The Pointy End Of The Pyramid

By: Nathaniel Ward Aug 11

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The beginning of just about anything is the easy part. No, it doesn’t always feel that way, but when you contemplate bringing any project to completion—closing on a house, winning a bike race, delivering a baby—you realize that sealing the deal, whatever the deal may be, is the sharp end of life.

The received wisdom of endurance sports coaching for the last 40 years or so has been to think of your fitness in terms of a pyramid: the broader the base, the higher the peak. More miles, more tempo, more muscular endurance type efforts, all lay the groundwork for shorter, high-intensity efforts later in the year/cycle, which bring you into race shape, complete the cycle of neuro-muscular and metabolic adaptation, and then you go fast. This is nothing new, every endurance athlete has been through it, and anyone currently racing or planning on racing in the future will have to go through it again.

When you’ve been racing for a few years, particularly if you fall into the still-sorta-pretty-serious-but-hate-to-admit-it-cuz-you-ain’t-as-fast-as-you-used-to-be category, you tend to hang out in the middle, or maybe even in the top third of that pyramid, all year long. This approach has obvious benefits, like being reasonably close to racing shape at any given time; and for those of us with family and career commitments that make the traditional program of large volume base periods in the winter and stage races in the summer impossible, it seems like the best of all available worlds—which is not to say it’s perfect, but it allows for occasional heroics and the staving off of a proper wobbling mid-life crisis.

The hard part is that improvement comes slowly beyond a certain point. Back to the ease of beginnings again: gains come quickly near the bottom of a learning curve. As you progress though, you realize just how much harder “hard” really is. Early in the process of developing as a bike racer, simply learning to ride at race speeds feels impressive, and it is. But the longer you do it, the more routine that becomes, and the more likely it is that your goals will be both esoteric and incredibly concrete. To whit: winning a bike race is a vastly far cry from simply hanging out in the front group of a bike race; it not only requires fitness, it also requires know-how.

Big differences make big differences, small differences make small differences. Sometimes in life you get to make a big difference, really shake things up and make a serious life change. Most of us, though, haven’t got the stomach for that sort of thing too often, which is where self-imposed difficulties like bike racing, and the attendant arbitrary goal-setting that accompanies them, start to make sense. Reinvention feels really good, and it feels all the better when it’s constructive, and doesn’t cost you anything major, like your family or your paycheck.

Back to our hammock slung up there on the top third of that fitness pyramid: reinvention don’t come easy n’more. A friend and one-time teammate of mine who is a former top domestic racer and seriously talented athlete once told me that a big part of his motivational downfall came down to some pretty simple math: he knew what it took to be as good as he was at his best, and he just couldn’t face the Sisyphean chore of lumbering his way back up that pyramid, again and again. This is why I keep my hammock hung where it is, and it’s why I have taken up things like running and abdominal crunches: I take comfort from being within hailing distance of my athletic potential, even if I would need a megaphone to hear myself, as it were. I don’t have the time this year, but I like to think that in the not-too-distant future I can throw myself a rope, get down to some reinventing, and see what it feels like to swing my leg over the top of that pyramid again. It’ll be nice to feel the breeze on my toesies as I sit up there, grinning the silly way I do when I’m really fit, wondering what comes next.



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