As I hiked my way up a climb far too steep and muddy to ride on a gravel bike, stumbling over rocks and tangled vegetation, at the end of an eight-hour ride, in complete darkness, guided partly by a slightly useless bike light and partly by following sheep across an otherwise empty moorland, I considered how far this was from the cycling world that I once knew.
The fact that this was intentional, and something I would be doing regularly, rather than the result of misjudgement was weird to me. And even weirder was the fact that I was loving every second of it.
The next year will be full of firsts, and this was the first time I’d ever ridden off-road at night. This one is fairly unsurprising given that until recently I’d barely ventured off-road at all. But still, it’s good to be ticking off the new experiences early.
I scrambled up to the very top of the climb and looked down towards the lights of civilisation below. To my left was the town I now call home, and to the right were the lights of places where I had spent much of my childhood.
The complete silence, the expansive emptiness, the fact that I still didn’t know how I was going to get down; all of it was beautiful to me.
I considered how easy it is to forget how far you’ve come in life when you’ve been there for every wrong turn, and every messy mile of it. Although on the surface this was a seemingly insignificant moment, I knew how long a journey it had been to get here. Both literally and metaphorically.
Before embarking on this change of discipline, I had considered how different racing would be as I moved across from the road and into the world of ultra-endurance. Perhaps naively though, I hadn’t given much thought to how it would change my life from day one.
This might seem like a fairly grandiose thing to say, but given how much time I spend on bikes, around bikes, or talking about bikes, I think it’s a fair statement.
I can’t speak for others riders’ experiences, but I was always someone who rigorously followed a structured and highly controlled training plan. I was inflexible, and really never strayed from this. Even in the early stages of winter training I wasn’t someone who just went out and rode their bike for the fun of it. Whether this was a mistake or not (it definitely was) it was how I spent my entire career.
I’m now having to re-learn everything that I thought I knew about training. I’m no longer a full-time cyclist; I no longer spend my time staring at power numbers and zones; but I do spend longer than ever before on my bike. The now deeply engrained ‘rules’ I have always followed no longer apply.
After years of sticking to them so completely I’m having to constantly remind myself to let go. That slowing down is now a must and not a failure. That hiking the bike through impassable terrain is as much a part of the journey as pedalling for hours on smooth tarmac is.
As someone who would historically have hated it when a training session wasn’t completely in my control and didn’t go 100% to plan, I hadn’t expected to enjoy this experience so much.
In reality it’s allowed me to be happy on the bike again. I can finally have no regrets over every pedal stoke it took to get here, because it led me to this place. To standing on that hill and feeling the freedom that the bike can bring.
I’ve spent a couple of years searching for something that would make me feel alive again, and I wasn’t sure I could find it through cycling anymore. Little did I know that during this transition I would rediscover it so quickly.