What do I wish I knew at the start of my cycling career? Well, how much time do you have?
In truth it's a great question, and one that I've been thinking about a lot lately with my seven-year-old son, Enzo, who is just learning to ride. Here's my best, most concise answer:
Don't Force It.
Selfishly, I hope Enzo loves riding so we can do it together. Our first trip up and over Paris Mountain, a local favorite here in Greenville, South Carolina, was a proud day. It's easy to see he's a natural, but as much as I want nothing more than to help him fulfill that potential, all I can do is smile and pass him a water bottle. His interest in cycling must grow naturally (or not at all) so that it's not a chore.
I still spend a lot of time around the peloton, and for those guys the love of cycling can easily be beaten down by the daily grind. So the weather is lousy? You're tired? Unmotivated? Stomach hurting? Doesn't matter, you suit up and head out the door and you go to work.
To be clear, professional cyclists don't deserve anyone's sympathy; it's an amazing life that takes you all over the world. But you do sacrifice for it, and the sum total of those sacrifices can be numbing. Nobody tells you that, but it's part of what you sign up for as a pro.
Those guys have to ride every day, but you don't because it's not your job. And so for recreational riders or even the enthusiast racer, my advice is to always keep it light.
Enzo and I ride three times per week, at most. And if he'd rather play catch, that's what we do. Don't be so regimented that it turns into one more thing on the must-do list. We all have a limited number of matches to burn when it comes to grinding out a ride we're not into.
If work or life gets in the way, skip it and relax. Instead of going out and freezing for two hours, do a spin or trainer ride and sweat. Make the time work, but not work you. Variety and flexibility will keep you fresh for the whole year.
Work Your Skills.
It's a bit ironic that some of the skills you need to ride a bike are better learned off of one. Pedaling is just one part of riding, and it's an even smaller part of racing. At Paris-Roubiax, 200 guys barrel down what's basically a rutted cart path, bumping bars and fighting to be at the front. While that's an extreme, most races, especially the iconic ones, require more than just legs full of watts to succeed. That's what makes them epic and what makes cycling the most beautiful of sports.
At Enzo's age, developing balance and hand-eye coordination are invaluable skills that translate to any sport. When I grew up it was just riding bikes, and I'll encourage him to do other things that make him well-rounded. For example, ball-and-stick sports like basketball, soccer or tennis teach important skills and lessons that cycling doesn't.
If you've been riding for a while and have good skills, preventative maintenance is important. For my tired body--which I dragged across those Roubaix cobbles many a time--it might mean yoga class, weights or mobility work. You have to turn the pedals to build and maintain fitness, but there's more to being a good rider, be it improving basic skills or taking steps to ensure everything functions properly.
And Most Importantly...
The truly successful riders are able to always keep it fun. They hold tight to the reason they started riding to begin with, and it's the same reason we all do: They threw a leg over a bike because it's fun. Enjoy being outside. Take in the sights and fresh air with friends. If you want to go to the next level, then you can get more serious about it.
A bike can take you just about anywhere, to the podium at the Tour de France, or to the grocery store for some milk. It's up to Enzo to decide where his will take him, and I'm excited to find out. But for right now, and hopefully for the rest of his life, it will be fun.
George Hincapie began his professional racing career in 1994 and retired from the BMC Racing Team in 2012. Regarded as one of cycling's most revered super domestiques, he helped teammates to victories in the sport's most noted races, from the Tour de France to Milan-San Remo. Today he rides for fun and enjoyment while ushering cycling's next professional generation into the fold with the Holowesko | Citadel Racing Team p/b Hincapie Sportswear. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Ready? Sign up for a century near you.