Guest Post: Hank Barlow on Training, Getting Old, and Mythological Memories

Hank Barlow posted this on Paceline, recently, and it resonated within me. I mythologize the time I spent racing. The memory of being thin, fit, and fast lingers. Indeed, over the past few seasons I have found myself training for….what? I’m a 46-year-old man whose top cycling form is decades past. But I still find myself on the trainer, engrossed in power output data, checking my weight, reading more and more about training and coaching and performance. Am I crazy? Or is this simply a sign of life?

Hank, as usual, nails it.

Read an article some time ago about Cipollini and something happening, maybe a crash, during a training ride. I thought what the heck are they writing about, I mean training ride, training for what already, the guy’s retired, he’s not training, he’s just out riding his bike. Okay, so it’s Cipollini which means if he’s out on his bike the pedal is guaranteed to the metal. Like Moser, on a bike means full throttle, just the way they’re wired.

Got to thinking about that another day during a ride. Lots of thoughts ramble through the head during rides. Realized that every damn ride I do is a training ride. And I never race. I just ride. But I’m definitely training. Training to achieve some fitness level that floats out there like lines in a drawing stretching to the horizon, always converging but never meeting.

I’m forever chasing this memory of fitness I had years ago, and never achieving. Maybe my memory is wrong, that the level of form I think I once had is in fact highly exaggerated, the brain polishing up the past with visions of strength that never was, a self-perpetuating psychic myth. Makes things frustrating.

I mean I’m riding more, and more regularly, than I ever have in my life. I ought to be in great form. Instead half the time I feel like I’m crawling up out of a damn hole, the legs heavy, the arms aching. The rest of the time I’m out of the hole, but not by so much, always glancing down to see what cog I’m on only to discover I’m on a bigger one than I thought/hoped. Couple years ago I changed to a 27 for the big cog. Just for emergencies of course. I suspect this year I’ll switch to a 29. It won’t be an emergency cog either. It’ll end up the default cog for climbing, just like the 27 became. And I know damn well that I used to ride the exact same road with 39/52 chainrings and a 12-26 cassette! I rode Alpe d’Huez with that gearing, did it in around 46-47 minutes, something like that, maybe 48. I wasn’t a kid then either, over 50, not sure how much over 50. As usual I’ve forgotten.

Okay, granted, last year I did some fine rides including more big rides than I’ve ever done in one year. Some of the hardest too. No, not some of the hardest, the hardest. Like Finistre, Galibier, Iseran, Ventoux (3 times in one year in fact!), Sabot, Solude, the magnificent Areches/Roselend/Pre loop, the Arpettaz/Aravis Grand Traverse (did that 3 times too), etc, etc. In other words for me it was a great year, a wonderful way to celebrate having turned 70.

But every single one of those rides hurt like hell. None of them were easy, easy in the sense of being in perfect form and totally exploiting that strength in the climb, surging up the leg-draining ramps and laughing at how good it felt, daring the road to throw it all at me, no problem, the climb was mine. I remember feeling that long ago. Or I hope I’m remembering that and not glossing over holes in the memory banks. No, definitely I can remember that, the glory of riding well.

But no more. At least not for an entire climb. Just moments. Into a tight, steep switchback and taking the inside line just for the hell of it, to know I still can, now and then. Or heading into some long, sustained, steep, dirt and stone ramp and settling in and powering up with laser concentration of line picking and weight balance right to the end, and then heaving to a stop and sagging over the bike unable to move. Believe me, I was thrilled at what I’d pulled off, but there wasn’t any fist pumping in the air and moving down the cogs while I accelerated towards the next challenge. No way, I just stood there straddling the top tube afraid I’d fall over if I tried swinging a leg over the saddle. I’d made it, but barely.

The worst is I can’t stop. The thing for me about getting old is that finding form is a constant effort but losing form is just a blink of the eyes. Four, five days without riding and I’m going to suffer. Like I’m starting all over again, climbing out of this huge deficit hole. I mean this getting old on a bike business is one hell of a lot of work.

Thankfully there are the downhills. Gravity never lies and doesn’t know age from chocolate. Letting go of the brakes is letting go of the years. At least for me. You know how they like to talk about the retirement years being the golden years and there’s some picture in the background of an older couple with brilliant white smiles on a golf course in Arizona or somewhere (might be dating myself with that image), well, those aren’t my golden years. Mine are dropping off the top, letting go of the brakes, feeling the bike rocketing down the hill that I just busted my butt getting up. Arcing through turns, tucking in tight and feeling the bike accelerate down some short ramp, sitting up for a bit of air brakage while checking out the next bend, floating the brake pads on the rims then diving in, leaned over, the tires carving through. Yes! Just magnificent those burns off the high cols.

But that said, damn how I’d love to just once more feel that joy exploding out from the legs as they flat crush the climb. Just once. Which I guess is what ultimately I’m training for, one more glorious climb of pure power, just one more time feeling the dragons in the legs stretch and spread their wings and drive me up the mountain with a fierce intensity that makes me laugh while I move down one more cog. Won’t happen of course, not at my age, but I’m still crazy enough to keep reaching anyway. I mean sure as hell there’s nothing to lose. Actually that’s not true, there’s everything to lose because the day I stop reaching is the day they shut down the lights, with no curtain call for a last hooray.

-Hank Barlow

Be sure to check out Hank’s EXCELLENT photo journal, Switchbacks Vol.1, available from his site. Hank writes the way I wish I could write, and his book is sure to inspire you to find a few lesser-known climbs under your wheels.