By Kevin Kolodziejski
It’s what Eddy Merckx once said to a reporter when asked what advice he’d give young aspiring riders. And the guy they called “The Cannibal” most certainly walked the walk — and pedaled the pedals. According to an estimate given in William Fotheringham’s book, “Half Man, Half Bike,” during the 11 seasons he dominated and decimated the pro ranks, Merckx rode 45,000 miles a year (15,000 training and 30,000 racing).
That’s a total of just under a half million miles and just might be as impressive as another tally: Merckx’s 445 career victories. And if that number isn’t mind-numbing enough, try wrapping your head around this ratio. Between 1967 and 1977, Merckx won nearly one out of every three races he entered.
And don’t ever accuse him of cherry picking races to stand on the top step of the podium. His palmarès includes 28 Classics, 17 six-day races, 11 Grand Tours — with five in the Tour de France (primarily as a result of winning a record-tying 34 TdF stages) — as well as three World Championships.
In short, the only way you omit Merckx’s mug from your Mt. Rushmore of Cyclists is if your brain’s been damaged by the detonation of the dynamite and the jarring from the jackhammering building it. And in short, if you intelligently apply Merckx’s advice (without taking it to Eddy’s nth degree, obviously), it works. It certainly works for a while, maybe even a good long while. Like maybe a decade and a year?
Moreover, like the stray, wide-eyed pup that never barks as he bird-dogs your bike down the alley to your garage, it’s easy to grow attached to and adopt Merckx’s words as your own. Because they are more than misguided machismo; they’re the way to get your fill of what you love. But as flecks of white start to speckle its muzzle, how do you keep the smell fresh around Riding Lots’ litter box? You follow another piece of advice equally as laconic as Merckx’s.
The Add-On to Ride On
Before sharing a bit of cycling success from reading lots, I’ll spell out why adding to Merckx’s advice is necessary. If you are a ride-lots enthusiast, you need to come to grips with something I so often — so unpleasantly often — fail to grasp. That whether it’s due to chronic injury, declining motivation, advancing age, or a cruel configuration of all three, there comes a time when the number of miles covered or hours ridden per week that meant “ride lots” to you before can be reached no more.
So you ride less, obviously. What else can you do? Not ride at all?
Sadly, that’s what many of my former cycling buddies have done and here’s why. When they took on an I’m-not-what-I-once-was attitude and replaced ride-lots rides with lesser ones, the entire cycling lifestyle lost its luster. Worse, it made them feel like frauds.
I won’t lie to you. I sometimes feel like a fraud when I jot in my journal a ride-lots ride that covers 60 instead of the 75 miles that was so routine just a few years ago. But I’ve come to recognize that something I do naturally fends off that feeling and does it so well I feel like riding soon afterwards.
I read anything and everything.
Classic literature. Contemporary marvels. Far-flung philosophy. Detective novels. Three daily newspapers.
Why Reading Lots Is Good for You
Let’s get the obvious reason out of the way. “The whole secret of life,” as the English author Horace Walpole once said, “is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.” But not only does reading lots augment your knowledge of a singular profound interest, it also serves as a sort of an intellectual smorgasbord and allows you to sup on stuff not cooked — though consumed — in your own mental kitchen.
And as you sample this foreign fare, a beautiful thing often happens. Your mind links the new experience to an old concern. And voilà. Peace of mind returns.
Crisis? What Crisis?
While seasoned cyclists may recall a similarly named album by Supertramp in the 70s, the subhead concisely summarizes the before and after that will happen in your head when you make one of those beautiful links from reading lots. This is the way it saved my cycling sanity when it most recently happened for me.
Reading Lots Can Save Your Cycling Sanity
Because the first seven climbs had not been up to snuff, I was already feeling bummed out at the base of the final climb on a ride expected to last three hours. When I stood on the first steep pitch, I swerved dramatically and nearly fell. A piece of the spring in the right cleat had broken off. I could no longer lock in to the right Speedplay pedal.
To keep riding, I would need to apply steady pressure to it, yet never fully pull back — and remain seated at all times. But parts of the climb I still needed to do, I normally did standing in my granny gear. I arrived home 21 minutes later than anticipated.
And in one of the foulest, fed-up-with-cycling moods I had ever experienced.
I had no appetite, only anger, so I took a shower before refueling. Somewhere in the middle, though, a craving for both carbs and riding returned — simply because I remembered something I had read recently. A belief of the 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I didn’t lie to you before, so I won’t now. Despite being 61 and suffering three major lower-body injuries in the last 13 years, going slower on the bike bothers me. Really bothers me. So much so that I fear it’s unhealthy. But when my mind makes one of those beautiful links from reading lots, I get well pretty quickly.
As I ate baked squash, it happened again, and I felt even better. I recalled a line from a book I had recently reread, Natalie Goldberg’s “Wild Mind”: “We never graduate from first grade.” That quickly, I had a new plan. I’d still kneel at the altar of Eddy Merckx, but ride lots a bit differently. I wouldn’t climb as much as usual over the course of the coming weeks, but do more miles muscling flatlands, incorporating short 30-to-90 second efforts in an attempt to regain some the power I’ve lost from advancing age and three bad bone fractures.
Will It Work?
Here’s a third time I won’t lie to you. I don’t know if the new plan will work or not. But I’m not sure if that matters. What does is that I’m chomping at the bit to ride again.
And it’s because I “read lots.”
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.