Riding without a chain

Armstrong called it a “no chain” day – meaning he felt so strong that it seemed as if his bicycle had no chain.

Before cycling I did CrossFit. I enjoyed the variety, learning the technical olympic lifts and the social aspects of ‘the Box’. But what got me coming back every week, sometimes trudging through the snow in sneakers and shorts was the ‘WOD’ (Workout of the Day). 15 minutes at the end of class: fast and intense and filled with suffering. At the start of the class we’d peer at the WOD that would be coming in 50 minutes. “Oh fuck, it’s ‘Helen‘, I hate pull-ups.” I loved them. I told myself I hated it and it was a chore, but it was something else. They gave me a measurable and simple way to sit with pain, discomfort, fear, stress. If I gritted my teeth and went balls to the wall, I could get some results on the board. But that was as much as I thought about it. WODs are hard, but I keep doing them.

Once I started riding my bike more regularly, I was drawn to climbs. Which makes no sense really. I’m tall and heavy (90kg). Even if you’re pure muscle, cycling does not have time for weight. I used to watch old clips of Armstrong (doping aside) as a sort of inspirational figure to get me up those hills.

In every different city I’ve lived in for the past few years, I’ve made a certain hill my enemy. I don’t always ride a bike this way, offensively, but on occasion I decide that what I need is a full on assault. I’m going to war. In Canberra, it was Mt Ainslie, a sharp, mean-spirited 1600m at 10.4%. I grew to love the climb and the challenge that left me feeling like I was seconds away from calling an ambulance. When I moved to San Francisco, which is a city of hills, I didn’t have a particular enemy but instead chose to fight all 20 of the steepest.

I felt like Crossfit had massively improved my strength and cardio, and I was a strong cyclist, but perhaps the transfer was more about discomfort than anything to do with muscles.

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