Riding long distances on a tour gives you a lot of time to think – barring brief conversations with your riding partner or passers-by, you’re essentially alone with your thoughts for 8-14 hours at a time. You also learn a lot about yourself – what interests you; what pops to the top of your mind or weighs on it, and how you deal with what could at times be extreme monotony.
Last week I had plenty of time for all of the above. Over the course of six days my Father and I rode 940km around Lake Ontario – the second tour of this type we’ve done (last year we rode 800km up to Algonquin, around the Kawartha Lakes and back to Toronto). Now that we’re back in Toronto, I thought I’d take a moment and reflect on some of those musings.
1. The impossible becomes possible when you break it into chunks
Riding 940km sounds crazy to most people (Caralin certainly thinks it is). It still sounds crazy when you break it into days – every day but one had us doing 120km or further.
But when you get even more granular, the infeasible becomes feasible – whether it’s looking ahead to specific milestones (towns, or even route turns), or points-in-time, or the next rest spot. Personally, my main coping mechanism for each day was breaking the routes down into tiny chunks.
At the most basic level there was a physical need – I have a bad habit of getting dehydrated due to not drinking early or often enough, so I make a point of having a sip of water every 20 minutes. Similarly, I would eat something (usually a gel cube) every hour so my energy levels didn’t dip.
This gave me my routine – when I found the going tough, I would focus on my cycling computer and on the next 20-minute interval. They were micro-level achievements within day but were very achievable and came with a correspondingly small reward. As a bonus, I never got dehydrated throughout the entire trip.
2. There’s always more to learn about yourself
I tend to live inside my own head a lot – I’m pretty introverted and thrive on alone time. That said, there’s nothing like a challenge like this to teach you something new.
My lesson this time: if I have even a glimpse of a challenge, I’ll focus on it. On this tour, that came on the final day. On the previous day we’d pushed longer than planned and brought ourselves to the point where we had a choice of two reasonably short days of cycling to finish the tour (105km and 125km), or a very long 230km slog through to the finish.
For context, while I’d done one ride longer than this before (307km to Niagara Falls and back, earlier this year), this would be my second-longest ride and this time I had 30lbs of gear on the back of my bike, after five back-to-back days of riding. The additional distance would take us about eight hours to do – effectively another full day of riding – and would require us to ride the last couple of hours in the dark.
I convinced myself that we would make the call on which option to take at the 105km mark when we reached our potential campsite. In hindsight, though, the moment I knew that there was a glimmer of a chance that we would do it, my mind was made up.
When the time came, I knew without hesitation that I wanted to push on. Happily, so did my Father – and we arrived back in Toronto eight hours later.
3. You don’t have to be ‘on’ the whole time
I generally find it a bit hard to switch off – I enjoy my work, and I tend to be either 150% or 0% on things outside work too, with nothing in-between.
On the bike, there isn’t always a lot to focus on (aside from the riding essentials). I find long rides can be a great time for solving problems that have been bugging you (and I’ve figured out the structure for more than one conference presentation while in the saddle), but that would be exhausting over the course of a week – so when I’m on multi-day tours I tend to just switch off. There’s a serenity that comes with emptying your head and letting your mind wanter.
This time when I let my mind wander I ended up playing through full music albums I know (in my head – for safety reasons I never actually listen to music when I’m cycling). I covered albums from Muse, Nirvana, Metallica, Disturbed, Sevendust, Sixx:AM, Breaking Benjamin and more.
Unfortunately, at one point we stopped at a restaurant that had Shania Twain playing and it promptly got lodged in my head. I was in a dark place by the end of that day.
4. You need to pace yourself
As I mentioned above, I’m pretty much an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy. Back in the day when I ran distance races, I had a constant struggle with going out too fast and suffering later in the race. Until recently I had a similar problem at work – something I’ve looked to curb in the last little while.
Cycle touring is no different in principle – there’s no use in trying to set a 30km/h average pace if you’re going to burn out later in the day – particularly as in almost every case there are more days of riding to follow. It’s all about finding a level of effort that makes you fast enough to complete the ride in the time you have – but more importantly is comfortable enough to maintain all day (and all trip).
5. Life will throw you curve balls
No matter how well you plan things out, something will come up that throws you off stride. Sometimes those things will be big; sometimes they’ll be small. Sometimes they’ll require minor on-the-go tweaks and sometimes they’ll require a complete re-tooling.
Last year two spokes broke in my rear wheel and we had to return to Toronto to get it repaired. This year I had a number of minor things – spokes loosened throughout the ride and needed tightening, gears needed adjusting and on the last day we needed to go in search of a bike shop part-way through the ride, in order to replace a pedal.
It’s not whether you get those curve balls that matters; it’s how you deal with them.
There you have it. A few philosophical musings courtesy of a week on the road.