Monday, October 31, 2011

We're all leg men

It's probably impossible to find a group of guys who look at each others' legs more than cyclists do. Oh, and talk about their butts.

With hard exercise it seems, comes total lack of shame when it comes to the body. On bike forums cyclists happily discuss leg shaving, butt sores and even other non-cycling afflictions such as haemorrhoids.

Training changes your relationship to your body. In one way it's a more intimate connection--you understand it better, you track its little moods and know to a specific heartbeat how hard to push it. But in another way, it's a more dispassionate relationship. The body becomes another tool to optimise, just a machine that needs to be fuelled and run in a certain way to get the best out of it.

The very language you use to talk to and about your body changes. Drinking water becomes "hydration", eating becomes "nutrition" or "fuelling", and rest "recovery". In fact, the day you un-selfconsciously and non-ironically use the word "hydration" to refer to the ingestion of water, you are well on your way to being a velokundi.

You also start splitting systems into constituent parts. No longer do your thighs ache, but it's your "quads, but not the hamstrings, with some tightness in the IT band". No longer did you have a hard ride, but your "heartrate was near LT for nearly the whole way". It's a strange tug of war between understanding, accepting, even loving, your body like you never have before,and yet using cold clinical language and methods to get it to work like never before. ("Periodisation" of training, or intervals is a great example of a cruel, calculated methods to force fitness.)

Food also starts to get split up. Familiar dishes start being looked at through a kaleidoscope that splits them into the "macro-nutrients" i.e. proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Foods get analysed for quality of micronutrients too, and no matter how much or little you love food, hard exercise will change your relationship to it.

I wrote about this in an article in Gulf News, where I said: In this context, I’m often reminded of two motorcycles I used to own. One was an old Czech bike of ancient vintage, but available new in India up to 1996. I would sometimes notice that my front tyre was visibly low on air, and feel guilty that I couldn’t feel a change of something like 10psi. A few years later I rode a modern, highly engineered sportsbike and realised I could feel a change of even 1psi in the front tyre. It wasn’t that I had got more sensitive, but that less play in the system meant my connection with my front tyre was more solid and more crucial. In the same way, as exercise removes the play in one’s body, the connection to food gets more solid and more crucial, and eaters start to feel more results—both good and bad—of their eating choices.

But I know that you've still got that legs bit running around in your head, so let's get back there. It's so funny that most of my life I got teased for my largely hairless legs, but now, hanging out with cyclists, I'm envied because I don't have to shave them. (Yes wide-eyed noob who is now regretting reading this, most of the cyclists I hang out with shave their legs. Let's go there another day, shall we?)

I'm remembering how, at a recent race, I overheard one guy saying to another: "Your legs look so good man. The cuts, the striations--your legs are just amazing."

Where else, baba? Where else will you find straight men talking to each other in this way?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Like a surgeon

An interesting article on coaching by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker. If cyclists and sopranos have coaches, why not surgeons? Is the question he asks. There's insight into just what a coach does for you, but also peeks into sporting culture in general. For instance, this paragraph:
What we think of as coaching was, sports historians say, a distinctly American development. During the nineteenth century, Britain had the more avid sporting culture; its leisure classes went in for games like cricket, golf, and soccer. But the aristocratic origins produced an ethos of amateurism: you didn’t want to seem to be trying too hard. For the Brits, coaching, even practicing, was, well, unsporting. In America, a more competitive and entrepreneurial spirit took hold.
Apart from car culture and great distances, it helps explain why America tends to be a country of cyclists, unlike other countries that tend to have people who cycle. This sentence really stuck in my head:
Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.
That's exactly the learning road that drills attempt to lead you through. They break down a complex movement into constituent parts (suddenly making conscious your incompetence with one or more of these parts), and then repeat them over and over in an unnatural way, gradually leading you through to (one hopes) unconscious competence. Sometimes, the mistakes you make are simple and easy to correct. The hard part is knowing you're making them in the first place. When paying for coaching, I often remind myself of the old joke about the mechanic who hits an engine with a hammer to get it to work. When asked to give a break down of his outrageously high bill, he writes: Hitting engine with hammer, $1. Knowing where to hit engine with hammer, $999. More to come on the subject of coaching!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Back in the US, sir!

After a fun-filled, food-filled, friend-filled trip to Bangalore, where I did no blog writing (but did a fair amount of riding), I'm back to the rather surreal peace and beauty of So Cal. I suddenly saw my regular ride through new eyes, and thought I'd post some pictures.

Here, the San Gabriel mountains either beckon or threaten from the San Gabriel River Trail (SGRT). Today they threatened, since it was to be my first sustained climb in nearly two months.

A short way up, I stopped to watch the 4WD crazies churning the mud in the dried reservoir bed.

And this is the top of the ride, about 1,000m up. Shortly after this, is the sustained 14km descent, always a good time.