It’s mid August, a balmy late afternoon, when Mt. Seymour beckons. The purpose of his ride is not entirely clear. It could be end-of-season training outing, in advance of a last chance at racing glory. Or another opportunity to “knock the bastard off” by tackling the toughest of the local climbs. Or simply a chance to spin the wheels and mash the pedals in the peace and quiet of the uphill road, the final rays of the sun slanting through the trees.
Whatever its purpose, he quickly establishes a steady climbing rhythm; setting that exquisite pace where the pain and strain of climbing is just bearable, breathing forced but not laboured, heart rate metronomic but not racing; a pace where he can still lift his gaze from a few metres from the front wheel to actually enjoy the scenery; and any time the effort in its totality becomes too severe, a slight easing of the pace to prevent too much lactate acid washing through the legs.
The road is quiet: a few passing cars but no other riders. He feels himself easing off early, distracted as often seems to happen by the contemplation that cycling seems to engender. Plots and schemes, wild kinetic dreams of grand designs, the fermenting of new ideas, imagining epic rides in distant locales, a magnum opus on cycling writing itself in his head.
Further up the climb, he glances back. Another cyclist, somewhat distant but certainly unmistakable, ascending behind him. A companion gives new focus and almost unconsciously he returns to his exquisite pace. More focused, still not working at his limit, holding something in reserve – this is supposedly a training ride after all.
He keeps checking his companion’s progress, surreptitiously, not modifying his effort to account for the other rider’s presence or speed, but quietly setting his own pace and wondering if his chaser has the ability to match it. With the gap still wide, he contemplates the mystery of climbing, the work that can be done to climb faster, but also the hidden, unpredictable qualities of those with The Gift, the climbing genes, that perfect combination of heart, lungs, and legs that makes feats of ascension seem so effortless.
He does not possess The Gift. Instead, though, he sees himself as having the gene – deliberately using the singular. On the bike, he theorizes, no matter our level, we all see ourselves as having a particular talent: perhaps a hardy rouleur, maintaining the steady, unfatiguable pace that breaks the legs of others; or a chasseur, a hunter with a sustained burst of effort that reels in a breakaway or closes gaps; or perhaps a sprinteur, endowed with explosive speed and legs thick with fast-twitch fibres.
He has a single gene to be a grimpeur. For his decidedly modest, no more than average, athletic ability and limited dedication to training and self-improvement, he can climb uphill with a slightly better capability than is manageable at other cycling chores.
Contemplating this on the slopes of Mt. Seymour, he thinks back to some past glory days of riding. We all have them – and some certainly more spectacular than others. But who has not had a race moment, a season or two, when they ruled their peers, their small corner of the racing scene (or perhaps even a large scene), or even just one ride when it all came together for the fleeting moment of perfection when anything on the bike seemed possible. The glory day. Everyone needs one of those memories.
Pulling back from nostalgia, no doubt exaggerated with time, and rounding one of the climb’s corners he senses his companion close behind. Turning slightly to catch a glimpse, then pulling to one side to let him pass, adding a short greeting.
The other rider is climbing strongly, with the appearance of little effort, perhaps how most other faster riders look when one is suffering oneself. Now bested, he is certainly not surprised that the other rider has caught him. The one climbing gene may give an extra 1%, but certainly does not endow a climbing force to be reckoned with.
But he can’t turn down a challenge and a competitive urge quickly kicks in.
In this scenario, decorum is called for and he resists the temptation to pull onto the wheel now in front of him. Instead, he lets a gap of 10 or so metres open up ahead then attempts to match the pace of the lead rider. “He caught me easily enough,” he thinks. “But perhaps he won’t be able to shake me now.”
But holding the pace requires a lift in effort. The exquisite effort is replaced with something more intense and he feels his legs starting to burn as they reach that threshold that is only just sustainable, just bearable until the climb is over. He holds the gap as the last quarter of the climb unfolds. His companion, now his challenger, looks not back, as if sensing relative positions in his own struggle with the mountain.
“I wonder, if I so wanted, if I could close the gap I’ve left open, how much he has left in his tank and how much I have in mine,” he says to himself as his legs continue to protest, holding his gearing in the 23t; they protest some more, begging for the release of the 25t, wanting a small respite from their demands.
But, as the finish of the climb looms, any pause in their efforts is denied. Two options are open for the sprint to the summit: a gradual lifting of the pace, staying in the small ring but clicking down the cassette, building speed slowly; or, holding the pace until the perfect moment when the line is close enough to grab the big ring and launch a late burst of reckless speed. The ideal is always the latter, as some advice from a long-forgetten rider about always finishing in the big ring, and preferably from as far out as possible, is recalled.
But the lead rider has chosen the former strategy and has already pulled open a wider gap; far from the line his tempo has quickened and he steadily increases his speed with such timing, with seemingly no impediment to when he can choose to make his efforts. In deference to his own suffering, his chaser leaves his sprint late, but punishes his tardiness with an extra leg-breaking effort in a higher gear, letting the lactic acid flow freely, seeping from every pore, gasping over the handlebars as he circles the carpark at the top of the climb.
He is alone in his endeavours, however, with his vanquisher elsewhere, content with either his victory or oblivious to the contest. So he quickly retrieves his wind vest for the descent as his breath returns, zipping up against an encroaching evening, and soon he’s racing down the descent and returning to the solitude the opened the ride.
But he can still feel the buzz of his efforts, the thrill of the test, the satisfaction of energy expended and legs tortured. And the satisfaction of purpose now given to the ride where no specific purpose existed prior. And the affirmation of that old cycling adage: race to train. Race to train.