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“The data can inspire but it can just as easily swing the other way. These mind games start when your electronic alter-ego refuses to tell you that your last ride was better than the previous one.”

When I started riding, way back in the olden days not long after the wheel had been invented, a cycle computer was an incredibly exciting bit of kit. My purple Cateye Mity 2 was a prized possession; it took pride of place on the handlebar of my 18-speed Shogun Trail Breaker. The only personal records I cared about were my longest ride and my highest speed. Measuring heart rate was years away, and GPS was something that only NASA could worry about. ‘Social media’ and ‘KOM’ were unheard of.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Now we’ve got almost unlimited information. My GPS cycle computer tells me my heart rate (as a percentage of my maximum, no less), gradient of the trail I’m on and how much elevation I’ve gained, speed, time, temperature and more. It also beeps at me to remind me to hydrate, tells me where to go, tells my wife where I am—it probably knows when my next nature break will be long before I do. And when I’m done it sends all my info off into the sky and it beams it back in my face with a pretty graph and a map. If I want it to, it’ll tell me how my performance rated against my previous efforts, and pretty much anyone else that’s rolled a tyre over the same piece of dirt.

Humans are competitive by nature, and online comparisons allow for constant competition. Professional athletes have access to a suite of supports, including sports psychologists, but the at-home professional punter has no such fall back and must rely upon their inner shrink and a bucket load of data. I’ve never been a true data-hound, but as much as I begrudge it, I must concede that I am a little competitive. A few years away from any kind of racing did park my competitive spirit in pit lane, but earlier this year I decided that I’d make a ‘comeback’ (although no-one actually noticed that I was gone…).

When I last trained I rode by feel, as I’ve always been a good judge of my body and performance. I was probably the only guy in my category that didn’t own a heart rate monitor or plough through a case of gels per weekend. I was ‘Mr Analogue’, a dinosaur staring down the digital age.

Techno Turnaround

This time around I thought I’d have a whirl with some techno-gadgetry. My smartphone acted as a GPS and logged my first rides back, although they were probably slow enough to be chiselled into a stone tablet by a dinosaur-riding caveman cum trainer. It didn’t take long to be hooked, and in hindsight I was probably the ideal candidate. I wanted to be fit again and I knew many of the people who’s times I was being compared with, and as with any ‘beginner’ I got better every ride. The gratification and positive-reinforcement was instant! Many people are critical of online ride sharing, but I can only say that I can’t imagine a better tool to encourage someone to ride and improve, especially when training alone.

Now that bright eyed re-beginner is long gone, he left around the time the training graph passed 1,000km in a month for the first time in a long, long time. The data can inspire but it can just as easily swing the other way. These mind games start when your electronic alter-ego refuses to tell you that your last ride was better than the previous one. Where to next? Time for a rest week probably, but the ego says keep riding as that’s why you’ve been improving so far. So you keep riding but there’s no improvement. In the days before the data deluge I wouldn’t have cared, I wouldn’t have even known. I probably would have felt tired and took it easy, but with the carrot of competition taped to the front of your helmet it can be hard to see around! The innocence of the data disappears at some point.

Fast-forward to the present and my first race back looms large on the horizon—it’s only a week away. I’ve done my best to train in and around the juggling act that is work and family. In the months preceding the race I’ve had my ups and downs, all digitally documented for the world and myself to analyse.

Regaining Control

With knowledge comes responsibility and I think I’ve finally found a nice balance. I’m no longer blinded by the never-ending virtual race that the internet promotes. I have more quantifiable information available about my riding than I ever had before and I’ve learnt to blend this with my intrinsic feel for how I’m going. Slow times and low heart rates tell me that I’m tired – even if I don’t feel it – and that means I need to take it easy. Really slow times tell me I’m sick, sicker than I thought. Ease up, eat lots of veggies and drink green tea!

On the social side, I know which online riders are close to me in fitness and skill, even if I’ve never met them. I can see that I’m improving when I beat their times. I know which of my personal best times are actually pretty rubbish, as I can compare against all my rivals rather than just myself. This in turn tells me which skills I need to brush up on. I still get a buffet-sized serving of encouragement when an intentional block of skills or fitness training translates to quantifiable improvement on the trail, and I know enough about the statistical presentation of my riding that I don’t get bummed out when the computer tells me I sucked on that last ride. My advice? Use it as a training tool but don’t let it turn you into a tool.

As it happens, I’m currently riding a bit of a data high. I found some GPS from four years ago—back when I was ‘fit’ and borrowed a GPS to play with. My digital alter-ego tells me that I’m now 10-20% faster than I used to be. I dead set thought that I was quite a way off my old self—after all, things were always better in the old days!

So I’ve checked the start list for my race and my biggest digital rival is competing. I can’t wait to line up for rego and see lots of familiar faces, tie on my race number and stand anxiously in the start chute. Technology can’t recreate the real race experience, but I believe that it can definitely add to the experience. I wonder if my online rival will be racing against me, too?

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