Cycling Lessons: Learning to Love Cycling

After getting his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, Kevin Mulhall followed the path of many college grads, backpacking around Europe. While there, he happened to find himself in Paris on a fateful day.

 

July 23rd, 1989 was the 21st, and final stage, of the 76th Tour de France. It just so happened that Greg LeMond was back racing after several injuries – including a near-fatal hunting accident – had kept him away the two years since his first Tour victory in 1986. LeMond was in a battle with the “hometown” favorite, French rider Laurent Fignon, a two-time TdF winner.

The two had been in a battle, in contention for GC (or overall winner), since Stage 5. They were never more than 60 seconds apart for the entire three weeks of racing. Fignon spent the most stages as leader with nine ahead of LeMond’s eight. During the entire three weeks of racing, the leader changed seven times, but nobody but these two wore yellow after Stage 4.

The morning of the 23rd, the professional riders left Versailles one at a time, in an individual time trial that would finish on the famous Champs-Élysées of Paris. The excitement in Paris was palpable.

 

Enter Kevin, our fresh-faced college graduate, weary from days of travel, not realizing what awaits outside his hostel that day.

 

When the riders left Versailles that morning, the Frenchman was 50 seconds ahead of LeMond. LeMond had proven himself as a strong time-trialist, out-riding the overall winner Fignon by more than a minute in a 53km individual TT in the Giro d’Italia a few months before. Fignon had been dealing with painful saddle sores for a few days. Even still, 50 seconds was a lot of time to make up over a 24.5k (15.2 mile) course. LeMond would have to out-ride Fignon by two seconds per kilometer, or nearly three and a half seconds per mile.

That final stage from Versailles to Paris was hyped up as a mono-y-mono showdown, between the two, but no one really thought LeMond could make up those 50 seconds over Fignon. In fact, French newspapers had already prepared special editions for Fignon’s victory.

For his TT, LeMond famously borrowed SCOTT clip-on aero handlebars from the pages of triathlon as well as a helmet that was chopped to be aerodynamic. (These were the days before helmets were required on the Tour.) LeMond had perfected his TT form in wind tunnels during the off-season. Legend has it that LeMond asked his team not to reveal his splits to him, as he intended to ride all-out the entire distance.

1989 TdF Greg LeMond Stage 21 TT from Versailles

 

Fignon finished third in Versailles with an average speed of 53.59kph (33.30mph). LeMond’s 54.545kph (33.85mph) average speed gave him the record for fastest TT in Tour history. It also gave him a 58 second lead over Fignon. LeMond had done what no one thought possible: he won the 1989 Tour de France. His eight-second margin still stands as the record for the closest margin to determine a Tour victory.

 

What a day to be in Paris! What a day to be an American in Paris! Even though he didn’t speak French, even though he hadn’t a clue what was going on, Kevin Mulhall got caught up in the excitement that day. And he was hooked. He was hooked on the Tour de France. He was hooked on cycling. Or, more specifically, he was hooked on watching cycling.

Kevin Mulhall had ridden a bit in college but he was a runner. He was a marathoner. After college and grad school, Kevin’s work entailed a lot of business travel. The simplicity of running fit his lifestyle. “It’s so easy. All you need is a pair of shoes.”

Even still, every year since that fateful day in 1989, Kevin religiously watched the Tour de France. He was, after all, hooked.

Through years of observing, he was learning. Over the years, spectating many Tours, Kevin learned about pelotons and echelons. He became familiar with cadence and understood the concept of drafting.

Meanwhile, years of running and training for marathons was taking a toll on Kevin’s body. Back problems led to back surgery and a doctor’s recommendation to stop running. Having to give up such a big part of his life, Kevin did what most people would do: he stopped running. And did nothing. But he did continue to watch the Tour.

 

Fast forward a few years. Kevin’s formerly disciplined and frequent long runs had dwindled down to short runs once in a while. Sensing his misery, Kevin’s wife encouraged him to follow his passion for cycling. Last year, for Kevin’s birthday, she urged him to buy a bike. “I know you want one. I know you want to do it.”

Kevin Mulhall Specialized Roubaix North CarolinaSo last Spring, Kevin came to Higher Gear and was fit for a Specialized Roubaix, a bike that maybe he could use to race. But not yet.

Kevin, wisely, chose to quell his competitive nature when getting on his new bike. “I don’t like to compete unless I have a chance to do it well. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance my first year on the bike.”

Kevin knew that cycling competitively would involve a steeper learning curve than he was used to and he didn’t want to find himself discouraged by failure. “I didn’t want to spend all that money on a bike only to have it sit in the garage.”

Instead, Kevin set out last year determined “to learn to love riding.” He did. And he even learned a few lessons along the way.

 

Lesson #1: Properly fuel and hydrate

New Roubaix in hand and warm spring temperatures meant Kevin was rearing to get out and ride. With his choice of two weekend “long” rides out of Higher Gear, Kevin showed up on Sunday in Highland Park to ride north with Brian and Francine Haas, Nancy Heymann and Angie Rochester. When Kevin arrived, he had one bottle of water, no nutrition and had only eaten a little yogurt for breakfast that morning.

He had done a few 20-25 mile rides on his own, but this was his first “real ride,” his first group ride. And they were heading out to do 60 miles. Francine instructed Kevin to stay in the back. He loved it! He was finally getting to experience “the draft” he had only previously witnessed. “There was no wind. It was great.”

But the draft can only take one so far. A body needs carbohydrates to keep working and Kevin just didn’t have any in him – or on him – that day. “By the end, they were taking turns, literally pushing me each time we came to a hill. When we finally got back to the shop, I was exhausted and embarrassed. But every single person on that ride encouraged me to come back the next week. So I did.”

Years of watching the tour and planning for marathons, Kevin was aware of it, but had managed to elude the pervasive “bonk.” Until that day. “My mind was saying, ‘body do this,’ and my body just couldn’t do it. I’d heard the term. I’d seen it on TV. It had never happened to me before, even running”

“I learned the importance of nutrition and hydration that day. It never happened again.” Lesson learned.

That experience taught him more than that. “It was eye opening. It showed me just where I was as a cyclist. It motivated me to ride more during week, to get into shape.”

 

Lesson #2: Power in Numbers

For Kevin, running was always an individual sport. “I always did it by myself. I would get into my head and do my own thing.”

When it came to road cycling, Kevin was aware of that steeper learning curve. Riding at high speeds, alongside of cars was different. “I wasn’t confident enough. I didn’t feel it would be safe.” So he sought out people who could help him in his journey. “I needed people to be understanding, people who would teach me – whether they were intentionally teaching or teaching through example.” He found that, riding with Higher Gear’s group rides.

“I rode with Brendan out of Wilmette on Saturdays and on Sundays out of Highland Park with Francine, Brian, Nancy and Angie.” During the week, Kevin would ride on his own or with a friend he’d made through the group rides.

“Riding with a group makes cycling more exciting and fun. After all those years of running on my own, I never realized the camaraderie and friendships that develop through group training.” Another bonus: “It’s not as easy to turn off the alarm clock and roll over in bed if you know the group is riding at a certain time.” Cycling with a group is both fun and motivating.

In Kevin’s efforts to learn to love cycling, he managed to have a great time and make new friends.

 

Lesson #3: Group Dynamics

By riding in a group, Kevin put into practice the skills he had witnessed in years of watching professional racing and his confidence on the bike grew.

He can change a flat and make quick fixes to his bike. He learned how to ride in a group, he learned how to draft and he learned about paceline rotations.

Years of Tour spectating had prepared him for real life training. As for drafting, “I knew the theory – the how and the why. I understood that it was necessary to ride a few inches behind somebody’s wheel. That’s what people do. It didn’t feel strange.” Kevin says, “I watched cycling enough to understand the dynamics of group cycling and I was comfortable with it.”

Kevin understands that people new to cycling may not be quite as comfortable putting themselves into group riding situations, like sitting on someone else’s wheel. He suggests, “Try to get over that hump. Find a group to ride with and learn the excitement of group cycling, rather than doing it by yourself. “

“I felt safer in a group of ten or twelve riders on the side of the road than I would have felt on my own.” For a beginner, it’s worth overcoming any fears about group riding for “all the teaching, all the lessons, that come with riding in a group.”

Kevin Mulhall WFRT Wrigley Field Road Tour 2012 Higher Gear Wilmette Plaza del LagoLast fall, Kevin did the Wrigley Field Road Tour, his first century ride. There he put his group riding skills into place and learned a valuable lesson about group dynamics.

Heading north out of Wrigley Field, Kevin found himself in the lead group, riding at a good clip. Perhaps a little overhydrated for the day, Kevin decided to take advantage of the rest stop at mile 20 – but failed to communicate that to any of the riders he was with and they kept moving north without him. Kevin ended up spending the rest of the day going from one group to the next, but mostly riding by himself. “For the last stretch, from Wilmette down to Wrigley, I got lucky. Fredo and a friend were heading down as I left the rest stop, so I grabbed his wheel and followed him to the finish.”

“When you’re riding 100 miles, it’s nice to be able to draft.” And when you’re riding in a group, communication – on and off the bike – is your lifeline. That’s another lesson Kevin won’t forget.


Lesson #4: Power in Real Numbers

Spending the summer riding in groups, Kevin learned what he refers to as “the basics, the boxes that needed to be checked before moving on to the next level.” He knew he was making progress. “I was wet behind the ears last summer. As for improvement, I knew I was getting better because Francine didn’t have to push me.”

This year, Kevin’s ready to test himself a little bit more. “This year, I want to push myself to be better and to be ready for fall when I want to give cyclocross a try.”

“When I would train for marathons, I would set up a spreadsheet and have regimented training. I would set a goal and train to the goal. I was competitive with myself and I was results driven. I want to build something similar on the bike.”

Last summer, Kevin knew his progress was growing with his confidence and the hours spent on his bike. But now, after riding for a year? “How do I know where I compare to where I was last month? How do I measure whether I’m progressing?”

Higher Gear CompuTrainer Studio Saturday Ride Winter Kevin MulhallIn an effort to keep going forward, Kevin recently made some upgrades to his bike. In addition to a new groupo and wheelset, Kevin invested in a power meter. From riding in Higher Gear’s CompuTrainer Studio all winter, Kevin is familiar with power-based training.

With a power meter, Kevin now has access to that same data wherever he rides his bike, indoors or out. He is able to measure improvement and progression with simple FTP testing. And he is able to follow training plans or create his own based on power output. “As a self-admitted gadget geek, this is right up my alley.”

This past year, Kevin needed to learn what he could from group rides and he needed to learn to love cycling. He was able to see himself progress over the summer. Now, Kevin has a tool that will enable him to progress even farther.

 

Lesson #5: Fall in Love with Cycling

Whether running or cycling, Kevin is built for endurance. “I like to turn the engine on and go for a long, long time.” But he’s noticed a dramatic difference between the two endurance sports – that cycling isn’t as hard on the body. “The day after a long ride, I can get up and do it again. I couldn’t do that with running. I’d need to take a day off to recover from my long runs.”

Kevin found he could do Higher Gear’s Saturday and Sunday rides back-to-back. “Cycling is a great workout. I’m just not beating my body up as much.” Even now when he’s traveling, Kevin prefers to find a stationary bike at his hotel. “The fit certainly isn’t the same, but I’ve come to like riding so much, that I won’t get on a treadmill.”

This year, Kevin has his power meter to help him develop into a better cyclist. On his radar, before cyclocross in the fall, are maybe two or three events, like the Wrigley Field Road Tour – nothing competitive, but something that involves some training. For now, Kevin’s “looking forward to the weather changing and looking forward to seeing all the friends I made last summer.”

Some people pick an event and work their way towards that, and maybe find like-minded cyclists along the way. Kevin went the other way around. As intimidating as it seems, he immersed himself into groups first and made friends along the way. For anyone new to cycling, or anyone not yet in love with cycling, Kevin has the following advice:

 

Get a bike from a bike shop where there are friendly people who want to see you enjoy cycling. People not just about just selling a bike, but who want to see you love it. For me, it’s been successful. It’s been social. I’ve been honest, I don’t know a lot. But I found a great group of people at Higher Gear. I don’t know that I would have had as much fun and been as successful as I was last year if it wasn’t for them. I can’t thank them enough for making sure my bike didn’t end up in the corner of my garage.

 

Wrigley Field Road Tour 2012 WFRT Todd Ricketts

If Kevin did set up an Excel spreadsheet for his cycling goals last year, at the top of the page would have been: Learn to Love Riding. “That was my whole goal for last summer.”

By jumping into group rides, by signing up for his first century ride and by putting his cycling knowledge into practice, Kevin achieved the one goal he set for himself: he learned to love cycling.

Mission accomplished.

Lesson learned.

 

 

 

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