In the company of other cyclists, I am often struck by the words we use to describe our sense of fitness and general state of being on the bike. Because it is really quite seldom that we simply say we are feeling good, or tired, or out of shape, and leave it at that. There is a special vocabulary to describe how we feel on the bike and the words are evocative, even delicious.
When we haven't our usual strength on a given day, the weakness can take many shapes. It can be that our legs are heavy, in which case they feel "like lead" or "dead weight." And this heaviness isn't a metaphor; it is tangible. We pedal as if pushing through something viscous, each turn of the crank like trying to budge a massively heavy stone.
But the weakness can also come in the form of a different sensation entirely - a sort of husk-like emptiness that turns the body into a shell of its former self. On days like this, you ping and we ring hollow. Or maybe our muscles turn to straw. So light on the pedals we are, there is hardly anything there to move the machine forward.
There is also the curse of no energy. This one seems to catch us the most by surprise, as if some other, nameless entity outside of ourselves is at fault. Perhaps someone had come with a hose in the night, syphoned it out of us with sinister stealth. As a consequence we are running on empty. Drained. "Out of fuel."
And what of those strong days? When we are powerful, thriving, light? There are times when that energy blast is like a dangerous buzz. There is an edge to it, and we know deep down that it is like being "on" something - a substance bound to wear off, and with side-effects. Or like a jazzed up high from which we know there will be a painful come-down.
But then there are times when the strength is an even flow. It does not come in screaming waves, but it radiates, mellow and effortless, convincing us almost that it might be a permanent shift in our way of being. Our limbs grow fluid, our rhythm syncs up with the bike. It is some form of advancement. A physical wisdom, gained overnight. A form of enlightenment. A tangible sense of growth.
A good strenuous ride, no matter how it's achieved, can leave us in dire states. It can leave us ruined, useless for any other form of activity - including lucid conversation - for hours to come. It can leave us wrecked, feeling much like a shipwreck, ravaged, busted apart, then left abandoned on a beach at low tide. It can leave us shattered - in brittle small pieces, like shards of glass. Despite their equivalent levels of devastation, these situations are distinctly different, each flooding our senses with various shades of exhaustion and dreamy euphorias.
What motivates such descriptions of what are essentially fairly mundane ups and downs in energy? Perhaps it's the very cyclical nature of them. The wheels go round and round, the body works and rests, and through it we somehow eek out variety. Flavours. Textures. Meaning. And once we find it, we are truly ruined - not so much by miles or pace, as by our tireless, ferocious imaginations.