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In praise of riding slowly

Trevor Ward
14 Mar 2019

Call it a recovery ride if you like, but there are better reasons for occasionally taking it easy on the bike

Rightly or wrongly, I remain sceptical of anyone who posts a ‘Recovery Ride’ on Strava.

It triggers the same response in me as a celebrity announcing they’re on holiday – I want to shout out, ‘FROM WHAT, EXACTLY?’

Surely only a professional rider spinning his legs after a week-long stage race is entitled to call it a ‘recovery ride’?

The rest of us should own up and call it for what it is – the only thing we’re recovering from is a late night that is severely inhibiting our average speed and KoM-bagging prowess.

The Discovery Of Slowness is a fine novel based on the life of 19th century British seafarer John Franklin, whose slow, methodical thought handicapped him on land but liberated him in the endless environment of the ocean.

The discovery of slowness on a bike can have an equally liberating effect on those of us who spend most of our training rides chin to stem trying to better our previous times or reclaim our KoM from that annoying bloke on Strava.

You know the type – the one whose ride descriptions include the weather data downloaded from mywindsock.com to prove that he really did pedal into a headwind.

Sometimes it’s nice to shun the Garmin, wear something a bit less aero but more flattering than Lycra and ride so slowly you can smell the roses.

I went for a recovery ride – or as I preferred to label it, ‘nice and easy spin’ – recently on a beautiful winter morning.

I sat up in the saddle for long periods, soaking in sights and sensations that I’d previously been oblivious to (or at best was aware of as only fleeting blurs in the periphery of my vision).

I’m not talking herds of bison or ancient Roman ruins, but the simple stuff of rolling fields dotted with hay bales, V-formations of geese flying noisily overhead and smoke spiralling lazily from cottage chimneys.

A route I had ridden hundreds of times before suddenly took on a completely different hue.

I’d never spotted the ornamental rutting stags decorating those cast iron gates before.

Nor had I realised that all that construction traffic had been erecting the massive wind turbine that now dominates the home stretch of my route.

A rider and his route become intimate with each other.

I know, for example, the location and magnitude of every pothole and adverse camber; I know where the high hedges or rows of trees will offer me respite from crosswinds.

But the relationship is usually one-sided as we exploit the landscape for every morsel of free speed we can find.

On a slow ride it’s different. We can afford to be a bit more respectful.

We don’t have to give it full gas up that hill.

We can actually spin up it in a smaller gear and take time to enjoy the changing scenery.

At the top, we can stop and take in the view.

What’s usually a sweat-streaked blur as we crest the summit is now transformed into a sweeping panorama full of incidental details such as fields, copses, rivers and livestock.

A deliberately slow ride feels like an integral element of the landscape rather than a transient event passing through it.

You feel part of the contours, at one with the road. We are leaving a mark on the landscape, not in a physical, disruptive manner, but in a harmonious, spiritual sense.

What are the millions of routes recorded on Strava if not modern-day ley lines?

But it’s not just about the landscape.

A slow ride is also a chance to reconnect with our bodies.

Science tells us that low-intensity exercise is good for repairing muscles damaged by races or hard training rides. Keeping it slow means we can’t damage those muscles any further, but can send nutrients to them by increasing our blood flow.

But on a more prosaic level, riding slowly gives us a chance to ‘feel’ those muscles and joints, from our arms and shoulders, through our backs and glutes, to our knees and quads.

At low-intensity level, we can revel in their form and function, bask in the glow of their strength and power.

In a race or other high-intensity situation we have more immediate concerns such as oxygen deficit, lactic acid build-up and did I pack enough bananas?

Few athletes are more in tune with their bodies than the technology-averse Graeme Obree.

His best-selling training manual, The Obree Way, addresses everything from post-training diet (‘sardines mashed on wholemeal toast’) to the question of sex before a big race (‘It makes no difference, as long as it doesn’t make you late for the start’).

When it comes to recovery rides, he is unequivocal about just how slow you should ride.

Describing how it would often take him several days to recover from a two-hour turbo session, he says you should be riding slower than the slowest club rider.

‘Trust me, I have been dropped by rank amateurs on mountain bikes in recovery,’ he writes.

‘It does not mean you are weak – it means you did it right.’

In The Discovery Of Slowness, the hero John Franklin defines a wrongdoer as someone who ‘doesn’t know his own correct speed.

He’s too slow on the wrong occasions and too fast on the wrong occasions as well’.

He may not have been referring to cycling – the bicycle had yet to be invented when he wrote it – but the principle is one that could equally be applied to riders.

Just as there’s a right time to ride fast, there’s also a right time to ride slowly.

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