I don’t race, I ride. Yet I’m training. Many will question the word training. As if an amateur cannot train. Especially one who does not race. You are not an Olympian, you are not a pro, you are not a racer, you are not training.
Yet I am training. Despite being self-coached my amateur training is more advanced than most professionals of days gone by. I have rigid plans and structures. I have training zones and a ‘fueling strategy’ aka a balanced diet. I monitor progress and apply basic sport science, some of it half-baked, some of it not. The trouble being you never really know which is which. I take myself far too seriously and I wear a headband for christ sake, I must be training.
For what I’m training for, I cannot say. There’s no medals to point to. There’s the small number of hill climb races I enter. Or the bravado of leading out the peloton or the fear of being dropped on a club ride. There’s local hills and personal bests. Yet I’m not really training for any of these.
So why train? For fitness? In and of itself no. Sure, it’s good to be fit and healthy yet I don’t take pride in being fit, and I’m not sure a cyclist can truly call themselves fit given an appalling lack of upper body strength. We’re a deranged, malformed variety of fit at best, all legs and lungs, tired most of the time, recovering and resting, the irony of being constantly weak in order to get stronger.
So what am I training for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It is but a mere distraction from the futility of life. Inspiring eh? Not really an acceptable answer at the cafe stop or the water cooler or perhaps even this blog. Why? For it questions the meaning of life itself. Let me explain.
Cue images of man lying on floor, weeping. Let’s rewind to a time we shall call BC. Before Cycling. Back then I was also training. Not the body, the mind. French literature, lengthy Russian prose, Hungarian thinkers, Austrian intellects, Italian madmen.
You know, the dense books with the really, really small print and long words. The pursuit of intellect was to understand the point of life, a dimly lit path that led me to existentialism and the meaninglessness of it all. I know. Get me.
Muddled and befuddled, I took myself far too seriously and painted myself into a tight, dark corner of despair. The realisation that life is indeed pointless, whilst neither news nor a shock to me, was maddening, as if I’d been lied to, for I am a control freak and everything must have a purpose. Alas, it isn’t so.
Life is pointless
Life is pointless. Absurd. How else to explain all which surrounds us. Donald Trump. Brexit. Arm warmers. Still not convinced?
What is the meaning of life? A question to which some claim there is no answer, only because the one answer that exists is too difficult to accept. There is no meaning to life.
Some argue that life, our very existence, survival, is itself the point, but the point of what? Life can’t be the point of life. Perhaps it’s about passing on our genes. Why bring another person into this world? To keep humankind alive? But for what purpose? So they too can question the meaning of life and die?
We have achieved much as a race. The power of thought, emotion, and communication, the wonders of science and technology. We live more comfortably than our ancestors and we’re further along the path to mastering the world in which we live. But to what end? We suffer less perhaps, but we’ve hardly achieved nirvana.
You could argue we destroy more than we create. Earth’s finite resources are disappearing fast, so too the animals we no longer share the planet with. They on the other hand contribute to the world in which live. Bees pollinate flowers, plankton feeds the ocean. But to what end? The flowers die. The sea creatures die. We die.
The point of this? There isn’t one. Acceptance of such a truth is not easy. For if life is pointless (and it is), why bother with anything at all, for everything within life must also be pointless. To accept this truth is to live a life of misery, a hollow, unfulfilled and joyless existence. Or is it?
The power of distraction
Ignorance is bliss. It truly is. How do people continue living, nay, enjoying life if it is indeed pointless? They simply don’t (or never will) think about it. It’s torture even to consider it. Instead they do something with their lives, they define their own life’s meaning. Busy living life, there’s less time to question it.
A purest might think this means lying to ourselves but I disagree, we’re merely distracting ourselves. We fool ourselves, magicians with a sleight of hand, distracting ourselves from the horrible truth that life is pointless.
We devote our lives to others. We start a family. We raise money for charity. The point of life becomes helping others. Or we focus on the self and develop interests, hobbies, escapes. We ski, we read, we drink, we cycle. We take risks, we hide behind piles of possessions. We follow sports, we collect beer mats, we train spot, we become twitchers, we buy way too much Lycra from Wiggle. Anything to distract us from the meaninglessness of it all.
Life is but a series of distractions. Governments, media and business have long since grasped this in the pursuit of power and money. You could argue Donald Trump’s presidency is nothing but a strategy of distraction.
Everywhere you look, distractions. Fashion is an industry built on distraction, so too commerce. Media too. Billions of stories of little consequence to your life. The internet. Oh my. Mobile phones our handheld distractors, attention spans dwindling, ever in search of the next distraction, afraid to linger lest the pointlessness of it all resurfaces. Social media notifications ring the Pavlovian bell, you the dog of reaction, saliva all that’s missing from this sorry story. Anything to avoid staring into the void.
This is nothing new to existentialists, who have long since known that it is the self that brings meaning to their life. There is no greater good. No benevolent, all-seeing master. We define our own existence and identity through what we do, distractions that add significance to our lives where there was none.
You may call your distraction a belief, an interest, or a loved one. Whatever your label, the purpose and outcomes are the same. We fall in love with our distractions, they help define us, they become our reason for living.
Not that we should forget that from which we distract ourselves. Scars remind us to be more careful, death that we’re not immortal. Memories do not define us but they shape us. The pointlessness of life is worth remembering, even if it only reminds us not to take ourselves or others too seriously.
Cycling is my distraction. Or at least one of my distractions. Music. Alcohol on occasion. Writing. Fish finger sandwiches. From the grand to the seemingly inconsequential. All pointless in and of themselves. Mere distractions.
But why these distractions? Distractions don’t need to be perceived as worthwhile, they simply need to satisfy a need, real or perceived, to bring us comfort, fulfilment, or preferably, joy.
“We all have our distractions from the madness. These are usually other forms of madness.”
Decision making and the value of joy
How to choose our distractions when surrounded with so much choice? Enter joy. The more joy, the better the distraction. Joy is not happiness. That utopian ideal, an unachievable constant state of mind and being. Joy is a moment. A pleasurable distraction.
How to apply the principles of joy to our everyday choices? This requires a different mode of thinking. We need to decide with our hearts more than our heads. Let go of the rational, the logical and let emotion decide. This goes against everything I know.
Good decisions are rational, based on information and evaluated carefully, looking at the pros and cons, the outcomes. Yet joy is rarely an outcome in such mental models. Logic often focuses on the outcome rather than the process, it ignores emotions and how we feel.
Some examples. Eating broccoli provides vitamins which are good for my health. The rational self says eat the damned broccoli. Yet if you don’t enjoy the taste, then there’s no joy here. Or how about training. I will get quicker, stronger. Yet if you merely endure training there will be little joy and thus your distraction is unlikely to last.
Yet we’re rarely rational, no matter how much we kid ourselves. What we consider to be rational can easily lead to ‘no’ because we always see the risks, dangers and negatives of a decision. Fear takes over, our subjective self begins to back away and the decision is no longer rational.
Why? Fear and loss aversion. Most of us are conditioned to protect what we have and to avoid loss rather than to take chances. We play the decision game not to win, but to not lose.
Back to joy. Drop the logical thought process, ignore the fear and focus instead on the outcome. And only one outcome. Will this bring me joy? If the answer is no you have your answer and choice. There are no other questions to ask. This process alone will radically reshape the decisions you make.
If the answer is yes, this will bring me joy, then you have can proceed to the next level. Now your decision reverts to the simple equation of value, i.e. the cost versus return, both from a selfish and selfless perspective.
By valuing joy so much, the costs become a less significant part of the equation. Beware of the caveat. The pursuit of joy shouldn’t lead to a selfish life or negatively impact on others.
Where to find joy
Does ‘such and such’ bring me joy, how much? From the food we eat to how we idle away the hours or how much we care for others. These are easy questions to ask yet many of the things littering our lives do not bring joy.
Be it the trivial and mundane, that pair of black socks you’re wearing this very moment or the more fundamental choices of how you live your life, where you live, the people you surround yourself with, your job. How do you fill your hours? Do you enjoy or endure? The fear of change, of loss, of the unknown or perhaps good old laziness all repress joy.
We each have habits that if questioned do not bring us joy. Constantly reading the news or scrolling through our social media feeds. Television. Placing another order online for yet another something we don’t need.
Not that everything in life is or should be joyful, far from it. We must fulfil our basic needs, as identified in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some may choose joy before such needs. For example, choosing to go out and party overcomes our physiological need for sleep or rest or food. Cyclists are often guilty of such decisions.
Equally we bring joy into the functional choices we make when satisfying our needs. Food. To some it is energy, to others it’s about taste. Warmth, to some is a thick jumper regardless of style or colour. To another looking good is more important than staying warm. Thrill seekers ignore their safety for the joy of adrenaline.
A commuter choosing a bike has a need but there is not necessarily a question of joy in his choice of bike. The commuter may not form a bond with their bike, it will merely get them to work. Some however will appreciate the smooth shifting of gears, a lightweight bike helping them up the hills, the colour of the bike that brings them joy before each ride.
The trick is to identify what brings us joy and to make more of these choices. Or else to find joy in more of what we do. Rather than simply shovelling any old food down our throats we can take the time to eat well, to appreciate the taste and flavour of a well cooked meal. Or to recognise the person we’ve lived with all these years as the person we first met. To no longer take each other for granted because we’ve forgotten the joys we bring one another.
Even the things in life that seem joyless don’t have to be. At work, we form relationships with others to help pass the time, colleagues become friends and help distract us from our captors. Or we equate our salaries with freedom and a passport to travel many another land when we are released. Parenting a child, the rarer moments of joy outshine the many more moments of hard work.
Joy can be found even in the distractions we wish to avoid. The languor, the squalor, the downtime of a hangover. The meditative bliss of a repetitive task. Time off the bike due to an injury. The joy of solving a problem.
Joy in and of itself is not the point of life. What is the point of joy? It is not necessary or fundamental to life. We could survive without it, yet nobody would choose a joyless existence if given the choice. Joy makes the passing of time more bearable. It is but a distraction.
Back to the cycling
I began with a simple question and proceeded to meander into a more complicated answer. So back to the original question. I’m training because it brings joy and distracts me from the pointlessness of life.
Why does training bring me joy rather than merely riding? There are many manifestations of joy and cycling can tick multiple boxes. Joy can be found in the process or the outcome or both. The joy of cleaning our bike is not in the process but the end result. Shiny.
Training for some is about the results. The joy of getting quicker. This was once my purpose. No matter how beautiful the scenery or how mind-blowing the sunset, if I arrived home with numbers lower than I was expecting then it was all for nothing. Burying myself, riding to exhaustion, going further, higher, quicker. Guilty m’lord.
Yet this is no longer why I train. I’ve been there, it ain’t pretty and neither is it sustainable. I train not for the pain nor masochism, nor any notion of narcissism that proves me to be a better rider than another. There’s always someone quicker.
I once competed with myself, the one person I can never beat. Always striving for progress, a desire to improve, to be quicker, stronger. Achievement our distraction, our joy. Yet it is one of diminishing returns. The gains come quickly, easily when we first begin riding. We soon plateau, past which every tiny improvement comes at a great cost.
We all know people who jump from activity to activity, continually seeking the hockey stick of improvement. Yet the line graph cannot sustain stratospheric improvement and upon hitting the plateau, these folk lose motivation, the joy. Decline sets in and off they go hunting for the next distraction that will provide quick progress.
How about cycling’s joy of glorious scenery? Mind blowing, yet I could walk, or just ride, there’s no need to race through such scenes. Some would argue such a strategy defies the point.
How about the raw human need for movement, for activity? My mind stalls when the body grows stale. I become agitated, cranky. Must release the endorphins, seek the serotonin hit. This helps, and there are times when a bike ride brings bigger highs than any drug I’ve tried. Yet this is not my addiction. I don’t need to ride hard to release mood enhancers.
The art of being
My training is no longer about the results but the process. The art of being. Cycling allows my mind to wander, to meditate, to let go. It distracts. A reverse meditation that raises my heartbeat rather than lowering it.
Riding slowly does the opposite. I think. Random thoughts stalk me. Riding hard I focus only on the mechanics of movement, a machine, mind blank, nothing exists. Zen. Pain and persistence my distraction. Training brings peace, mindfulness, joy.
This is why I can ride for hours on a turbo or ride many miles hour upon hour. Somebody once asked me what I think about during a long ride. Nothing. Sure there’s occasional moments of singing out loud or a gasp at the landscape but for the most part my mind is empty, focussed on movement and nothing else. This is my freedom, my joy.
My training is not about the ride, the journey nor the bike. It is the emptying of the mind. The meditation is my escape. My distraction. My joy. This is what I’m training for.
Image: Cycology clothing