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!
3 days before…
Back tracking three days, I climbed up this epic mountain for the first time ever via the Bedoin side, the most famous of the three; the side you see in Tour de France. It was cold and windy at the top and I could hardly see that epic tower although standing right below it, by the summit sign. I couldn’t get down fast enough either due to the cold wind ripping through my sweat soaked cycle kit.
2 days before…
The day after, two days ago, I took the scenic route via Gorges de la Nesque (20K at 2.3% avg) to Sault, which is another entry to the summit of Mt Ventoux. It was a very windy day; in fact, it was an extremely windy day. It was pretty much a battle all day, beautiful too, without a doubt, a beautiful battle. After climbing a total of ca. 40K I reached that epic bald part of Mt Ventoux (6K to the summit on the open bald top of Ventoux) and that’s where the wind or lets refer to it as ‘the storm’ took a decisive and firm hold of me and my bike with 60mm rims. The descenders passed me slowly and narrowly as I moved upwards, half of them walking down, almost leaning up against the mountain side with a firm grip on their bikes, while the others rolled slowly past, on the wrong side of the road, the one with the least chance of getting blown off the side, with one foot clipped in and one foot ready to catch them on the road. I continued upwards, with the firmest grip I ever had on my handlebar, biceps fully contracted, core as ready as if I was taking a punch to the stomach. On the steepest section towards the ‘windy pass’ at 1,830m (Col des Tempetes), I got blown off my bike. One, two, three… Push hard to get back on! I reached Col de Tempetes – and stopped. I have never experienced wind that strong in my life. The Summit was only 600m away (or 79m of elevation (of 1,909m total). I couldn’t actually see the tower for the dark cloud that I was already surrounded by, and moving with storm like speeds. But I knew it was right there above me, because I was there yesterday. The wind on the ‘windy pass’ was so hard, I gulped big lumps of air when breathing in (and talking to my Instagram storyline, because it would be rude not to show those crazy wind conditions to those who would care). ‘’To continue or not continue’’, was the question on my mind as I was fighting to even stand straight and hold on to my bike. Make a decision quick. It wasn’t easy. 79 meters from the summit and then bailing? WTF. I was there yesterday, also covered in a grey cloud, there was nothing to see. Continue the last few meters, see nothing, and take a risk of getting blown off the bike? WTF. That doesn’t make sense either. Arghhhh….
I am super proud of myself for turning around. Not worth the risk I decided. There is also a day tomorrow. With a 60mm flat racing wheel set, I opted for the ‘one foot clipped in’ option and descended like most others in the wrong side of the road, believing the risk of hitting the front of a car was far less than getting blown off the mountain side.
The day before… Rest day?
Yesterday, it was another crazy windy day. I decided to ‘stay away from the mountain’ and instead venture out on a relatively flat and easy day. I chose to explore the vineyards to the west of Mt Ventoux. This day however turned out to become a 3 hours fight with the wind through the open grape fields. A mental and physical battle on the ‘easy day’. I did though enjoy the concorde like 15K ride home from Malaucine to Carpentras. Into the drops, catapulted forwards by the wind, highest watt output possible, time trial mode; -1% or so average too. I was home in no time, with 5 QOMs to my name. Sometimes I really do LOVE the wind. That part was fun!
Going Triple Whammy
Today, finally, it’s a beautiful day, with a blue sky and from what I judge on my hotel balcony, less windy. I feel like a long day on the bike, a nice one, not one going into battle. Ever since my amazing travel buddy Jannie casually mentioned, on our road trip from Cote d’Azur to Provence, that there is always the option to climb Ventoux from all three sides in one day, I initially brushed it off as being a little crazy, but it kinda stuck to my mind too. Anyway, I stuffed my jersey pockets accordingly, 3 gels (one for each potential climb), 2 natural energy bars (a few bites here and there for sustainable energy and avoiding getting hungry) and a wind jacket. I know I would be kicking myself if I had ‘a good day’, but with empty pockets. My friends had other plans for today, so I took off solo.
SUMMIT ONE (via Malaucine) – 21K @ 7.2% (max 12%) and 1,540m of elevation – 1hr 53mins
I had already climbed up Ventoux the days before via Bedoin and Sault, so of course I started here. I would go as far as saying this is my favourite side. The climb has some very steep and unforgiving sections, but what I love on this side is that you are also randomly met by sections of 4-5% which certainly feels like a nice break from 10 and 11%. While counting down the kilometres one by one via the road signs, the gradient varies all the time making the kilometres tick by even faster, in my opinion. Furthermore, as you pass the 10K and halfway mark, you get frequently surprised by the utterly breath taking French Alpine mountain range behind Ventoux. The temptation to stop is as great as when you pass the ice cream shop on a warm summer day; however I resisted. And I promise you, no need to stop along the way, just take in what you can while continuously pedalling towards the top, because by far the greatest view of the French Alps in the distance, is from the very top. As you turn around the bend with 2K to the summit, that EPIC tower appears before your eyes for the very first time, standing tall, close and visible (under a blue sky at least). Boom! Suddenly it’s there, so close. WOW! I am pretty certain that no matter what it took to get to that 19K mark, what went through your mind in the last 1hr 45mins and how loud your legs might have been screaming at you; it’s already forgotten. And even better, anything can be concurred in only 2K.
For me personally, I felt good. I stuck to my plan, climbed steadily with average watt output a little over target. Completely blown away by occasional peeps through the trees over the mountain range. Minimal wind and warm sunshine. It’s only midday as I reach the summit. Body, legs and mind feeling completely normal. Another day, another mountain – as some would say. No drama. No problems. But that was EPIC!
Let’s do it again!
SUMMIT TWO (via Bedoin) – 21K @ 7.6% (max 12%) and 1640m elevation – 1hr 50mins
The descent from the summit to Bedoin town is one of my favourites ever! There are almost no switch backs and there are both longer straight and steeper sections and perfectly proportioned bends to really get some none-nerve wracking and truly exhilarating speed going. You can take on almost the entire 21K downhill without breaking hard and without breaking much. It’s A-MAZING!
Quick coffee in Bedoin, where it’s almost too hot to sit in the sun – and up I go again. As I pass through the first 6K in the open landscape, the tower seems so far away. My Garmin is a bit frozen and doesn’t record either gradient, elevation or temperature. As I climb through the uncompromising 9-10K middle section I am quite happy to be unaware, visually, of the gradients on the climb. While physically, does it really matter? For every pedal stroke I will get closer to the summit, no matter how steep or how long it is. The last 6K of the climb from this side is that EPIC bald part. The gradient drops a bit, the view of Provence appears and the tower is now within reach. It is truly EPIC! I reach the summit for the 2nd time today feeling nothing, but happiness. Again I was pretty much on target with my watt output, only a little over target again. Time has no relevance today. Only power. I can do this again, of course I can. It’s only the middle of the afternoon. It is still warm and sunny, with only very little wind. Would I even consider ‘just’ climbing up twice on a day like this? Never. When it’s in my head, it will be completed.
Let’s do it again!
SUMMIT THREE (via Sault) – 26K @ 4.5% (max 11%) and 1,220m elevation – 1hr 45mins
There’s some work to be done on the descent to Sault. Quick coffee stop in the warm sun – and off I go again. The first few Ks run through the open lavender fields. Two days ago I was being bashed around by the wind here. Today is much calmer. Let’s put it this way, I can now feel my legs. They are not fatiqued, but I can feel them. I have long forgotten about my saddle sores; it’s like they never existed. My neck muscles are starting to feel a little tender. I strategically left the Sault side to last as it is the easiest. Not too much pressure on the legs; just keep pedalling. It is also the least exciting side. There is not much to see really. Most of the road is hidden away by trees and mountain side. Every now and again the view over the landscape towards the Nice area appears. It’s nothing to write home about. There is some false flat the last few Ks before reaching the bald part, it feels really good to collect some speed here. Hello! There it is again, the bald part and the tower. I am still feeling good. It is now around 5pm and I have surpassed the crazy busy window of cycling enthusiasts moving up and down the mountain side. I pretty much have that EPIC road to myself. I am still feeling good. I have no problems reaching the summit for the 3rd and final time this afternoon. I am a little under target with my power output on this final ascent, no surprise there really (and also, I am of course already planning a ‘recovery ride to the summit’ tomorrow).
My unofficial Mt Ventoux Triple Whammy… Done!
Just because it was a nice day for it 🙂
For once, there were no obstacles on my way. I never felt any mental or physical fatigue. I just wanted to ride my bike all day. I thoroughly enjoyed every pedal stroke. I am even convinced I smiled all the way. I never had any doubt if I was capable or not; of course I am capable. It was a beautiful warm and sunny day; not too hot and not too windy. I just took one climb at the time. Standing at the summit for the final time, I smiled to myself; honestly I am still not tired, luckily, as I still have around 40K home….
And sure enough I did the next day summit Mt Ventoux (via Malaucine) for the 6th and final time, in 4 days total.
Stats for the 3x Ventoux:
173km (from Carpentras)
5,050 elevation meters
68km of climbing
8 hours 28 mins total