Mental Toughness Redux

It was the day after “208”, the longest ride of the Tour. We were facing 162 kilometers, long enough but we were happy for the 40+ kms shaved off the previous day’s ride. The early morning was cold, the air grey and heavy with a dense mist. Some way along I caught up with a group of four riding single file in a peloton along the narrow margin of the Trans Kalahari Highway.

I had ridden with them for most of the previous day. I was, am, not naturally at ease in such a formation preferring to ride alone and at my own pace. Riding peloton can be stressful; it requires discipline and constant focus, a lapse, as I was to discover can cause a serious accident. That “208” day feeling somewhat discomfited I decided to join the train. It worked well enough, each encouraging the other to the finish, and for a while I was able to set aside the nagging sense of something amiss that besets me too often. I thought to repeat the experience.

We were well enough through our lunch stop when shortly after the mishap occurred. I was third in a formation of five. The narrow two-lane highway was busier than we had experience. Trucks and cars sped by uncomfortably close at times. Fifty meters ahead of us a truck was approaching with a white sedan behind it. At thirty meters from us the sedan decided to pass the truck, heading straight for us. We called out “car ahead passing”. The two in front of me slowed and moved to the very edge of the road. I followed suit; the rider behind, J, did not. I felt a bump on my rear tire, held my balance but heard a cry from behind. J had fallen off his bike onto the gravel verge as the sedan roared by. J had scraped his knee but as he lay there all he could see were the wheels of the sedan fast approaching seemingly within inches of his face. He pulled his head away and twisted his neck. Fortunately, he wasn’t badly injured but we were all shaken. We called for the support vehicle to pick up J, best to have him checked by our medic. After he left we continued on our way not quite the group we were before.

I was tired from the previous day’s ride made worse by a lack of sleep. A bout of insomnia had kept me up most of the night. At about 110 kilometers we came to a sizable town, Gobabis, and searched for refreshments. Two of the peloton group approached me concerned that over the last few kilometers I hadn’t been holding straight and true. After the experience with J everyone was concerned to avoid any further chance of an accident. In short, I was asked indirectly to leave the peloton and perhaps, it was mooted, again indirectly, best if I took the support vehicle into camp. I had no intention of doing that. I thought it right that I should not ride the peloton, but objected strongly to the way in which others wished to define what I was capable of. I knew, in the way that one knows things about oneself, that I could ride the distance.

After a coke and an ice cream I set off on my own. A steep climb took me out of town and then conditions changed. We had faced crosswinds for most of that day, but nothing like what transpired from that point. The wind picked up force, veered this way, that way and head on. A great advantage of the peloton is the protection it provides from the wind for the riders behind the leader. By taking turns in the lead everyone saves energy and is able to go longer and further. I was on my own with 50 kilometers to go. Unaccountably, rather than worrying about the choice I had made, I was elated. Something had shifted in me.

From one moment to the next I stopped engaging in a fight with the elements. Out of nowhere, a voice in me said, “the wind is your friend”. I’m not sure what that meant for there was no relenting in its force or waywardness. But a surge of joy filled my heart. I laughed and pedaled on glad to shed any notion of the hard man battling nature with grit and determination. More than one of my fellow riders had over time spoken to me, while tapping their noggin, “it’s all up here, the mind toughing it out”. If anything I was the inverse of tough. I was letting go of toughness; I was letting go of any thought of machismo. It did not make the cycling easier; I had to push hard but that was ok. It was ok right through to camp for behind the impish wind which blew me this way and that lay another on whose wings I soared.