From the drop of the flag I felt right. After five days of racing at the Tour Med in southern France, my body was adapting to the effort after months of off-season training. Like a musician who has just joined an orchestra, my transition back into the group wasn’t immediately harmonious. On the last stage, I noticed a change in my physique had occurred: I had gone from rider to racer. In any transition there is a moment where the change is marked and noted before it is accepted and becomes familiar. I had found the rhythm of the race.
After two solid weeks of racing at the Tour Med and Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, the unique sensations racing had returned. My legs ached from the stress of the workload and the repeated attacks and accelerations. My lungs felt ripped from the rapid and fierce exchange of oxygen. The wheel in front, the finish line ahead and the surging speed of the peloton allow us, force us, to drive our bodies in ways we can’t simulate in training. The grimace of pain on a cyclist in a race is unique. We dig in, hold on, and push the pedals and the wind until we see tears, then stars.
The stimulation of a race is unparalleled in any training session. Races condition the body to produce the required power to attack up a climb or into the wind.
In February the peloton lacks the fluidity it will develop as the season gains momentum. Riders seem uncomfortable with the chaotic surges and lulls. Many overreact or take uncalculated risks. Training alone or in small groups during the off season has dulled our skills in the peloton. Within the group there is a jittery nervousness as everybody is keen to prove themselves, eager to race and full of vigor after the off-season. The weight and fatigue of a season of racing has yet to set in.
We have returned to the routine of the nomadic cyclist. Suitcases are packed daily. Racing from town to town we live in a world of industrial park hotels, buffets, intermittent internet connections and long distance phone calls. In the evenings, we’ll walk around the car park to digest the feast, breath cleaner air, note the temperature, and talk about the past race and those ahead. Before returning to our single beds in a shared room, we’ll tell stories from the race as the mechanics lock up the truck for the night. The days, which are broken down into a structured schedule, pass quickly. The gaps in the schedule are filled with moments of relaxation where we hope our bodies will recover: the bus ride to and from the race, the half hour after breakfast before we leave for the race, the massage, and the evening hours where we can converse before we doze off.
The mental adaptation to the race is instantaneous. Although we’ve been away from the environment for months we settle like schoolboys returning to class after summer break. I find my place in the peloton, where the chat takes place in over a dozen languages. After a lifetime at the races it is all familiar: the aroma of the embrocation on legs, pinning toxic smelling new race numbers to the jersey, the voice of the M.C. as he introduces the peloton to the spectators who hang over the barriers waiting for our arrival or departure. The surrounding environment is never constant but there are things in the peloton that haven’t changed in decades.
But the peloton’s approach to gaining fitness has changed. Twenty years ago riders would ease into the season, letting the fat gained through the off-season melt in the races, which were slow and controlled. Now, every team is eager to make an impact early so we arrive at the first race lean and in shape. The average speeds through the season remain constant. For those who haven’t trained properly through the off-season, there is no mercy. Every finish line counts.
This year we will each race roughly 90 days. We know our roles, strengths, skills and weaknesses. The routine is the same but in our constantly changing environment nothing else is static. On the bike, our lives are uniquely colored and never mundane.