What I've learned from not being able to ride

In the past month I’ve only ridden my bike twice. The first week of inactivity was due to the fact I was overseas covering the Tour d’Azerbaidjan for CyclingTips (which was a great experience) and didn’t have my bike with me. But I got sick while I was over there and the back end of that illness has meant I’ve managed just two short rides in the weeks since.

I don’t want this to be another post in which I bemoan the fact that I’ve been sick and haven’t been able to ride. God knows I’ve written enough of those in the past nine months. What I do want to write about is the lessons I’ve learned throughout what has been a frustrating period and how I can use those lessons going forward.

I guess it’s human nature to only really pay attention to our bodies when something is wrong. I don’t know about you but when I’m fit and well I very rarely stop and think to myself “I’m feeling good and it’s great to feel healthy.” But the opposite is certainly true. If I’m feeling unwell I’ll definitely spend some time thinking about the fact I’m sick and what that illness is stopping me from doing.

In the period leading up to Azerbaijan I had enjoyed a solid chunk of time where I was able to ride often, feeling fit and strong throughout. A week before Azerbaijan I went out to the 1 in 20 and got within 15 seconds of my PB. I was getting close to the fittest I’ve ever been.

I was looking forward to continuing to build my form, working up to a return to the Northern Suburbs Three Day Tour. I’ll have to leave that for another year now.

I find it easy to get frustrated at times like this, to feel anxious about not being able to simply head out for a bike ride. But now I want to try to channel some of that frustration into something a little more positive and constructive.

For a start, I’m very lucky to have the means, the general health and the opportunities to pursue something as rewarding as cycling for a hobby. This is going to sound clichéd and trite but there are many people around the world that never get such opportunities. Not only am I in the privileged position to be able to pursue a hobby that keeps me fit, healthy and happy, I’ve also been able to make a living around that hobby. I’m very grateful for that fact.

Second, I suspect it’s worth looking at the bigger picture. Yes, I’ve spent weeks at a time off the bike in the past year but in the grand scheme of things that’s not much at all. Sure, I’ve lost hard-earned fitness a bunch of times in the process and had to work hard to get it back, but I can do it again and I’ve still got plenty of time to do so.

Looking down on a strung-out peloton from the Hilton Hotel on the final stage of the Tour d'Azerbaidjan, in Baku.
Looking down on a strung-out peloton from the Hilton Hotel on the final stage of the Tour d’Azerbaidjan, in Baku.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I can learn from this whole experience is that being off the bike is actually a very motivating experience.

Logging into Strava and seeing the amazing rides people are doing, watching epic stages of the Giro d’Italia, reading stories and seeing photos of amazing rides — it’s all motivating at the best of times. But when you’re not able to channel that motivation straight away — by getting out there and recreating those moments yourself — that feeling can build up, ready for you to use when you are able to ride again.

And that’s another lesson I need to learn; not diving right back in at the intensity I was riding at pre-break. In hindsight, I’ve probably pushed too hard too early a couple of times in recent months. I probably shouldn’t have climbed Arthurs Seat five times in one ride so soon after getting back on the bike, for example, even if I did take it easy.

And finally, when I get back to riding more regularly (hopefully in the coming week or so) I want to remember what it’s been like not being able to ride. I want to remember that feeling of frustration, and to be able to contrast that with the joy of finding a new climb, or claiming a PB on a favourite climb, or simply just riding to work.

I want to make a habit of checking in on my own health every so often and being grateful when I’m healthy enough and fit enough to be able to ride for fun, for fitness and for my sanity.

I hope this hasn’t come across as too self-indulgent. I hope instead that you found something you can identify with in this post and maybe even take from it.

I’d like to leave you with some photos and a video I shot at the Tour d’Azerbaidjan. You can see everything I wrote and put together at the race over at CyclingTips here and you can see a larger gallery of photos at my Flickr page here.

Until next time, thanks for reading. It means a lot.

More from The Climbing Cyclist

17 Replies to “What I've learned from not being able to ride”

  1. Enjoyed the comments and shocked by the tree falling?! How unlucky can you be?
    After 50 active years in the mountains, 25 years triathlon, adventure racing, competitive kayaking, road and mountain biking you can pay the price of atrial fibrilation ie heart gets too strong and too thick and rhythm ie beat goes fast and/or irregular. Stroke risk is increased by a clot forming.
    Catheter ablation can return heart to sinus/normal rhythm and I’m recovering and hope it has worked. Meantime you learn patience and how to ride slowly..also getting old -66- means you are never going to see your PBs again! But it was all worth it so ignore cautionary oldtimers who whinge.

  2. Matt. With a car hit and broken sternum from a race accident in the last 21 months putting me off the bike for extended periods, both times when I have been at my best, the most enjoyable cycling I’ve done in the period was the 7 peaks 4 days between Xmas – New Year organised by some really great young blokes and their families. All those people riding up big hills back to back because others give so much of themselves…….riding up chatting to couples and hairy legged fast flat bars …….that’s special . Good luck with your return training and your right to come back too quick, take it appropriately.

  3. Hi Matt. Another great article – thanks. I had four months of no riding in 2012 after surgery. Getting back on the bike was just a fantastic feeling, and I’m convinced that part of that feeling was forgetting about PBs, Strava etc and just lifting my head up and enjoying the sheer beauty of turning the pedals.

    All the very best for a speedy recovery.

    Cheers, Ian

  4. Nice reflection and fitting for me too. Im still on struggle street.

    One month ago I was so excited with my brand new Italian road bike, I’d worked hard to afford it, waited a long time for its arrival and trained really hard to feel worthy of the upgrade.
    I was riding my bike for just the second time and absolutely loving it!
    Heading up the 1:20 for the second time that day, simply enjoying my new dream machine; when all of a sudden with no warning, a tree fell across the road right in front of me! I managed to brake and avoid being squashed whilst also warning a car travelling behind me to stop.
    With tree debris still falling around me I was worried but I thought I’d be ok, then WHACK! I was blindsided and hit by a power line and the attached fuse boxes – which had been brought down by the tree. A direct impact on my right knee and bike.

    Lying on the road waiting for assistance I glanced at my now destroyed Italian dream machine (dream over) and busted leg I couldn’t fully comprehend what had just happened. I was in complete shock with a million things rolling through my mind.
    Now, a month later, with my banged up knee with severe bone bruising, torn ligament and minor cuts I wonder when and how will I get back on my bike?

    Is it about the bike? or something more?

    I am simply devastated that I no longer have my dream bike; yet upon reflection, I also think how extremely fortunate I am. That bizarre incident could have ended very differently and for me to typing right now is pretty special. I still can’t comprehend what and how it all occurred. Some sort of lesson? who knows…

    A rehab plan will take me so far, and I’m sure I can recover well, but pushing through mental barriers and returning to my fitness level and confidence seems such a hurdle right now. I put on the brave face but really, it hurts physically and mentally.

    As you said Matt, reflection on good health and fortune is often forgotten, maybe a skill to be learned and developed.
    Fighting that mental battle, searching for that inspiration and motivation to push on and stay positive is a challenge for me right now, but this post (and your blog in general) is a great source of drive. So thank you for your collective work.

    To the continued and ongoing battle for good health, respect for life and those around us.


  5. Hi Matt

    Thank you for this article.

    I hurt my back at work 2 months back and since then have been struggling to get back on the bike regularly.

    When you can’t ride at the level you become used to it does get you down. You worry you will lose form, that you may never ride the same again. I have been calling it post everesting depression :).

    I unfortunately do not have a rewarding cycling career to throw myself into but it has offered me some time to reflect.

    When I am able to turn the pedals again pain free, I will be concentrating on cycling as it should be,fun. You do get caught up in PB’s, 1in20 times,strava contests and what other’s are doing. I too have learned that being healthy and fit is a blessing and it’s not until you are unwell it hits you.

    So thanks again, it’s nice to know that these times do come and go and we all go through it.



  6. Thanks for the write up Matt. I too am going through a period of limited riding while recovering from an ankle injury. I am 2 weeks in to a 6 week spell, and am experiencing all the same feelings that you have mentioned. I am only able to do very limited flat road riding, and when you live within 5 k’s from the Dandenongs, and they stare at you each time you walk out the front door, it only makes you look forward even more to the next time that you can again hit the hills, something that previously I took for granted.

    Get healthy, get fit, and get back out there.

    ….and it could be worse, it could be the middle of spring. I would hate to be missing out on those 20-something degree days. Hopefully we can kick these things, and be ready for when the good weather returns.

  7. I haven’t been on the bike for around 4 weeks now, mostly due to a heavy sinusitis and what was considered a barotrauma to the ear from flying with a congested nasal tract. It really hurts mentally not to be able to do what you like best. Therefore, it’s nice to see that I am not the only one suffering from a negative mood (cranky, unbalanced) when off the bike.

    What I take from your post, Matt, is that it is these times when we should lean back and take some time to cherish what we are normally able to do, rather than being ungrateful and complaining. Others have it way worse than us – they might be incapacitated for good, not being able to do what they love.

    I am really looking forward to riding the bike again (this weekend, hopefully) – even if it means that I have to take small steps to get back in shape. I’ve also gained a few pounds, which I will hopefully lose soon.

    Well worth the read, Matt – as usual.


  8. Certainly been an up and down 12 months for you Matt with illnesses and injuries.

    The ride and view of the race from the team car looks a lot more fast paced and hectic than what is perceived by the television coverage of such events which tends to keep to the aerial view most of the time with occasional views from a car. The audio really adds to the perspective and its good to hear how the teams are communicated to other than through race radio.

    1. You’re right! It’s been challenging, but I’m trying to stay positive!

      And thanks re: that video. The audio is so important I think, even just the little “welcome to stage 4 of the Tour d’Azerbaidjan” during the bar-tightening shot really gives you a sense of how the teams experience the race.

  9. Great pics and well worth the read.

    As I lay here on my couch sick, annoyed, defeated and frustrated the timing of your article is uncanny.

    I’ve just spent 3 days in hospital due to a sudden and woefully violent dose of Gastro Sunday night (all the trimmings,..)

    Now looking at 2 weeks off the bike to recover. #shirty #sooky

    Pre illness I was hitting the 1/20 at pb times, tackled Terrys Avenue for the first time and was only a few rides away from nailing a few of my strava buddies on our favorite commuting/weekend segments. Not happy Jan!

    So, thanks for giving me some perspective and a positive focus being all the great gains I made recently as opposed to my miserable ‘right now’. Being a classic neurotic over trainer this might just be what I need to start again for the long term.

    Hope you get well and look forward to reading a ‘comeback/feeling at my best again’ thread. G

    1. Thanks Greg! Sorry to hear you’ve been unwell. All the best for a speedy recovery. Remember how you’re feeling now when you get back on the bike. It will make it all the more satisfying!

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