Working in the cycling industry I get to see a lot of the same when it comes to gear and marketing. There are a lot of cool new things being introduced all the time and things seem to change so rapidly that most can’t keep up with the market trends. I’m not here to critique this, but want to promote the more universal positive aspects of the bicycle and cycling that go beyond just the gear; that go beyond any one type of bike or group. Depending on your goals with cycling there is a certain amount of gear that is needed and there is gear that performs better than others. Past the initial gear acquisition phase there is something that I find ever present in cycling… the mental game.
Whether you are racing at the elite level or just pedaling a few miles to work there is a mental game being played. There are battles with motivation, struggles with physical pain, frustrations about a malfunctioning bike, concerns from other parts of life popping into mind, self-doubt when things aren’t going smoothly, and other “negative” states.
Of course there are many positive things like feelings of joy, a sense of freedom, the adrenaline rush when going fast, the feeling of camaraderie if riding with others, a multitude of new sights and sounds when exploring… the list goes on.
The mental game is dealing with the balance of the positive and negative aspects.
I have already broken one of my normal rules in life concerning judgment of good/bad. However, I like this definition because in general people will associate pain and suffering with “bad” and feelings of joy and comfort with “good”. This gives us a starting point for this discussion. By the end there will be a more useful definition of the mental game.
Let me start by explaining some of my background and experiences in cycling. I am not nearly as experienced as many people in terms of years of being a “dedicated” cyclist. I have used bikes for transportation the last 10 years or so and started to spend much more of my time riding or working on bikes about 5 years ago. Most of my riding is solo and I don’t race. I love the freedom that bikes give me and I also like the physical effort required. The mental game came into the forefront of my mind as I started to do longer rides and rides that involved long sections of night riding and rainy weather. When things are going smoothly then it seems to be easier to stay focused on positive things… when things are less than ideal it is easier to slip into a spiral of negativity. The more I became aware of these experiences the better I got at cycling. I started to realize how important the mental game was (of course the physical aspect is important too!)
One major thing that accelerated this in my own case was the car-free life I was living. If it was cold outside, pouring rain, or any other excuse to skip a ride came up I would still have to ride to get to work (at the very least). Because I didn’t have a choice, the possible excuses went away and solutions were found. Instead of avoiding riding in the rain I found clothing that worked well in those conditions and set my bike up with nice fenders. But beyond the gear aspect, the mental game was now in full view. I started to enjoy riding in the rain and dealing with whatever challenges arrived on a day to day basis. This is when I started to associate cycling with meditation.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic and I am not here to make grandiose claims about what meditation is or what life changes it might bring. There are many different views on the topic and many ways to practice it; I am confident that if you are interested then you can find a book or something that will dive deeply into the topic. I just want to point out a few things as they relate to cycling as I have experienced it. I am hoping that these connections might be helpful to others in their cycling life.
The two big things that jump out to me when I try to link cycling with meditation are the aspects of repetition and observation.
This first one is fairly straightforward. From what I’ve seen there are plenty of meditation practices that focus on some sort of repeated task, whether that is breathing, a saying/mantra, a visualization, a simple motion, or any number of things. The repetitive aspect of cycling tends to be pedaling. There is a rhythm to it and each pedal stroke has similarities to the last, but there are also subtle and drastic differences throughout a ride. If you are someone who practices a type of meditation that has a meditation object then just make your pedal stroke that object and it should come naturally. If not, then just work on focusing on the pedaling and the feeling associated with it. You have many chances to focus on these feeling since if you are riding a bike you are most likely pedaling. Which leads into the second thing…
Having a non-judgemental observation of the sensations (sights, sounds, temperature, pain, joy, vibrations from the bike, etc) while riding. This would be both internal and external. By non-judgemental I mean not associating “good” and “bad” with those sensations, but just observing them as they come up. Be a witness to everything in and around you. Keep a curiosity and see how things change over time rather than reacting to them immediately or trying to avoid them.
When these two things click some very drastic changes can happen. I experienced it as a loss of excuses. Pain and discomfort become manageable and don’t ruin an otherwise fun ride; excuses not to ride go away and environmental changes (major temperature changes, rain, etc) lead to a variety of experiences rather than ‘bad’ experiences. I started to learn more about myself and my limits. My limits were now dictated by physiological limits (for lack of a better word) rather than comfort. If it was cold and rainy it wouldn’t matter as long as I had appropriate gear to not get hypothermia. If it is really hot out then it doesn’t matter if I feel tired and sweaty, as long as I stay hydrated and avoid heat stroke or other major issues. The comfort aspect was less of a concern and as long as I avoided serious injury then all was well. This makes the mental game a playful game and not just a struggle. Things become more enjoyable overall.
So what is the mental game then?
My first attempt at defining it without using “good/bad” terms would be this:
“The mental game (as related to cycling) is the observation of one’s mental and physical state throughout the many phases of a ride (before,during, after) in an attempt to overcome obstacles and push the limits of one’s capabilities.”
This might be a bit vague, but I did that intentionally. I think that everyone can approach that from their own unique background and skill set. I have taken a meditative outlook, which has been useful for my needs and I’m sure others will take a different approach. All I hope is that if you have read this you can maybe start noticing more about your attitude in relation to cycling and overcome your own obstacles, which tend to just be made up in our own minds in the first place.