. It’ll save you a fortune in bike shop charges.
Descending is awesome fun. It takes confidence, experience and a certain fearlessness to descend mountains on a bike well. If you can just let the road flow up to meet you, and find a rhythm that is in sympathy with it, you will feel as exhilarated as it’s possible to be. Having the confidence to let the bike run and only to brake occasionally for corners takes practice and time, but when you plummet down a winding descent like I did with a friend right on my wheel on the Col de Peyresourde into Bagnères-de-Luchon at over 75km/h, you’ll never want to do anything else.
Feeling tired after a ride is incredibly satisfying. After riding the Raid Pyrenees, which crosses the eponymous mountains from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, I felt tireder than I ever have before. But I’ve also never felt more fulfilled and only very rarely as happy. Physical tiredness is a story we write on our own bodies.
Selfies are totally fine. If you’ve just done an epic ride with friends, why wouldn’t you want a photo to memorialise the occasion?
Talking about what you do can inspire others. I was astonished to find people thanking me for tweeting about my journey as a cyclist. I assumed that I was just boring the shit out of people talking about it (I probaby do do that too). Several people have told me that they have got into regular exercise habits as a result of reading about my cycling. It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to pay back some of the encouragement I’ve received, so make sure you pass on your experiences; you never know who might be given the push they need as a result.
Ultimately, for me, cycling is about having fun. You’ll hear loads about suffering and pain, and pain is certainly something you have to endure if you’re going to improve as a cyclist. Likewise, you need to be able to suffer unpleasant physical sensations if you’re to do your best. But it’s self-inflicted pain and suffering that you can stop at any moment. It’s a privilege, not an imposition. Let’s not pretend that it compares with the real suffering of people less fortunate than ourselves. You (hopefully) have the luxury of being healthy and the liberty to do what you like with your time. Make the most of it, and celebrate the positives.
Happy riding in 2015!