Every year, a few people who just got into the sport tell me they can’t do some ride with me because they’re training. Some achieve cool things, like winning national titles, and some end up riding just about the same speed they always did, and most get a little faster but, it always seems to me, have a little less fun even as they find a little more satisfaction. I really don’t know what’s best.

I got a big ride coming up, so I was thinking I ought to start training instead of just riding around all the time.

For years now, I’ve ridden with people who train and they’re almost always faster than me or soon get that way. I’m pretty sure that, like all of them, I’d get faster if I trained. But the truth is that there’s not all that much more speed that can be gotten out of me no matter what. Years ago, for a story I was telling, I went and had the tests done, the VO2 max and the power-at-threshold and all of that, and they stuck my finger and captured my breaths and figured out the percentages I had of which types of muscles where. I am in possession of the most average of the average engines around. For the little bit closer that training would nudge me toward my middling limits, I’d rather go ahead and day by day decide to ride my bike when I want to, and where, and with who, and on which roads.

There are other reasons to train, though. For instance, I would have more things of consequence to talk about. I could come back to the office or stop in at the bike shop and relate that I was three beats under AT for my thirty-minute tempo, or that I’d spiked at eleven-hundred in the seventeen during the ladder portion of my third set. Those are concrete topics. There’s some object reality there. As it is, I suspect I usually don’t make much sense after a ride. Instead of navigating important numbers, over the course of a ride my mind gallivants, or simply goes idle, or, most often, spends time in both states, any of which allows stray bits of life from the road to get stuck in my memory in an odd and outsize manner. Someone asks me how my ride was, and I will sum up three hours of saddle time by saying something like, “Coming down off Corning where the yippy dogs live I was doing 45 and I saw a flying squirrel trying to make love with the Chihuahua.”

People who train also seem to have a clearer idea of how to be happy than I do. In the packs in the races I find myself in, I am pretty sure that many if not most of the people around me have trained. Some of them are even training right there as we compete. They capture their performances with computers so they can analyze the data later on, or have their coaches analyze it, and there is always a specific number they are aiming to feed into that computer, whether it’s watts or heart rate or calories burned or hours or miles. They have a specific goal that can be quantified by an outside source, and if they meet that goal, they are pleased. My judgment of whether I rode as good as I should have is based on contextual and likely fictional constructs I create in my head as I ride, and my verdict on the execution of those ambiguous goals is so arbitrary that, most of the time, I end up throwing out my own decision and on final appeal having to ask someone, “Was that ride as hard as I thought it was?”

I don’t even use a computer or speedometer or anything anymore, unless I’m going way out of the Lehigh Valley and figure I’ll want to use a Garmin to find my way home eventually. Sometimes even then, though, I just wing it. I like the idea of winging it. Of being something on the wing. I like that better than knowing how long I spent in zone five.

Some of my friends who are pretty good at riding and racing wing it. I was kicking some of this around with Andy, trying to figure out whether I should train or not, and he said, “Ninety-five percent of my rides are with people, so I figure it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going or how many miles you rode. You either got dropped or didn’t.”

I knew exactly what he meant. That flying squirrel, in all actuality, was kicking the Chihuahua’s butt.

Originally published in The Selection, January 20, 2012