Top 5 Most Valuable Life Lessons learned from the Sport of Cycling
I have said it before and I will say it again; I have possibly learned more about myself in the last 2 ¾ years since taking up the sport of cycling, than in the rest of my 37 years. Crazy, right?
I bought my first road bike October 2013, not even knowing if I would enjoy road cycling (I literally just took a chance on it); I had no idea what was lying ahead of me! A rollercoaster inclusive of sweat, blood, tears, highs, lows, victories, accidents, doubts, loneliness, travel, frustrations, connecting with people across the world, the suffering… in fact, the list goes on.
Just to make it clear, the lessons have not been learnt from riding leisurely from A to B, from the weekly cookie ride or from doing any pedalling within my comfort zone! In fact, everything I have learnt, the self-discoveries, the mental and physical growth has happened OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE.
It all happened quite quickly. My first ever ride happened to be the 65K Spinneys92 Build-Up ride (seeding for UAE’s largest cycling challenge); I placed 10th (of ca. 60 women). After one month, I took part in the 98K final Build-Up ride (which felt like the longest ride ever); and crossed the line as the first woman. After two months, I took to the start line with the UAE based elite women at the 2013 Spinneys92 Cycling Challenge; and placed 9th.
My head was spinning. My body urging for more. My inner workout warrior curious.
I wondered… If I can achieve this with almost no training and zero experience, then how far might I be able to go if throw my all into it? Would I have what it takes to be an athlete?
There, at 35 years old, I made a conscious decision to make cycling ‘a competitive sport’.
My first goal, get on a podium!
And that’s where the journey really began….
I consciously chose my cycling journey to be built on self-discipline, focus, structure, planning, dedication and pain; withdrawal from the social cycling community for most of the time; and traveling to learn, explore and push boundaries. I consciously decided to give it my best shot. I knew it was going to be hard. But I never knew how hard, how many times I was going to fall hard (literally speaking) nor the valuable life lessons I was about to learn. Amongst the many things I have learnt, many of them obvious, I will share with you some of the most important lessons transferable to other aspects of life:
#1 Managing Expectations
I used to set my expectations in line with my efforts and the work that had gone into my training. As many of you know, the conditions of a cycle race can change in a flash; one small mistake, by oneself, another rider or an external factor, and everything can be lost or won. Setting expectations led to many disappointments.
I have now learned to practise ‘belief’ rather than ‘setting expectations’. On the basis of knowing I have done my very best to prepare for my challenges, I have to ‘believe in myself’; believe what I am doing is of my best ability. What happens, happens. Sometimes things work out – and sometimes they don’t. ‘Believing’ leads to a sense of calm, control and confidence. ‘Expecting’ often leads to disappointments.
#2 The Art of Letting Go
I used to quietly cry all day and all night when I had worked hard and it didn’t go my way, particularly when caused by external factors. It’s not worth it. Let it go! External factors are often unforeseen and sometimes they have a direct cause and effect on one’s personal situation. It cannot be controlled and it cannot be changed. It is what it is. The only thing that can be controlled is how I choose to handle it, from within. Emotions are allowed, in fact emotions are important. Feeling them. Acknowledging them. Then dealing with them. Hanging on to them may result in anger, blaming, accusation, jealousy and disappointment. It’s not healthy. It doesn’t lead to anything positive. The sooner I can let go, the sooner I will feel ‘free’. Free to quickly move away and move on. Focus on my own journey and my next challenge.
#3 Rising After Falling
Physically and mentally. Oh boy, I have stopped counting the amount of times I have hit the tarmac; hard, very hard. One phase of ‘rising after falling’ from a bike is physical and immediate. Right there and then. On the ground. The body is in a state of shock. Breathe! One moment. Breathe! Don’t touch me. Breathe! Now check arms and legs can move. Now check I can rise. Now get back on the bike! In race situations, things might happen with a sense of urgency. Get back as quick as possible and reap the benefits of feeling ‘numb’ from the shock. Open wounds, blood pouring and bruising. No problem. Rise and ride. Get on with the race. There may still be a chance of success. I won’t know unless I try.
Another phase I am relating to is perhaps more metaphorical; or at least psychological. I have had a habit of using ‘competitive cycling’ as a mean of ‘jumping into the deep end’. Taking on challenges beyond my capabilities. Taking opportunities that scared me. Taking chances where the success to failure ratio equalled 1:100; but where at the time I thought to myself ‘but if there is a chance, I will not miss this opportunity’. For example:
• 9 month into my cycling journey, I took off alone to the Amateur World Championships in Slovenia. Everything went wrong. I came last. Like very last. I had almost no experience. I had no luggage. I had no support in any way.
• In 2015 I competed in the Elite Danish National Championships. I got disqualified in the individual time trial; I hadn’t prepared. And I didn’t finish the road race; I had run myself to the ground.
• Only 3 months ago, spring 2016, I had a shot at American Pro cycling. I wasn’t good enough to even complete the races within the time limit.
That’s falling hard, psychologically. Very hard. The pain of failure goes deep.
So why do I keep doing it?
Because I freaking learn so much about myself! Because it’s right there when times get tough and pain goes deep, that personal growth happens. I have discovered that the falling and the failures of cycling have helped me understand myself better. All those uncomfortable situations have helped me to stop, reflect and negotiate with myself:
• How would I like to feel about this situation?
• How do I choose to handle this situation to ensure a positive outcome?
• How can this be turned into a strength?
• What can I do right now to rise with honesty, acceptance and respect, to myself at least?
• How can this situation build foundations of knowledge and experience, for my cycling journey going forward, but also for treating and overcoming obstacles in other aspects of life?
I have learned to rise after falling. In many ways.
The more I fall, the more I practise ways of rising after falling; and ultimately the more resilience I build. Resilience in the sport of cycling. But also resilience to help me cope with life’s headwinds. Life is a roller coaster. It is not possible to protect oneself from the smaller or the bigger storms of life. Health issues, injures, tragedies, redundancies, change and so forth; some situations are totally out of our control. And the only thing we can control is how we deal with these situations; how we come out of these situations healthily, our ability to cope and move on. I whole heartedly believe that the experiences and challenges I have had through my journey of competitive cycling has helped me build resilience. Resilience that will help me cope better with life going forward.
#5 The Importance of Support
It’s no secret I have spent a lot of time on my own through my life. Twice I have relocated to a new country or continent on my own, completely of own choice. No doubt it has made me strong. Very strong. I have had to be strong. I have also ventured out solo on travels countless of times. Moved countries, backpacked and gone off on personal challenges, with no close support. I fully believe in the benefits of going solo. Owning decisions. Choosing one’s own path. Learning to become self-sufficient. However, from this I have also learned that without support, it is hard to hit one’s full potential. Without support, it may take longer to rise after falling. I come from the most supporting family I could ever wish for, but they live in a different continent. I have had longer term relationships, love was plentiful, but I am now on my own.
How did I suddenly learn this through my cycling journey?
Because this roller coaster has had some steep curves and loops. There have been many ups and many downs; many personal failures, but also many personal successes along the way. I guess I never before really took the same risks as I do now. And I guess with taking risks, you can fall deeper and equally you can rise higher. At times of doubt, support can make the world of a difference. And what is success worth if you have no one to share it with?
What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter who it is and from where they come. As an expat, it may not always be the immediate family or the old friends who knows you inside out, who will be the obvious support. Building a support network with people of similar mind set and lifestyle, with people who genuinely celebrate your successes and offer tools and support to lift you even higher and with people who understands the pathway you are taking and who offers to stand by your side when you fall, is one of the essential elements to enjoying the journey of highs and lows. But also significantly important; fun happens around other people. Smiles, laughter and silliness is created between people. The building of my support network continues.
It is not necessarily ‘cycling’ that has taught me these valuable life lessons. It is the fact that I have chosen to immerse myself fully into the cycling, push physical limits, set goals, take risks, travel, always believing I can do more, do better…. And staying on the path no matter which obstacle brings me down… Always rise again… And always continue the fighting.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, no matter how big or how small your challenge is, no matter where you set your goals – doing something that scares you, of your own choice – is your opportunity to learn, to grow and to become better at handling LIFE!
Learn how to deal with uncomfortable situations by choice, rather than waiting to be taken by surprise.
I am ready for the next challenge. I am ready to write the next chapter of my LIFE story!
Randers Bike Week, Denmark, August 2017 – 4 day stage race
I am kind of stripping myself of my victories here. At the same time, I don’t want to appear as if I am the champion of the world. There is always room for improvement when it comes to my racing skills and strength.
Admittedly, I did feel some sort of pride as I was lining up, in front of the remaining riders, in the leader’s jersey. At the end of the day, what I had done, was enough to get rewarded that yellow jersey, representing the current leader of the GC classification. At the same time, on the roads, I felt a significant sense of embarrassment.
I never came to the stage race in Randers to achieve any kind of result, I actually came only to practice my ‘racing skills’, some of which I have repeatedly proven have room for improvement. I also wanted to test my physical ability to race 4 days back to back. Only the week before I discovered I can climb Mt Ventoux 6 times in 4 days with no problems, but… I always stayed under threshold, because I didn’t want to waste any time on recovery. But how will my body react to 4 days repeatedly over threshold? I wanted to find out.
I am on my own again. Surprise! But actually, this time I didn’t mind so much ‘riding on my own’, because I just wanted to focus on what I came to practise. I was happy not to be held accountable to anyone. I had also been clever enough to book myself into the official race Motel (motel = motorway sleep over building), full of riders and teams, 99.5% male. Check, I am gonna be just fine here.
Here’s what happened, yellow jersey and all:
Stage 1 – 30 mins Criterium (15x 1.4K lap in Aars town: uphill on cobble stones, downhill on tarmac)
I had a 330K drive to the race destination, I am not exaggerating; I had the windscreen wipers on full power the entire way. It never stopped raining. 20 mins before my wave starts, I am sitting inside my mum’s small car, getting changed and pinning numbers on the front seat, with the windows fully steamed on the inside and hammered with rain on the outside. On a positive note, no one on the packed town centre supermarket parking, will be able to see that I am getting naked inside the car. Four turns. Cobblestone hill. Rain. Again and again and again. I ask myself once again: “Why are you doing this to yourself?” I always find a strong enough argument to get on with what I set out to do in the first place.
Unfortunately there are not enough female riders to form our own wave, let alone our own classification. Men or women, I don’t really mind, I just need to practise. Men over 60 and women are thrown into the same classification, however we are still not enough to form our own wave. We start all stages also with Men over 50 and Men D classification. Now we are enough for a good size peloton, however with a wide range of strength and ability. It’s my 4th Crit only, ever. I am here to practise everything that a Crit demands. Another aim of mine; postpone the DNF as far as possible (yes, in a stronger field on a 1.4K lap, of course I will get lapped and taken out, it’s just a matter of time),
Miraculously, the rain clouds slowly disappear during my 12 mins warm up (yes, I left it a little late. It was raining), and we took off, uphill, dry. Jeez, the gentlemen are GONE! Flying start, completely stretched out, I think I have lost all wheels (in front of me), already on the cobblestone uphill on lap 2. We don’t have cobble stones in Dubai. I have many things I want to practise, so I’d better get a move on with my practising. Some I have lost already; positioning, gone. It takes me 2-3 laps to settle in on the cobble stones, working out gearing, cadence and grip, what works best for me. Good practice. I am left on my own somewhere. Don’t take any risks Helle and ride as hard as possible to postpone the DNF. Just over 17 mins after start, I got pulled. It was inevitable. Two men over 50 had taken the lead, wiping out rider after rider. To my great surprise I got pulled ‘3rd last’ in my classification and to my even greater surprise, only one rider in my classification did not get pulled. A German gentleman earned the yellow jersey.
Stage 2 – 77K Hill Stage (5 laps, ca. 875m elev total)
I drive to the race destination, arrive ca. 1 hour before my start. I sit in my car, again, this time in between to fields, with the rain hammering down on the roof. I stay there. The weather forecast for today was: Rainbows (no joke! I watched it on TV). Rain and sun, all mixed up, wait for the rainbows. Yes, I am waiting, for the rain to stop. It’s on and off, like someone is playing with the control for the shower. It’s time to go, I manage to get a 12 mins warm up, on a hill, then it starts pouring again, I hide under a tent by the start line. Miraculously, the rain stops before we take to the start line.
I manage to sit tight in the group during lap 1, through a couple of brutal hills and ridiculous amounts of water being sprayed around between the bikes, most of it I am certain, landing in my eyes. We go by luck, some of the puddles take up the entire road and they are filled with sharp stones. Some will get punctures, some will not. I struggle on the last long hill on lap 2. I have to see the group disappear just over the top. I get caught from behind by two male riders, we work hard together, chasing the group, not far in front of us. If they slow just a little we can catch them. They didn’t slow, but eventually they disappeared. Towards the end of lap 3, I discover a slow puncture and roll into the start area with a half flat tyre. There are bikes and wheels everywhere, but when I ask if I may borrow a wheel for 2 laps, all answers are something like “meh”. I am now walking around in muddy grass searching between wheels, for a wheel. Forget that then! I wait for the service car. I wait. I wait. I wait some more. Only when the race director, Bjarne, notices I am trouble, he quickly fetches me replacement wheel, a junior replacement wheel, better than nothing for sure. I can’t pedal downhill on the small cassette, but at least I have a wheel. I imagine I am now very far behind and I refocus on some of the things I wanted to practise and learn, one being testing my ability to race day after day after day. So there is only one thing to do there on my own: work hard! Don’t save any energy. I have 30K to go. I push. On the final lap I see a rider in my classification in the distance in front of me. Goal: chase and pass. I did.
As I reach the finish line, I get the news that the German gentleman in yellow had crashed out (he was okay, but didn’t finish the stage). To my surprise, I was now first in the GC classification and rewarded the yellow jersey for stage 3. Okay, I take the yellow jersey then, purely for fighting it out there on my own (in my personal view). As I drive back home, I have to stop; the rainbows are just incredible!
Stage 3 – 62K Road Race (with ca. 570m elev, hills, hills and more hills)
Ugh. Legs are in a little trouble. On day 3 already? Really? Could I still be affected by deep fatique from climbing Mt Ventoux 6 times a week ago? Or is that all I can take? I am not sure. But I am feeling. And I am learning. The weather is the same every day. All morning, it’s hard wind, some hard showers, some light showers, some clear skies. Apart from the consistent hard wind, it’s changing any minute. The start today is conveniently located outside the Motel. I line up at the front with the other 2 yellow jerseys and the one polkadot. I feel a quite ‘cool’ for a moment, the best of the bunch (or perhaps just the luckiest). The guys in yellow set the pace fast out of the start. We hit the first long hill. My legs! They are screaming at me up that long hill. I get passed one by one. I am still on the hill when I stop getting passed. I wave goodbye to the front. I also wave goodbye to the German gentleman, he is fast on the hills. I end up with 3-4 guys. The tables have turned; from feeling quite ‘cool’, to now feeling quite embarrassed riding around in the yellow jersey, behind the front group. Argh. Just keep fighting, Helle. I just don’t know if this is really all I can do? Or are those 50+ and D guys super super fast? Or am I fatiqued?I don’t know. There’s one very strong German guy, who came back from a flat, he did a lot work to get us round the laps. To my surprise, I had finished behind the front group fast enough to keep the yellow jersey into stage 4. Just! I am leading only with seconds. I jump on my bike to ride back the motel. I have a flat. Now? Pheew. Back at the Motel, I lie with my legs up against the wall. They are not very happy.
Stage 4 – 33K Circuit Race (8 laps of 4.2K, one long hill on every lap).
Same, same. Strong wind, some hard showers, some bright patches. Last stage. Let’s go. It appears to be colder today. I manage to get a pretty good 25 mins warm up. I line up at the front, in yellow. It’s pretty okay to be standing here at the front; however it is not cool to be riding at the back, in yellow. On the other hand, we are kind of meant to get dropped or let me paint it a little brighter; we are not meant to be able to finish at the front. After all, our classification, Women and Men 60+ are racing in a group of men qualified to be stronger and faster. Something would not be right if we all managed to finish together. Today, as any other day, my aim is to drop as late as possible. I am 100% certain I will lose my jersey on this final stage. I don’t think that helps much. The pace is a little more settled today. Maybe I am not the only rider with pretty tired legs. I sit in the group until the 3rd time we pass that long hill. I have to let them go on that hill. It is just a little bit too long. Once again we form a small chase group, but the front disappears. It’s a very short race today, just around one hour. I just want to go give everything I have. Apart from the hill, where we go ‘our own pace’, I take the front the majority of the time and hammer the flat sections. I want to finish off my legs. I felt a little less embarrassed today than yesterday, in the yellow jersey, as we lapped through the start and finish area 5 times, at least I was at the front hammering around the corner like it was depending on life or death. I might have been behind the front, but I went home hard. I also wanted to finish 2nd GC. I did.
It was quite an experience. I spent more time behind the peloton that I did in it, which was a shame, because that was one of the top things I wanted to practise. But I got to practise some other things and I always learn something new, both about racing and about myself; all in pretty awful Danish Summer weather. I had never in my life pictured that I would go as far as feeling embarrassment riding a yellow jersey; that was new on my learning curve. To be fair to myself though, there were more riders in my classification than there were space for on the podium. I didn’t get that jersey without having to fight. It was at the times where I could easily have let go, but chose to keep fighting, that I made my gains. They paid off; enough to earn the yellow jersey for two stages. And at the end of the final stage, I happily handed over that jersey to the rider who deserved it more than me, the better rider on hills, the German gentleman over 60 years old, who fought his way back to the top from a crash. Glückwunsch. Well deserved.