Reckoning: Maximum Heart Rate
Reckoning: Lessons from 2020
Cycling is pedaling through a reckoning and it’s in the next few months that collectively, we can decide where as a community we want to go. To that end, we’ve asked for insights from riders and writers, industry veterans and newcomers to the sport, high performance and high enthusiasm riders alike for a series of essays. These personal stories are aimed to give insight into the moment we find cycling in today and where we can move forward to find a better way in the years to come.
MAXIMUM HEART RATE
Where racing fits (and doesn't fit) moving forward
by Marc Peruzzi
Marc has carved a living out of writing, riding and being outside. A contributing editor to Outside Magazine and the Editorial Director of Mountain Magazine, Marc has also written for Men’s Journal, Bicycling, 5280 Magazine and Skiing. As a committed cyclist, Marc’s overseen magazine bike testing, raced countless events and has had a front seat to the cycling industry for the better part of a quarter century. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
I was perhaps more prepared than most when the cycling community and
the nation were overwhelmed by ill news, personal and national
tragedies, and the fear that cycling as we know it would end. Like
everyone, the pandemic canceled the races, group rides, and cycling
road trips I had planned. And like most everyone, I watched with
dismay as a handful of event promoters smoldering in their own self
pity reacted poorly to the times. But I also knew that even as cycling
was cut to its roots, it would thrive in a new light. I knew this
because I never deeply appreciated the simple joys of cycling—until I
almost lost them.
This started about six years ago. I’d be high tempo riding up a climb
on dirt or tarmac around my old hometown of Boulder, locked into my
sweet spot training zone of 155bpm, and then my heart would flutter
spasmodically in my chest, my heart rate monitor would top out a
220bpm, and to end that staccato burst before I passed out I’d have to
get off the bike and bear down like a weightlifter. Those rides ended
with me—distraught—rolling downhill in a mood so black that my vision
tunneled. It wasn’t long after that I found myself on an operating
table with an electrophysiologist and his bag of adrenaline jacking my
heart to 350 beats a minute to see if he could locate the misfire and
burn it away.
Except, the doctor couldn’t find the short. The procedure failed. I
left the hospital knowing that, at best, I’d never again ride beyond
long slow distance spinning. I faced a future of no hard recreational
racing, no competitive group rides, and certainly no skate skiing or
bootpacking up couloirs. I wouldn’t be able to ride mountain bikes
with my NICA racing son or even alpine ski or hike with my family.
“Exertion would be limited to a walking pace,” the doctor told me. My
career as an outdoor journalist was jeopardized. And secretly I was
terrified that, without the self medication that intense cycling
secreted into my system, I would fall into depression. What kind of a
father, husband, brother, friend would I become?
Therapists call this negative filtering. It might sound familiar in
2020. When we’re overwhelmed with bad news and the dread of
uncertainty, the sieve of our consciousness lets positivity wash away
and we’re left with a basket of acrid, smoldering, selfish, self pity.
That was me in my nadir.
I recovered. But it wasn’t some untapped strength that saw me through.
I honestly don’t think I’m that strong. It was blind luck that saved
me. Before the procedure, the doctors had insisted that caffeine
played no role in my condition, but out of desperation I stopped
drinking coffee that day in the hospital. And my arrhythmia went away,
only returning once six months later when I accidentally drank a
caffeinated drink and chased a friend up a gravel road.
That was my personal cycling reckoning. It doesn’t even register in
2020, a year that has seen existential reckonings on leadership,
racism, truth, environmental degradation, and the perils of science
denial to only name a few. Cycling may seem small in comparison, but
it isn’t immune from the cold self reflection of these times. There
are toxic components of our sport, and 2020 has exposed many of them.
Cycling is still a closed door to most non-white riders. (My own lived
experience heavy with riding reflects this: I lived in Colorado for 15
years and didn’t ride with a single Latino in that time, even though
the state counts 1.1 million. I only consistently rode with one Black
rider. In Montana, I’ve only ridden and built trail with one American
Indian.) Cycling’s economic elitism, too, is like a noxious weed
spreading from the wealthy cycling hubs. And the competition that was
once contained to actual racing now permeates too much of the sport. I
don’t need to compete on who has the newest cycling overload
addiction, divorce, leisure time, or Sardinian vacation. In general,
too many of us treat cycling like some birthright, an heirloom that
only the cognoscenti can enjoy. I was like that.
But here’s what I learned when I was testing my heart in the wake of
that failed procedure. I was surprised to find that an incident-free
solo ride brought me as much joy as an age class podium. After six
weeks, when it was clear that I could ride at intensity again without
an episode, all I cared to do was ride tempo with close friends and
then pop in a coffee shop—for soda water and a conversation. I
eventually raced again and more importantly race trained with faster
riders, but my attitude had changed. I no longer stressed if I blew up
on the final lap or couldn’t hang on the occasional lunchtime
throwdown. The experience mattered more to me than the results, which,
unless you’re a total sandbagger, tend to be disappointing anyway. My
racer’s remorse wasn’t as biting. The hard training was more fun than
the racing. That was always true for me. But it took a forced
sabbatical to recognize it. I started seeing cycling as the gift that
it is. And the biggest of those gifts was helping to coach my son’s
high school mountain bike team. Giving back to kids is always
rewarding. But it was the time I spent with my son during his early
teens that I cherish. After evening practice we’d lean our bikes
against a railing downtown and decimate burritos in the golden light
of dusk. Pretty routine perhaps, but I’ll never again look that horse
in the mouth.
Ask anyone that loves to ride their bike and they’ll tell you
similar meaningful stories from this year. As much as we devote
ourselves to them, we don’t need Strava, Thursday Night time
trials, merciless drop rides, masters class bike races, and
crushing gravel events in broiling heat to find cycling joy. We
also don’t need the uniforms, costumes, clubhouses, and brand new
bikes every year. We can leave our egoes behind and relish the
flow. This year has proven it. And cycling is better for it.
I was reminded of this the other day when I took five minutes to fill
out one of those surveys in a cycling newsletter. Under the header
“Why Do You ride Bikes?” I checked every box of dozens.
To relieve stress: √.
To stay out of gyms: √.
To eat what I want: √.
“To compete” was on that list, and I did
check the box, but I also checked “spending time with friends and
family” and “enjoying nature.”
In some ways I’ve come full circle. When I first started riding road
and mountain bikes in college, I was a thick rugby player and couldn’t
keep up with my fast brother or the Wednesday Night Worlds crew. I
rode with slow friends. I rode by myself and saw bears and coyotes and
moose. I rode with my dog. For the rest of my life, I’ll ride whether
or not there are any formalized events.
Earlier in the pandemic, my cycling might have looked a lot like yours
did. Respecting the distancing rules, I’d head out on solo gravel
tours or follow the snowmelt to singletrack. Unlike normal times,
there were fewer time constraints and I would stop and eat while
taking in the snow-covered peaks. Resigned to a season without racing,
I still made goals for myself. That was me riding our earn-your-berms
DH and Flow trails with pads on, lapping the jump line and DH drops
until I was actually taking air and landing on the transitions. With
my workload dramatically cut by the pandemic, I rode more than I had
in years and through default achieved baseline fitness. Focusing on
another weakness, I managed to fight through lactate threshold to
execute a few decent VO2 Max intervals at a time. Later, as it became
clear that we could ride outdoors safely, my mountain biking friends
and I took to the singletrack just glad for the company. We never
hammered. We never dropped anybody. We just talked on the climbs and
shredded the downhills. That’s what we do anyway. It’s one of the
reasons I left Colorado to return to Montana three years ago. At least
among my friend group, cycling is less judgemental here. Competition
is left to races.
I don't know how to solve cycling's inequities, how to push the
industry to speak to more than just the Boulder bubble I once floated
in. But since we’re all currently examining our lives and the society
we’ve built anyway, now might be the time to try. At the least,
cycling can do a better job of becoming an open and kind community.
There’s not a lot that really matters beyond that. Ultimately we all
ride to self medicate ourselves with fresh air, exercise, and
friendship. The importance of the last bit can’t be overstated.
Yesterday I went for a mountain bike ride with a close friend. He’d
lost his wife and riding partner to tragedy two weeks before. We’d all
been there for him and his daughter before the extended family
arrived, and we’re here for him now that they’re gone. But riding is
also part of recovery—his and ours. On yesterday’s ride we felt
obligated to talk more than we normally do at first. I felt as though
I needed to check in. And I’m sure he felt he had to show me he was
After about 30 minutes, though, the conversations stopped. Like most
of the people I gravitate to, he’s always been fine with long silences
on the bike. When we hit the climb I went to the front—unusual with
him as a former pro—and settled into that high tempo sweet spot riding
that we both love. The hot weather had broken with cool northwesterly
air. On the forest floor, the grasses had dried to chafe. My eyes were
drawn to the Larch trees that would soon go yellow in the mist of
fall. The only sounds were of our tires and our breath. And that’s all
we needed of cycling.