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Back in the saddle


Back in the saddle

It’s been a year or so since your last ride, a few more years since regular training and it feels like a lifetime since you were at your peak. Your bike kit no longer fits and a few too many extra bulges are visible around the waist line. You finally decide now is the time to get back in the saddle. Is it that simple? Is it just a matter of starting again? Here is the story of my racing return and the search for meaning and purpose long after the glory days have slipped into the far reaches of my long term memory.

A few years ago I wrote a 7 part blog on my rise from beginner to National champion. It is now 9 years on since my days of glory. In 2011 I stood on the podium for every Masters 3 road, criterium and time trial event at State and National races. 2012 followed with some NRS and I set Personal bests on local climbs and in races. I concentrated on my coaching in 2013 while still riding I lost the drive to push myself to previous heights. Lacking enthusiasm I dabbled in some triathlon for two years completing a half ironman in 2015. 3 months after that event I was run off the road in a road rage incident. I was injured but only cuts and scrapes, my bike was broken and so was I. I hung up my bike blood and all and instead focussed on my business and coaching.

Over the next 2 or 3 years I made a few attempts to restart my cycling, but I faced a few hurdles. Riding on the road initially was quite hard as every car that came up behind me caused panic and distress, I also found I kept getting sick after about 6-7 weeks of training. This resulted in a stop start approach, just as I would feel a bit of fitness starting to kick in I would be struck down again.

Out of pure frustration I finally consulted a Doctor, I went to see Tim Devlin, a friend and local Nowra club member. He diagnosed me with an immune deficiency in my nose and throat. Basically I was no longer killing off the bugs and germs in my upper respiratory system. He said it was manageable but probably meant my days of heavy overload were long gone.

This news was difficult to take, on the bike my legs felt the same way they always did, I was able to ramp my fitness like I had done before but time after time I ran into an illness brick wall.  Finally in complete misery I hung up the bike and gave up.

Fast forward to 2020 the year from hell, Bushfires, drought, floods and COVID. Somewhere in there amongst the carnage I decided I wanted to ride again. I had shut down my business, I had reduced my coaching client base and I was back working a full time job.  I reconnected with the Nowra club and went along to a few races as a spectator. This was incredibly difficult as the new crop of riders with some old ones where hammering it out week after week. A quick glance at race times and I could see the times of old still stood I even still had a few strava records standing.

But did I really want to race again. Tim had suggested it was a good thing I had walked away, in those brief 10 years we had trained and raced hard and maybe I had paid the price for that. Standing watching I still felt an itch to be out there but I was at ground zero, having not ridden for over 12 months I had gained way too much weight I was probably the least fit I had been in 15 years.

I had tried over a dozen times to restart my training all had ended in disappointment. You can only bang your head against that wall so many times before stop and realise this really hurts. As a coach I was advising clients every day, guiding them to make good choices and train smart. We worked endlessly on goal setting and expectations. I have always felt there wasn’t a question a client could ask me that I hadn’t heard before. But now I was faced with the one question I was unable to answer. After so many failures so many disappointments how do you find the motivation to put on the gear and try one more time.

In the past my goals were always clearly defined, I set them I trained for them and I tried to achieve them. Now I didn’t even know what the goal was. Was it to ride around the block? Maybe ride to work and back, to go racing again, but in what grade? D grade?? With no offence to D graders I still held two joint course records on our local course, and held the 2nd fastest official time trial time. I had worn the jersey of Masters National Champion and for a period was in the top 3 Masters Time triallists for about 6 years. The point being not that is bad to race D grade but was it enough to get me out of that garage, was it enough to start the process all over again. Accepting I would be riding with people who knew me then and would see this older fatter slower man before them.

Ultimately I found all of that too difficult of a question to answer so I simply started with a goal I knew I could achieve.  I would ride 3 times a week up to a distance of 15-30 km each ride and see if I could maintain that through the dreaded window of death.  I no longer owned a power meter and it took me ages to find my HR strap. The greater issue was finding clothing that still fit I figured I had gained at least 20kgs since 2012.

The first few rides were as expected long and slow and uncomfortable. I stuck to flatter roads initially ignoring HR or speed and simply going off feel. My legs felt fine after the rides but as the weeks added up I was constantly battling a cough or runny nose. I tried to increase the load gradually building up to a 50 km ride. The ride itself was fine but I paid for it over the next 3 days. Maybe I just can’t do it anymore. I was back on the bike that week I didn’t feel great but I felt it was under control. I had been riding for about 6 weeks and progression was happening albeit slowly. The 50 km ride was done at a reasonable clip so I started to think racing maybe a possibility.

But why race at all. I had achieved more in my short career than I had ever dreamed possible when I first started riding. I knew the higher grades were now beyond me, I had never been one to race just for the sake of racing. Every race had a purpose every training session was a step towards that next target that next goal. I had never ridden just because I liked riding. I liked training and I was motivated to perform at my best. None of that seemed achievable anymore, so why do it. Maybe for the first time I didn’t really need a why, maybe I just for once I should just do it because I can.

The local club season had started in January it was now early March. I looked at the club calendar hoping to find a suitable race. The short crits were out of the question and the long course 53km worth also was beyond me. My only chance was a short course handicap, 42km on relatively flat roads.

As a handicap it would mean I could hopefully get myself into a suitable bunch. Doug the handicapper knows I wouldn’t do the wrong thing by him so I was confident he would let me choose the bunch. The choice of bunch would be critical, on the flats in the draft I knew I could hang on pretty well, but any incline in the wrong group and I would be out the back quicker than you could say where’s Damo. I had no top end to speak of, only 6 weeks base and no bunch riding of any kind. What I did have was confidence in my ability to hurt and to race. I never felt I was the strongest rider but I could suffer. You don’t ride Time Trials for 10 years and not know how to suffer. I felt if I picked the right bunch and was very cautious with my turns I might just make it.

The night before the race I was anything but confident. I was looking for any reason not to race, Maybe it will be raining, all of my tyres were flat, my wife, maybe the wife needed something. But no I woke up Saturday morning with zero excuses, as I lay there in bed desperately trying to make a decision, I eventually just went “Fuck it”. I got up got dressed, had my standard pre race meal a banana and walked out to the garage. I fitted my race wheels, put on my shoe covers time trial gloves and aero road helmet I was going to need every last ounce of help I could get. I contemplated driving out but resolved to ride the 10km to the race as I felt I needed the warm up.

On arrival at the course there were familiar faces and some new ones. It didn’t take long for the cat calls and looks of amazement to start. I felt 100 years old, and probably looked it. I smiled and took the banter this was the least of my concerns. I paid the $10 and Doug asked me where I wanted to ride. I looked at the list of names from scratch down to go. Could I get away with go? No I would never be able to live with myself. I knew the riders in the groups but the reality was I had no real idea of my own condition. In my prime I turned up to every race and knew exactly what my FTP was what my body could and couldn’t do, know I wasn’t confident I could ride out of the carpark and not get dropped.

My eyes settled on bunch 3 Kate, Adrian and Bill, older than me but experienced riders riding where they always ride, I felt I could trust them to help me survive. Doug obliged and I awaited the abuse when the starting list was read out. It had been over 2 years since my last race what the hell was I doing here.

We had two bunches in front to chase and we had 2 mins back the bunch behind us. Normally I would have played all the scenarios in my head, studied the gaps formulated a plan. Having raced the local course so many times you generally could pick if scratch would get up based on the gaps. Today scratch was at 17 min and we had only 5.30 min to go. Experience told me it would be the front bunches day. Lining up on the start line I was as nervous as I had ever been, over weight unfit and clearly crazy I was not sure how this was going to turn out. Doug counted us down and we rolled off in pursuit.

Ease up ease up

If I had learned anything in my time training and racing I knew what levels of pain meant. I didn’t need a power meter or HR monitor anymore I could feel my way through a race. I knew how long to pull a turn and how hard to push them. I knew when to take a break and when I could resume. The unknown was always but how long can you last. Rate of perceived effort and fatigue always start low then sneak up on you as the race progresses, if you have abused them in the first half of the race you pay for it dearly in the final half. I knew this and would control it as best I could, but I can’t control the speed of the race, and it’s difficult to control the riders in my bunch.  As I hadn’t raced with these guys before the first of 3 laps would tell me everything.

Up the small incline at the start of lap one, always riders with fresh legs would go too hard to start. Today was no exception. Bill and Kate started strong and rolled good hard turns. I sat in with Adrian trying to get a read on the pace and how much it was hurting. I knew once we reached the top it flattens out and I would be able to manage my effort better. I just had to hang on for a few minutes.

I survived onto the flat and was soon able to pull turns. Nothing had changed muscle memory kicked in and as a group we settled in for the long haul. Kate and Bill were stronger but it could be managed. At the first turn I felt comfortable and some confidence was returning. My turns were not long and not that strong but I tried to be consistent. I am normally an aggressive rider, always talkative if needed taking control of my bunches if I felt it was required. This time I felt I was almost like an uninvited guest that I shouldn’t be there. So I rode quiet, I let Kate and Bill control the pace.

Down the hill on the first lap in the old days we would hit 60km fairly easily, this time down we barely hit 50. I hadn’t ridden in front bunches very often but I had done it enough to know they didn’t really understand where the time on the course could be found and how fast they could push the group. To be honest I was just happy to be there and simply went along with the pacing.

As we approached the next turn around we got a good look at the two bunches in front. We were gaining I figured we would have them at the start of lap 3. We also got look at the chasers, we had them in check. Lap two was much of the same, 2nd time up the rise and Kate was anxious to pull hard. On her wheel I was feeling the pinch as her rear wheel just started to edge away, still not even halfway up the slope she was pushing me into the red and it was hurting. To give you some idea of my predicament  at my peak I had an FTP of about 360 and weighed 73kgs, now I reckon I was lucky to be pushing 220 weighing north of 90Kgs. Knowing where this would end up I called out to Kate “Ease up Ease up” she complied thankfully as I was just hanging on.

Back onto the flats I could recover and get me breath. I resumed turns once I was able still short and sweet but something. We were ever gaining on the bunch in front we would have them before the start of lap 3. They in turn were catching go at rapid rate. At the start of lap 3 we climbed the slope for the last time we had made contact with the front groups and we were now the lead of the race. After years of chasing from behind in endless un-winnable scenarios this was a new experience.

Once again Kate put down the pressure and once again I had to calm her down, controlling the group means we are slower up the hill than she would like but it retains more bodies for the turns on the flatter terrain. With extra riders and more rest I was able to take some respite. The pacing was disjointed though with weaker riders rolling through and stronger riders powering over the top it was slowing us down. As we rounded the far turn we would get a good look at the chasers, as I rounded the cone I quick glance told me we had held them and the gap had remained the same. A stronger group had caught them however and with stronger legs would pose a threat.

My free ride was over our group could get up if they wanted it, I rode to the front after the turn around and started yelling, winding them up and up, no more Mr nice guy. For the next 8 min I moved up and down the line barking orders pushing them along, getting them to ride tight and smooth. Down the hill we hit 58 as we tried to keep the momentum up. Around the final turn and we had the same gap we just had to finish it off. It was a team race so points were on offer for the various riders. I wasn’t in a team so what I didn’t want was for them to play silly buggers at the end and blow it. So with 500 to go I went to the front and rode them in. Completely spent I peeled off with 150 to go and left them to it crawling over the line in about 15th place. Holding of the chasers by 90 seconds.

It was a different race for me slower but just as painful as I remembered, it was nice to simply contribute and help get them over the line. It wasn’t missed by several of the more experienced riders who came up and thanked me for the gee up and organisation. As much as I may have wanted to be riding further back there was a genuine sense of satisfaction in the result. I didn’t need to win anymore I don’t even need to see PBs, but I do need a sense of purpose otherwise why suffer.

COVID hit us two weeks later and the racing came to an abrupt halt. The bike took on a new role one of retaining some sanity during a crazy few months.

Managing the expectations of the older rider

The experience of the last few months before COVID struck raised several questions that older riders will have to face. If you are returning to the sport after a lengthy brake, what are realistic goals or expectations? Can I do what I used to do, can I find the old FTP climb the same mountains ride the same volume. Do I even want to do that anymore, can I find new motivation or sense of purpose to my riding. Most Masters riders are just as driven as young Pros. We don’t do the same Kms but we have the same sense of drive and determination to succeed.

The greatest blockage to this drive and determination is the older we get the harder it becomes to revisit the days of old. In my own particular circumstance I faced a very specific set of restrictions. My legs seemed willing but other parts of my body could no longer play the game. This meant the volume and progression I was used to was no longer achievable. If I can’t achieve the same level of fitness how do I reach higher FTP, if I can’t hold the same FTP I can’t ride in the same grades, if I can’t do any of this I sure as hell won’t be setting and new times up my favourite climb.

To clarify if you are the kind of rider who just loves riding and is just happy to race at all then this doesn’t apply as much to you. But if you are struggling to accept where you are at at this point in your life then maybe it’s time for some self-reflection and an adjustment to what it is you want from your favourite sport.

As a coach I see it every day, older riders desperately wanting to achieve bigger and better things, and the disappointment that comes with every week not being able to. I struggled to accept for a long time that my body simply wouldn’t let me do what I wanted it to do. So I quit, walked away. In giving it another go I had to face the hard truths and redefine what it was that I wanted from my riding. I had to find new goals, new benchmarks and be comfortable in that. I still hold some level of belief I can rediscover some old form but I accept it will be well below where I would like it to be.

Part of that belief however is being honest with myself that whatever level I can sustain I can find new motivation new goals that are achievable and enjoyable. I was approached after the race by one of the guys who had recently inspired a few of the boys to try some track racing. It was just for a bit of fun and something different. I had kept tabs on their adventures and I must say I was inspired by their enthusiasm. Track is one discipline I have not done for various reasons mainly from a logistical standpoint. But these guys had sparked my interest. As I was discussing the exploits it was suggested I should give it a go. I trotted out the usual excuses none of which really applied anymore but I still tried.

The suggestion was made I could join them for the team pursuit at next year’s NSW State Track championships. They needed a fourth rider in the “Over age “category. I would be lying if it didn’t interest me. My usual competitive spirit kicked in as my mind tried to find a way to make it work. I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no either. I told him to see where I was in 6 months’ time. If I had survived through the winter and was still riding at whatever level I would seriously consider it.

So you may think what’s the big deal guys do it all the time. But you must remember I had failed to train consistently now for over 3 years. I was so far below my idea of what I could achieve it was depressing. To commit to this is to take a risk, the risk disappointing others, a risk I might disappoint myself that I may fail one more time. After a few days it was in my head and in my usual way I explored ways to make it work. My mind quickly moved to I wouldn’t be happy with just competing I would want us to win the sucker. Whoa there back up a bit one minute we were looking for excuses to not ride now we are thinking about winning. The old mindset taking over, it was nice to know it still existed but my new reality meant I couldn’t get ahead of myself. So I worked on a plan to deliver myself to 3 months out to be in as good a shape as I could muster and be in a position to say yes or no. Each step over the next 6 or so months would have to be slow and deliberate, to do what I had been unable to do several times before. Then if I was happy with my condition and weight I would commit myself 100%. My goal initially would be to simple do the race, to ride as fast as I am capable supporting my team. If that means we are good enough to simply finish then so be it. If it means we stand on a podium then that is simply a bonus. Managing my own expectations to that of the teams would be paramount to an enjoyable experience. Going in with unrealistic expectations could ruin it for everyone.

COVID has to a large degree stalled my progress, I have been riding but only for enjoyment and a little fitness. With no racing around smashing myself was never an option plus I can’t do it anyway. As we emerge from the COVID lockdown and life returns to a level of normality we are yet to see what our race programs will look like state wide, locally I think we will see a return to normal but I have little confidence that towns and cities will be throwing out open arms to hundreds of riders descending on towns to race but I may well be wrong. The answer to the unknown as I tell my clients is to keep the focus narrow, work on what we know we can achieve, there has to be a level of commitment into the future so there is a risk that these races may not occur. For me my focus is simply on the next ride and getting through it in a healthy state. If that one goes ok then I look forward to the next on and so on. If I can string together a few weeks without illness there maybe I can add more or choose harder rides. Little by little never getting ahead being grateful I can ride at all but also trying to sneak out some performance as best I can.

My new normal is not what I hoped it would be. It has forced a realignment in my thinking and my emotions. At the end of the day I just have to be able to look in the mirror and tell myself that it’s ok, this is who you are and I look forward now to taking whatever life chooses to give me.

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Damian Mason

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