A book, a bike and a hill – revisited.

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This blog post was originally written to introduce myself to the readership of the Tour de Conamara cycle, which is happening on Saturday, May 23rd. In response to their request for volunteer bloggers, I somehow managed to convince the organisers that I was a plausible candidate, so the outcome was this initial story. Which I’m now recycling in the best of traditions.

So what’s it all about? Well I recently read a book called ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink. It might seem strange at first sight to be talking about driving and cycling in the same breath, but bear with me. In reality ‘Drive’ has nothing to do with cars, but it’s all about what drives us as individuals. Also what motivates us to do what we do, and causes us to behave in a certain manner. In essence it’s a sociological study, centred on the new challenges and influences we have to content with in the 21st century.

Pink focuses on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the three keys to engagement and, based on a large number of studies that he collates and references, his proposal is that consistent scientific proof shows that we’re all driven by those three stimuli, once the basic needs of food, shelter and a reasonable income are fulfilled.

So how does this relate to cycling, and where do I fit into the picture? One of the elements is Mastery and the research suggests that athletes (even ones at my sad level) motivate themselves by trying to keep getting better. That there’s an internal dialogue going on that has you saying to yourself that you CAN go faster, harder, longer, lift more weights, etc. Obviously we benchmark ourselves against the competition, and it’s nice to win. But in reality if you (say) run faster than you thought you could, but finish second or even lower, you have still achieved a level of mastery that is its own intrinsic reward. Or so the theory goes…So how do I fit into this model?

Well I took up cycling a few years back and have found that participating in a number of organised events was a powerful motivator. In 2013 I was doing 60-70k events and in 2014 I managed to get over the 100k mark on six occasions. So I have been happy with my progress. Needless to say I train, because I know I can’t just turn up and hope to limp around a five hour course. And key to my training is ‘the hill’.

Maybe we all have a hill. Mine is the road up to the Lemass memorial, on the Military road heading out of Dublin in the direction of Glendalough. I don’t always do it, but on the Saturday mornings when it’s ‘on my agenda’ I tend to wake up with a sense of foreboding. I eat my porridge and banana with trepidation, get my gear together and set off for the foothills of Knocklyon. I’m quite consistent in that I normally get from my house to the memorial on top of the Dublin mountains in under 70-minutes. And I know every turn, every twist, every gateway and every house name on that bloody road, mainly because I’m going very slowly as I ascend. But there is one over-riding question. Which comes right back to the book. Will I stop? Will I take that breather? And the thing is, it’s all in my mind. One little voice goes ‘It’s ok to stop for a short break’. The other one says ‘You still have something in the tank – keep going’.

People who inch by me don’t really bother me. I can always rationalise why they can achieve that not-so-amazing feat. As in ‘He’s got a full carbon bike, she’s a lot younger than me, he’s obviously fitter than me, and he’s definitely got a lower gear than my lowest one, which I’ve been in for the last vertical kilometre’. It’s the voice that won’t go away and is my intermittent companion.

Well there is happy twist to this story. I have been putting in what for me count as ‘hard yards’ in the gym by lifting modest weights, swimming slow lengths, and using a stationary exercise bike. So the last time I went up ‘the hill’ I was hopeful, but not over-confident. I can’t say I breezed up the hill (I doubt I ever will) BUT at the point where the voice said ‘C’mon, have a break’ I managed to keep grinding it out and made it to the point where it all starts to level out. Elation ensued. Then after a rapid banana break (‘you deserve it’) at the Lemass memorial I went on down to the second torture zone on the route, the climb at Lough Bray en route to the Sally gap. Same story. I had 150m to go when the whispers began. But I convinced myself that I could set the bar high again, and hung in there. I was panting hard as I passed (in super slow motion) the people taking photographs at the corner and inched up around the bend to the foot of Kippure. What a feeling!

The great thing for me at that point was that although I still had 30km to go, the climb(s) were behind me. And as luck would have it, the next kilometre was a perfectly surfaced flattish road that I actually glided over. No wheels touched the ground. Well that’s how it felt anyway, believe me. The sun came out, and my elation meter went off the scale. I recalled that in the book this is called ‘flow’ – when everything comes together in a neat package. I didn’t exactly freewheel home, but it felt that way, even with a mild headwind. The only nagging thought in my head now is ‘can I do it again’ because in effect I’ve raised the bar on myself. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. And I feel pretty good now with the Tour de Conamara imminent, and some other cycling events on my 2015 horizon. I CAN keep the voices at bay.

For now, at least, I own the hill.

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