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!
Sea Otter Classic #day1Enough with Pro racing, I am now on my own and I have 'downgraded' to Masters (racing in field with Cat 3 and 4). But don't be fooled, because it's 'Masters Open' (which means that 35+ Pro, 1 and 2 can join too if they want).
I wasn’t even meant to take part. I had registered before the deadline to leave the option of participation open. But I had failed to read the rule book of the Danish Cycling Federation and therefore I was oblivious to the paragraph of ‘binding registration’. I decided against participation even before leaving Dubai and after extensive research, when I discovered the practical, logistical and financial efforts and implications of bringing two bikes from the Middle East to a faraway place in Jutland, Denmark, on a solo journey. I accepted and decided against it. And also I have only really started training more specifically on the TT bike four months ago, along with participation in only three ITT events locally during this time. I took off happily from Dubai with my road bike only.
I learnt about the rules of the ‘binding registration’ as well as the extortionate cancellation fee only 48 hours before the start of the ITT event. To be fair, the rules and regulations are there for a reason and I do take full responsibility for not reading them before submitting my registration. Done is done and I accept the consequences. Luckily the consequences were no worse than I was pretty much forced to take part in the ITT Nationals 2017. It could have been a lot worse really.
I considered my options carefully:
1) Roll down the ramp on my road bike, and then exit the course, accepting a DNF.
2) Perform a personal test on my road bike on the ITT course, and finish most likely as the only rider on a road bike and with a potentially ‘embarrassing time’.
3) Perform some sort of max power test, and then exit the course before the finish line, accepting a DNF and avoiding an ‘embarrassing time’.
4) Get hold of a TT bike? (not an easy task this close to the event)
Not yet having made a final decision 24 hours before ‘my start time’, miraculously my friend Svend appeared with an offer to compete on his TT bike. “Take my bike! I am there anyway acting as support for one of the girls. I’ll bring everything for you”, Svend almost demanded, “I have seen all the training you have done. You’ve got this”. The stars somehow aligned.
At the race destination, I met with Svend 2 hours before my start time. Svend pulled out his tool box and adjusted his bike set up as close as possible to my own bike measurements. Not one measurement was correct. But all were within a few centimeters deviation and as I made an easy roll on the bike to collect my start number and back again with a plastic bag in one hand, I decided “yes, it’s going to be okay, it fits okay for 28km”.
I changed back to my road bike and warmed up on the turbo trainer (supplied by Svend). I didn’t ride the TT bike again before I jumped onto it on the start ramp.
For those of you who do bike racing, you know it’s not an easy task to do alone: drive to destination, find your way, find parking in town via roads that are already closed off, and collect race number in one area and timing chip in another. Go to the loo (at least 3 times), change clothes, set up bike, find tools, buy water, get all stuff organised, eat and drink the right thing at the right time, don’t get too hot, don’t get too cold, warm up (not too early and not too late), stay warm and hydrated on the start line, but don’t carry too much stuff…. Clear the mind and get focused on the task ahead….; the list goes on, and it’s almost impossible to handle this solo and at the same time be fully focused, stress free and perfectly warm for the competition. I have been in this situation countless of times before when travelling alone for competitions. And every time when I have jumped on my bike stressed or cold, I have asked myself the same question: “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this?”.
And here I was again! On all borrowed equipment, set up right before the start of a small event called the Nationals, a competition between the best in the country.
With huge thanks to both Svend and my dear mother, who offered their support from their big hearts, I even managed to fit in a 30 mins warm up on the turbo trainer. Svend supplied the equipment, while my mother unofficially accepted the role as my race assistant. “Mum, I’m running out of water, can you please find some more. Mum, can you please find some tape or cable ties to fit my timing chip. Mum, can you please pull out my vaseline in the right pocket of my sports bag. Mum, can you please add electrolytes to my water bottle. Mum… Mum… Mum… Please… Please… Please…“. Bless my mum. It was her first time being support at a race and I was literally dishing out orders to a clueless helper, while turning my legs on the turbo trainer. It was either that – or start the ITT cold. I cannot thank my mother or Svend enough for their flexibility, patience and generosity.
On another positive note and under the circumstances I was probably the calmest I have been in a long time. No one had any expectations of me. But more importantly, I didn’t have any expectations of myself either. I was out swimming with the big fish, against all odds. The best I could do, was to give the best of myself, on someone else’s equipment. I came into the competition expecting to place last. I would be very happy if I achieved 2nd from the bottom. Let’s not forget I was lining up with the best in the country, incl. 7 World Tour riders.
To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the route in detail (just to make it clear, I would never consider not studying the route under more controlled and competitive circumstances). I heard it was flat with 22 turns. Okay, let’s go! As there was no power meter on the bike, I just received one last minute advice from my faraway coach: “Don’t go too hard in the beginning – and then use your heart rate as a monitor”. I rolled down the ramp and maneuvered out of town behind my personal marshal motor bike. “Don’t go too hard!”… But what does that actually mean? How do you control that ‘feeling’, when you are supposed to give your all, over ca. 45 mins; you have fresh legs and the adrenaline is pumping? I wasn’t sure to be honest. I wasn’t sure of the exact feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to give ‘too little’. I lack experience of my self-awareness.
Just to make you aware that 22 turns, is 22 turns more than what we have on our UAE tracks; NAS, Al Qudra and Al Wathba, where we have zero turns. At home we put the hammer down from start to finish, that’s it. Get measured on raw power. I am not entirely sure how to turn a TT bike efficiently and safely. Again, I lack experience. I decided to take the same line as the motor bike in front of me through every turn. And I decided it would not be worth taking any risks and potentially causing damage to myself or my borrowed equipment. After ca. 10K, I realized and I had to accept that after all I had started too hard. Everything hurt and I was forced to take it down a notch. At this time I was on a long straight, but I only discovered I was on a long straight when I was far enough into it, to realize it was a long straight (lack of preparation). It was quite hard to swallow that I didn’t have full power down the straight (it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference to the bottom of the results list, but it would make a difference to my personal performance, judgement of effort and certainly confidence). I was overtaken too. In the UAE I haven’t yet been overtaken (by women). I was totally prepared to get overtaken going into this competition however, but I didn’t know how it would feel, until it happened. I definitely spent some time (and maybe also energy), seconds or minutes, I can’t remember, to deal with it mentally and emotionally. Also around the 10km mark, both my feet started to cramp, like serious pain in both my feet. I had simply tightened my shoes too hard. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was standing in line to the ramp. I always tighten my shoes before I take on a sprint for the finish line. Subconsciously, I tightened my shoes before jumping on the bike. Tight shoes for the best performance. Big mistake. The pain was almost unbearable. I spent a considerable amount of time weighing the two options: 1) loosen both shoes (consequence: a significant drop in speed and momentum) or 2) suck it up and continue riding in pain. I chose the first option as I was coming out of a turn and reached down on both sides. The shoe strings didn’t at all loosen enough. And I still took the loss of speed and momentum. Ah dammit. I’ll have to suck it up then. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling at all. In the Summer heat of Dubai riding dehydrated in 40+ degrees celcius, my feet cramp on a weekly basis. I had to continuously wiggle my toes for the rest of the ITT. Around 20K and 2/3 into the course, I decided to start picking back up again, hurt more and drive my heart rate higher. There was more technical navigation and another long straight along the way. I did the best I could until the finish line. As I came to a stop, I could hardly unclip from the pain in my feet and I had to take a few minutes on the side, before getting a normal feeling back in the feet and being able to walk again. Quite frankly, I had no idea how I performed. Without a power meter it’s also hard to tell. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the final result, in terms of ranking. If I could have had any form of ‘result’ I would have chosen to see my power profile.
As expected I finished last. Number 20 (of 23 starters and 20 finishers). But you know what? It was not a bad time at all! Under the circumstances, I am quite proud to say I am in the top 20 best time trialists in Denmark in 2017! And I am still in possession of US$ 300 (which would have been the penalty fee for cancelling) minus the penalty for the, also borrowed, non-club kit at US$ 45.
The icing on the cake, was after the event when I caught up with the rider (placing 2nd last) and her coach. Their positive attitude, laughter and healthy delight of beating my time and not placing last in the Nationals, really, it was priceless. Just for that enjoyment factor, I was happy to take the bottom spot in the ranks.
After completing ITT Nationals under these circumstances, again I tell myself “No more of this Helle. Come prepared, with the appropriate support and equipment – or stay away”. On the other hand, with the time and effort I put into my cycling, I am equally intrigued to witness what I am actually capable off, under the right circumstances.
Will I return next year? Right now I am thinking: “Probably not for the Elite Nationals. Definitely for the Masters Nationals! (if I can bring my own bike along)”. But I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. So who knows.
The day after, Svend earned his title as National Champion Para ITT.
Nothing won, nothing lost… But always an experience richer 🙂