What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Making God Laugh

A training diary is a treasure trove of information on everything you’ve ever done on the bike. From keeping a diary, you can track every watt you’ve ever poured into the pedals, and then dissect it every which way to Sunday with multiple types of scientific analyses. But never lose sight of the fact that cycling is a journey, and your diary can be a great repository of information and memories beyond the Xs and Os…

By John Howard

I’m sure that we can all agree that a training plan or diary is probably a good idea for a cyclist eager to ramp up performance. The ebb and flow of recorded information, while subject to debate, probably includes similar physical guidelines we all know well: body weight checks, resting heart rate, highest numbers noted for speeds, daily time and mileage. Input might also include a notation of equipment used. Brownie points can be added for dietary entries of macro and micro nutrients.

In our electronic world, what plan would be complete without a full complement of Hunter Allen-esque power downloads arranged into neatly compressed spreadsheets? There should probably be something about the course or race ridden, type of ride or race, the company you keep. The “A” group or was it the “B” group, or the “I-felt-tired-today” group? What was the degree of difficulty of the course or race you just rode? Did it kick your ass or inspire you? Too many “I felt great” entries are contrived. More likely you will also note the other side of cycling: Had a flat, broke a spoke, etc. In theory, the intention here is to record the diatribes of change. In effect, we are at once following and creating a puritanical code of ethics, believing the principal theme that bike training needs this structure and discipline to help measure forward progress.

Every good training diary should include a section on rants and raves, both personal and critical. There’s nothing quite as soul-cleansing as a good tirade about perceived unsportsmanlike conduct applied to fellow competitors. Give some ink to proven pre-race strategies and stage racing preferences.

While sorting through some old documents recently, I found a tattered hand-written ledger kept during a period of about three years, highlighting a productive period in my racing career from the 70’s. The entries followed the above format with some noteworthy exceptions. In the beginning of the season, my form was lacking and the heart rate indicators were steadily changing along with the mileage. Enthusiasm seemed high. Details were dutifully logged day after day, but as they continued on for pages, there was a growing sense of ad-nauseum with no visible change in any of the HR or perceived exertion indicators. Although unspoken, I know this is the case. You can see it my deterioration of penmanship, as if the mundane had replaced the reason. There were lulls with no entries at all, as if sickness, the reality of amateurism had suddenly reared its head and shifting priorities toward fund-raising with the end result being a gaping hole in the training labyrinth and most certainly present-day memory.

If we are to believe the definition of insanity as the repetition of the same activity, while expecting different results, then these diary entries were pushing the borders. What seemingly brought all of this to a head was a nasty crash midway through the season. The details of the crash, which have been filed deep, were nevertheless vividly described and actually one page was – maybe for the sake of theatrics – stained with blood. At this point, the format of this plan began to change. The writing seemed livelier with less redundancy of recorded mumbo-jumbo.

The entries were more thoughtful, exploring the human element of competition, the head games played by the Europeans. In effect, I had begun to pay less attention to the observed numbers and more attention to the intuitive. Self exploration was the new theme. My strengths were noted in terms of improved finishing order. What I actually begin to uncover was my real heart and tortured self. Who I thought I was, and why I doing all of this stuff.

Written more in first-person dialect, this diary read as it was lived, from the saddle. All the trials and tribulations both in the States and in Europe were dutifully logged. Unlike the previous entries, the later passages that had not seen the light of day in more than 30 years rekindled the experiences and triggered long-dormant memories. I relived being dropped in my first European circuit race in England, a top 10 finish on the German cobles in the rain, and later when form improved further, my first big international win on the Isle of Man in one of Europe’s more hallowed racing venues.

I recalled the self discovery of my time-trialing prowess while racing in frigid Sweden during a spring campaign in `75. My love of off-road racing was reflected on again, as was the winter cyclocross season in St Louis, and culminating with a national victory in Palos Park in Chicago. I was reminded of the technical descriptions of how strategies, individual and the national 100K team time trial unfolded. I also rolled again with the punches, the platitudes, the foibles, the heartbreaks, and the inevitable fault lines that scribbled self doubt.

The entries reflected a time of utter innocence, before we had regular coaches, trainers, masseurs, and (thank you Sweet Jesus) doctors. Like today we paid for our mistakes with our own ripped flesh. I relived the chain of amateur commerce: Winning prizes and subsequently selling said prizes to put a tank of gas in the van to get to the next race, the incessant scramble of working just enough to pay the entries, replace worn tires and broken wheels, sharing the meager winnings with teammates, and finally connecting the dots with the almighty power base of America’s first cycling sponsorship.

My diary was at its best in chronicling the all-important camaraderie as it evolved from bush league local racing friends through the multi-tiered layers of subculture notoriety on the national and international racing scene. Those teammates and friendships, unlike the entries of heart rate and body weight, endure to this day.

The writing in that training diary was anything but formal and often rambled with the highs and lows of seemingly interminable seasons that began in the spring in Florida and ended deep in the fall and winter after the world championships and cross season had ended. I could, and did, look back at those entries and learn from the mistakes of the past.

What I had learned, and am still learning, is that the strict and didactic monitoring of the minutia of the experience will not put you in heaven and inevitably may suppress the soul of the effort itself, thus compromising the spirit of the adventure. A GPS may show you the way, but the human spirit does not prosper with self-awareness if you depend on electronics. The all-important internal clock is the key to finding yourself, your competitive direction while creating a winning formula that will keep you on your bike for a lifetime. As the saying so aptly goes, “If you want to make God laugh, show him your plan.”

About John:
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.

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