Dejected, I sat wondering how the French could be so fast at racing bikes. My team director was talking with the mechanic, “C’est normale, Il n’ais pas le rythme”. I never expected the response from my team to be, “you do not have the rhythm”. Confused I thought that I was being directed by a bunch of Parisian Jazz beatniks, sat in their smoky club, wearing black turtle neck jumpers and sunglasses in the dark, talking about a “cat’s rhythm.” But no this was not the case; what I was about to learn was the key to real racing and life as a full time rider in France.
Like the vibration of a guitar string in a jazz night club, moving from loose to taut, the rhythm of racing refers to the oscillation between the flat out and easy moments of a bike race. Part of the wearing down process that takes place in any road cycling competition, it sees attacks going, stretching the elastic of the peloton, then moments of recovery as things come back together and the bunch slows. Like a slinky spring going down a stair case, one moment fully stretched the other compact; a circle that continues until the elastic snaps and the selection is made.
The winter with its long and steady base miles does not prepare the body for this. Like a jolt from a defibrillator, the first race shocks the body back into competition, reminding it of the erratic pace that is the essence of all races. One moment at full gas, your life is the wheel in front of you, body screaming and the peloton in one line. The next moment you relax as the elastic is let loose, the peloton snapping back to a wide bunch, filling the road from side to side.
The rhythm of racing is more than just the micro intervals in competition. It also came to mean the routine of racing full time. Like the attacks in a race, life as a fulltime racer has moments when everything is taking place and you are “flat out,” which are then followed by down periods. My life was a process of flat out, busy days followed by down periods when I would struggle to fill my time. This is the double-edged sword of riding fulltime: race days would fly by, the mind focused on competition, and recovery days would crawl by. Sometimes this was not an issue, a down day being a good time to catch up on learning French, but if the form was bad it would mean a day of reflection and the start of a potentially negative spiral.
Like the ebb and flow of the tides, the rhythm of racing would also show itself in stage races. During a split stage, time trial in the morning and road stage in the afternoon, you would follow a micro-cycle of all or nothing. Rushed mornings with their nervous early starts to get some food in prior to a maximum effort would be followed by lazy mid-afternoons, where a relaxed lunch and power nap where the order of the day. Silence over the riders, teams, race staff and local town soon to be shattered as the elastic was pulled tight again. Radios turned on for pre-race motivational music, riders getting dressed, bikes prepped and motorbike out-riders starting their engines, as the rhythm moved back to flat out.
With time in the saddle and getting used to the routine of life as a fulltime rider, you would get into the rhythm. No longer would you be the syncopated jazz novice, disturbing the rhythm by getting dropped from the race. You would learn the beat, your body would cope, and before you know it you would be in the race setting the rhythm. Now when preparing for the start of the season I know that I have to get onto the rhythm. As winter draws to an end and spring arrives, the steady training rides subside for more erratic paced sessions. Moments of maximum effort are followed by tempo riding, the mind thinking to that first race, and the ever-present rhythm that it will follow.