Cycling psychologies and the headspace of the Haute Route

In past weeks I’ve been struggling to get into my riding as a result of injury, loss of form, and an inability to get into that headspace required to put myself through long and lonely training rides. I knew remedial action was required asap; as the Velominati would say, I needed to HTFU and obey rule five.

The Ashdown Forest

Having spied a sunny day on the horizon, I took a day off work this week and planned a decent length route down to one of my favourite riding territories: the Ashdown forest. It’s an area of woodland and heath on the border of Kent and East Sussex that sort of reminds me of the Ardennes of Belgium (the battleground of Liege Bastogne Liege, Amstel Gold, and Fleche Wallonne), and is blessed with a great variety of climbs, quiet and quality roads, and a real sense of being away from civilisation.


Philippe Gilbert
Phil Gil dominating in the Ardennes in the way that only he used to

As I mentioned above, I’d been struggling to get the mental fire and steel in my head in recent weeks to settle into a four or five hour solo ride, and so decided to break the ride up with a recce of a new cycling desitination in Tunbridge Wells; The Velo House. Having a new coffee stop in a new locale to aim for meant I could break the ride down into more digestible chunks. The result of the sun, the new roads, a more lively pair of legs than recently, and this great riding environment meant I was able to experience the most enjoyable four and  a half hours in the saddle I’ve had for a few months. And The Velo House is definitely a new firm favourite venue with good coffee, good looking food (I didn’t imbibe but was tempted!) and great facilities all round.

Velo-House (1)
The Velo House

This all made me think, what’s wrong with me? When training for Haute Route and other events (including the Liege and Amstel sportives, ironically enough), I would go out for six hour rides without too much of a feeling of trepidation or reluctance in advance. Why I can’t I do that now? And how the f**k did I put myself through seven days of riding through the brutal terrain of the Alps for Haute Route 2015?

I think all of us that ride have our own slightly different headspaces when in the saddle, but I imagine they all cross over quite a lot. From  that pure focus on cadence, technique, position that you feel when really ‘on it’, to musings over personal lives and relationships, revelling in the nature around us (unless you have the misfortune of being a London commuter, which I am), or simply thinking about what to eat next, the mind wonders all over the place when on a bike. And there’s also those great moments when your mind switches off altogether, and an hour can pass without you really realising it. People who don’t ride don’t really understand this, and this shared understanding is one of the things that bonds cyclists to some extent I reckon (That said, other endurance atheletes such as runners have a good idea of this mentality, but I’m not convinced they truly get it. Having done a lot of running in the past, I never experienced that total ‘zen’ pounding the pavement that I do when riding).

A lone Haute Route rider with their thoughts in the Dolomites

Furthermore, I think when pushed to your limit, like on the Haute Route, the way in which your mind is able to refine its focus into such small recesses of your head is exacerbated. When fighting for position over some of the highest roads in Europe, nothing else matters.

This is what the last xyz months of training has been all about. This is your moment.

Like physical fitness, this mental focus and resilience is something that I believe can be trained. Everyone can do it for a certain length of time, but with practice, you can do it longer and longer each time. And it’s that knowledge which is preventing me from panicking about my current mental scattiness.

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