We’ve all been there (presumptive, I know), riding along, legs whirring round all showy souplesse or (more likely) painfully pedaling squares, and with a head full of chatter:
It’s a tailwind. I’m not as fit as I thought. It’s just the wind. Wait til I turn back. I’ll be struggling. Why do I always get a headwind; why is it never a tailwind? Bloody wind. I’d be flying without the wind. What’s that strange noise? That clicking. Sounds like termites. Termites, in carbon fibre? I should have cleaned my bike. I should clean my bike more often. Why am I so lazy? My legs hurt. So few miles covered and already my legs hurt. I should be fitter. I should train more. Why don’t I train more? Why am I so lazy?
It can go on for miles and miles, a whole ride, easily, mental chatter that’s more distracting than any creaking bottom bracket.
The solution? It’s not taking better care of your bike, training more often, or even an end to headwinds (although all of those would be beneficial). The solution is mindfulness.
According to Wiki Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment“, which can be trained by meditational practices.
One well known proponent of a form of mindfulness is Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. I first heard of him by way of an interview Rouleur magazine conducted with Martyn Ashton. The trials and stunt rider, of Road Bike Party fame, was in hospital following the accident that left him paraplegic. In the seconds directly after his crash, whilst Ashton could have been wailing and crying, he instead did this:
I had this beautiful blue sky above me and I was like: ‘Right, well, that’s something to focus on. So focus on that. Don’t focus on this, because this is shit!’ So I just was looking at the sky, just staying in that moment, not doing anything else, it’s simple. Doing that stopped me panicking all the way to the MRI scanner.
Reading that interview the first time left me in tears, and also determined: if a man could manage to see the beauty in life at such an awful moment then so too could I, at all times, be they bad (hopefully none ever as extreme) or good.
I now meditate every morning and try to be mindful as often as possible throughout the day, especially when I’m in the saddle. Periodically through a ride I attempt to focus on my breathing, my posture, how my body feels, how my legs are moving. I feel the air on my skin, take in the sights and sounds. I pay attention but try not to wrestle with any emotions that my body, the sights and sounds, the gradient or the prevailing winds throw my way.
I find mindful cycling much more enjoyable, more fulfilling. I notice more, about myself and the countryside through which I travel, rather than riding along lost in a fog of thought. I come home feeling mentally refreshed.
It’s not just airy fairy, hippie nonsense. There are physical benefits too. Ever approached a climb and
talked yourself out of it before you’ve even had a chance to change gear? Mindfulness can help. Switch off all that negative chatter and focus on what’s actually happening. You might just find that things aren’t so bad after all, that your legs are stronger than your insecurities suggest.
Don’t just take my word for it. Research has suggested that athletes who combine mindfulness exercises with their physical training show improved mental and physical performance.
Give it a try next time you are out on the bike. Tune in to what’s actually happening, within and around you. Those bottom bracket bearings can wait.