I don’t mind being passed by faster cyclists. I’m not slow but I am certainly not fast either. And I have a habit, also present when walking, of drifting off. That is, my mind wanders and, depending on what paths it wanders along, I am either fast or slow. I don’t do anything terrible or dangerous like cease paying attention; my speed is just directly proportional to the speed of my thoughts.
When I used to walk home from work in Brisbane – a walk of about 4kms – it could take me anything from 30 minutes to an hour. The variation was almost entirely due to what was going on in my mind. A particularly busy or bad day at work and my mind would be racing or ranting and my feet would keep pace. A lovely evening with many things to admire and my mind and feet would both slow.
So too it is with cycling, although cycling engages my mind a lot more than walking does; in traffic, my mind and feet tend to match up as I am alert to what is happening around me and a burst of anger at some driving stupidity that endangers me, usually spurs a burst of speed. On the traffic-free cycle paths, however, particularly on a nice day, I can slow right down, taking in my surrounds and just pootling along merrily.
Recently, on the way to work, I did just that. Pootle. I was passed by a young woman on a red bicycle and she was pedaling furiously. This was okay, I did not mind. But being passed made me snap out of my reverie and I decided to try to keep pace with this young woman. I do this often when I am passed. Sometimes I decide to race (though the person who passes me rarely knows I’m doing it because I never actually put in enough effort to overtake; only enough to keep up for a bit and then drop back again).
Once, I decided to race another cyclist who was about 10 metres in front and cycling strong. My goal was to keep the distance between us – that is, not to let it lengthen but maybe to close it a little – until our paths diverged. This I did successfully for about a mile by which stage I was flagging. Thankfully, he turned left where I would turn right, as that meant I could stop my silly little race but still claim victory, with a little punch in the air.
As today’s red-bike-woman passed me, I watched her manic pedaling, wondering when the cadence would fall again to a more comfortable rhythm. She was hunched over and breathing hard, but otherwise dressed much like me: comfortable clothes (rather than racing cyclist clothes). So I dragged my mind away from its fanciful flights and to the task of cycling. As I did so, I quickly realized I had been going really rather slowly indeed because even a tiny effort on my part meant that I had closed the gap between us. But I do hate it when I overtake someone and then they put in an effort to overtake me back, so I dropped back, thinking that if I let her get a decent distance between us then if she continued with her current effort and I put in my usual, we would remain as we currently were, with me behind, and before long, we would reach the end of the cycle path and our routes would most probably diverge. So I dropped back. I pedaled with my usual reasonably comfortable cadence, watching her pedal at a much higher cadence
In case you’re wondering, ‘cadence’ is the speed at which your feet go around when you pedal. The faster you pedal, the higher the cadence; the slower you pedal the lower the cadence. I thinks it’s like revolutions per minute (RPM) in a car. However, the cadence is not indicative of speed or effort: a higher cadence can be less effortful because there is less resistance (which is why your feet are going around faster) but does not actually propel you that much further forward; a lower cadence can be more effortful because you are pushing harder, but for each turn of the pedal, there are more turns of the wheel. There is usually an optimal cadence for the type of cycling you are doing and the terrain you are in. Pedalling at a high cadence on a flat is really rather tiring.
The distance between us closed without much effort on my part until I was behind her back wheel, roughly the distance I try to sit behind my partner when we cycle together over short distances (over long distances we cycle at our own pace and he waits for me at strategic points). It was actually more effort to not catch up with her. I stayed behind a short period of time before I realized I would actually have to stop entirely. I therefore overtook. I felt a little bad doing this and tried to decide whether to overtake how I normally do – put on a burst of speed and increase the distance before reverting to a more normal pace – or whether I should just keep pedaling as I had been. In the end I put on a little bit of speed to overtake comfortably but not too much speed so that it looked like I was trying to overtake someone who had overtaken me. I then continued at my usual pace and was well away from red-bike-woman. As I reached the intersection where most people go left but I go right, she was about 20 metres behind. She caught me at the lights just as they changed from red to green and, thankfully, we went separate ways.