The inexplicable good and bad days on the bike

Wiggins and Froome (smile)You feel great. You feel like shit. Yin and yang, attacking and being dropped, good and bad days on the bike are unpredictable at best, maddening at worst. Despite the best efforts of psychologists, nutritionists, coaches, and strict training plans, there are those days when anything can happen, we can be at the top of our game or grovelling, pedalling with our ears as the French might say. Why?

No rhyme, no reason. It is inexplicable. Illogical. No amount of rational reasoning will help you understand why we have good and bad days on the bike. And how do we react? Being creatures who focus on our faults, we over analyse our bad days, searching in vain for the reason why we were seemingly unable to turn the pedals in a tailwind. On good days we take it for granted that yes, we are heroes. Of course I was amazing, I am amazing, quick hand me that pro contract.

Diet, sleep, stress, physical tiredness, all undoubtedly play a part, yet we’ve done everything by the book, that book being The Obree Way, The Boardman Way, The Merckx Way, you know, the right way. Yet still you suffer. Or perhaps you was out enjoying a few beverages the night before, and a kebab, and you’ve barely turned a pedal in weeks and yet out you go and BOOM!, you destroy the road. Perhaps that drink was spiked with EPO, right?

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed”
Thomas Moore

The human body is a complex being. Five fruit and veg plus exercise minus alcohol multiplied by a few good nights sleep don’t always add up to a good day on the bike. You often hear the mighty professionals complaining of bad days despite their science and carefully planned training.

That’s the thing with those extraordinarily unpredictable days, no matter what our approach it can sometimes seems as if the cycling gods have decided our fate before we’ve even pulled on the Lycra. I like to think there are two gods of the road, the good and the bad. Let’s name them in true Greek God style, Jeus, god of the phantom tailwind and Fades, god of never-ending journeys.

The bad days

What do you mean, 'we're only halfway'?

What do you mean, ‘we’re only halfway’?

I’m not talking of simply being tired, of overtraining or experiencing the bonk, no, these are the days when you go out with legs like cooked spaghetti and suffer for no apparent reason. Grovelling. Pedalling squares. Legs heavy, we beg for the end. We do not want to see a bike let alone cycle.

Everything hurts. There’s more life at the bottom of your mouldy water bottle. Quads burning, calves tight. Our saddle is a razor, our heads heavy and quick to drop, unable to look the road in the eye for we know it has beaten us. Every turn seems to bring a headwind yet the leaves on the trees are still. We always seem to be a gear short as we mash our way downhill at 10 mph. Yes, my odometer is broken. Must be, because I’m going nowhere.

Gravity is against you. Einstein would struggle to explain this phenomenon. You watched the weather last night and saw nothing of this super thick air you seem to be wading through. Soup, you are cycling through minestrone. And then the rain comes. Typical. If somebody offered you a fiver for your expensive shiny bike you’d gladly take it and hitch-hike home.

On such rides there is no recovery. There is the end. Eventually. You lock your bike away and throw away the key. I am never cycling again. This ride won’t be making it onto Strava. You don’t want to talk about it or think about it, let alone share it with the world. Nobody should see such a pathetic ride. You look accusingly at your legs. Where the eff were you today, you ask? It’s 30 degrees outside yet you put trousers on because you don’t want to see these two lifeless limbs. You lie down and vow never to cycle again. Until next week anyway.

The good days

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Accelerating, you can out sprint farts, hills flatten before your very eyes, the applause of the imaginary crowd echoes in your head, Strava segment times tumbling, you are the greatest cyclist that has ever lived. You keep one eye out for the Team Sky car for surely they’ve noticed this prodigious talent everyone is applauding. It’s only a matter of time before Sir Dave Brailsford discovers the YouTube footage of this blur, this machine, this future Tour de France winner.

These are float days. Everything is effortless. You know the days. The pedals turn themselves as if somebody installed a motor in your bottom bracket overnight. Your bike is so light you’re convinced you’re riding a feather. Your puny cycling biceps bulging, you could tear your way through phone books and dictionaries should the need arise. You pass the tattoo parlour and go inside to get the world championship rainbow stripes etched onto each arm for nobody will ever take your crown. Ever.

God do you love cycling. You were born for this day. You laugh in the face of the stiffest of headwinds and 20 percent climbs. You tease wheelsuckers who struggle to remain in the shelter of your shadow. You destroy chain gangs without trying and there’s no lamppost in the world that anybody can beat you to. Upon turning back towards home you realise you’ve been out all day, your legs still fresh, you could cycle forever. This is love.

That rarest of days

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a bad day turns into a good day. Never the other way around. Perhaps you’ve finally digested breakfast, or your legs have eventually warmed up, or a hard sprint has shaken you into life, or a hill climb puts you so near to death it makes you feel alive. Such days are mystifying but welcome.

As much as we strive to explain the human condition, it’s the mystery of it all that we must embrace. Some cyclists ride to become machines. Not this cyclist. For every 99 bad days on the bike there’s that one good day. Maybe it will be tomorrow. Just maybe. There’s only one way to find out…

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
Elbert Hubbard, arriving home after a float day

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Images courtesy of 1-4) Unknown

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13 thoughts on “The inexplicable good and bad days on the bike

  1. God I hate those days when you’re out with that mate who is just that bit quicker than you, even If he goes easy on you you’ll need to be on your game, and within twenty minutes of heading out you know you’re having a bad day. The suffering is so much worse because you know it’s inevitable!

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  2. I am new to road cycling, only taking it up after 20 years of ciggies, alcohol and fast food!
    My first ever couple of rides with a friend (15m & 30m) absolutely destroyed me, he is a very good amatuer cyclist and has more bikes than I have underpants and all the best gear.
    On that 30m I actually came so close to ‘bonking’ I had to get off and walk and ingest an energy gel just to finish the route.
    That was a few months ago and since then I have been making a huge effort to improve, I can now go out and do 40m easily in 2.5hrs and have amassed over 650m in just over 3 months (with a 2 week break).
    I cannot seem to improve on my avg speed 16-18m but I have built up my stamina.
    Just recently I went out and did a 40m and I was in the zone, was hitting over 20m avg and hills and climbs were nothing, I felt I could go on all day. It was like ‘leveling up’ on a computer game 🙂
    So naturally I told my friend and we went out today and I had a really bad day, I was struggling to keep with him around 18m avg and he was dropping me on every hill like I was an 80yr old man on a bmx.
    Naturally I felt embarrassed as f*** and I wheezed my way to catch him up at every opportunity.
    Someone must know the answer to why we have these ‘off’ days and this was my first experience of the phenomenon.
    It was as if I was on my first ride in 20+ years which I did just a few months ago.
    Damn you Velo Gods, damn you!

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    • Sounds like you’re having fun! The average speed increase will come with time. Some say it takes a good few years for your muscles to adapt, which is certainly true of my experience. Sounds like you have a good target though: beating your friend!

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  3. First race of the season yesterday compelled me to, today, search for “bad days on the bike.” Congrats I found you! At my expense.

    Someone foolishly pointed at me at the start line and said “he’s the one to look out for.” I was, perhaps, once. And for a moment I smiled and thought, maybe I am again today. Thirty minutes later I was entering the suck zone and an hour after I emerged covered in it. Finished just in front of someone who couldn’t walk after for the cramps.

    My teammates, with whom I train, had stellar days. I had, by a decent margin, my worst.

    I felt like crying on the long ride home. I might’ve if I wasn’t just so confused. And now?

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    • Sounds like a rough day. Had one myself yesterday. 90 miles and 3,000 metres of climbing… Into a strong headwind. Not the day for a bad day. Went out today, another 90 miles. Easy! Your time in the sun will come.

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  4. Pingback: Pedaling Perspective | VELOFEM: Cycling Chronicles

  5. Pingback: What I think about when I’m cycling | The Human Cyclist

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