Big Hairy Ambitious Goals

I remember when I was working at London Business School back in the early 2000s, and I taught on a program for a big international telecom company based in the UK. The company used the acronym ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Ambitious Goal’ to describe what they were trying to achieve in the business world. I adopted the term as part of my journey towards a medal in the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino.

My body is almost fully recovered after my accident back in April. Ten broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a punctured lung don’t heal overnight, and my first few months back on the bike back in July and August were just awful. I had lost so much strength, that I was regularly passed by the lone retirees that you come across pedalling the roads of Flanders. And they were not riding electric bikes!

I can admit that the accident had not just hit me physically – I felt depressed, as the pain was pretty much constant for about three months. It was impossible to lie flat, so I slept in a ‘Grandpa’ chair for more than ten weeks. When I first got back on my indoor trainer at end of June, I was exhausted after just 30 or 40 minutes of pedalling. My body was using so much energy to fix itself, that any added exertion left me drained.

But bit by bit I have increased my training intensity over the past four months, and now I am starting to hit the performance numbers that I was doing back in April. One of the good things about the accident is that it has really taught me to sense my body – I don’t know if its real or imagined, but it is kind of like I can feel my muscles, joints and even respiration with a heightened sensitivity. So every day when I start my training session, I first spend some time just sensing my body. And then I compare the way I feel to the screen in front of me – power output, heart rate and cadence.

The other good thing about the accident is how motivated I am feeling about getting back to competition. The start of this year was quite stressful – our contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of building our new house, throwing our moving plans into disarray and meaning that we had been stressed with getting the project back on track over the winter. The whole episode had really disrupted my training, so I came into the Spring behind where I would have liked to be. I had some good results in South Africa in March, but I felt distracted. Then the accident.

But now I feel incredibly motivated to make the 2016 season one of my best. For the past six weeks or so I have been waking at around 6am almost every morning, doing 60 to 90 minutes on the indoor trainer before Anne-Mie and the kids are out of bed. I am in my obsessive groove, where training gives me the kind of kick that I guess musicians and artists feel when they are in their flow. There is no boredom or loneliness, no mental distraction. I’ve even started to talk to Anne-Mie and the kids about my power curve and watts per kilo, and they are kind enough to feign interest.

Now its time to set some BHAGs !

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-Life Dopers

Podium

I compete against mid-life dopers. I ride with a power meter, a crank-mounted device that measures the number of watts you are producing at any given moment on the bike. So I don’t just feel the pain that I go through trying to stay with some of the middle-aged amateur cyclists I race against – I can actually see the numbers they are putting out. And sometimes those numbers are simply unbelievable.

I participated in a multi-day race in Sardinia last year against Masters riders from all over Europe. About half way into the 140km first stage I found myself putting out around 360 watts at the base of a long climb just to stay with two Italian guys in my age group category. These were not little skinny guys like me (I am 168cm tall and my race weight is around 64 kilograms) but tall, well-built men of at least 75 kilos.

The two Italians were smoothly riding away from me on the climb, and taking into account their body weight and the incline, this meant that they were putting out as much as 10 percent more power than I was – maybe 390 watts – and they were holding it! When in peak condition I can hold 360 watts for about ten minutes of pedaling, before I completely blow-up. So I shook my head and watched them ride away.

To put 390 watts in perspective, Chris Froome’s estimated power output on the mountain stage he won in the Tour de France this year was around 410 watts. So what I witnessed in Italy just didn’t make sense for middle-aged amateur cyclists. I Googled the names of the two Italians that evening to discover that one of them had recently returned to competition after a two-year doping suspension.

Over the course of the week-long race, these two guys raced aggressively every single day – there seemed to be no fatigue, and they attacked constantly. I eventually finished third for my age group classification, but was more than twelve minutes behind by the end of the week. The other guys in my age group joked that we were engaged in two-speed racing – the winning Italians in one class, and the rest of us in the other.

The fact is that doping, and especially the use of the blood booster EPO, is all too common in amateur Masters cycling. Unlike professional cycling, there is no biological passport system involving the systematic and regular testing of competitors. In many countries, such as Belgium, there are random checks at race events but typically just a handful of riders are tested. In many events, like the one that I raced in Italy, there is no testing at all. So the odds of getting caught are quite small.

Doping products such as EPO are affordable, and readily available for purchase on the Internet. The real challenge is how to deal with the mid-life dopers, and I think that out of season testing must become a reality for those Masters riders who are performing ‘exceptionally’ in race events. For example, I know of a 50 something cyclist who won 8 out of 10 Masters events in a Belgian Kermesse series a few years ago. Given the level of competition in Belgium, that kind of performance verges on the unbelievable. Out of season testing of amateurs is already done to an extent in the US, and scores of riders have been suspended as a consequence. The same should be done in continental Europe.

Although there is very little research about doping by Masters athletes, I have read a lot on the psychology of doping at the elite level of sport. Much of the literature talks about game theory. The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both cyclists will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.*

If it is highly likely that the majority of your competitors are doping, then you have two options. You can choose not to dope, and be almost certainly beaten as a consequence, or you can dope, and be given a fighting chance. I have read scores of interviews with cyclists who doped during the Armstrong era, and almost all of them talked of this athlete’s dilemma.

The financial stakes in professional sports can be high, and this is also a factor that undoubtedly drives some to dope. But it is not just about fame and fortune – many young cyclists who encountered the doping culture of the 1990s and early 2000s had dreamed of professional cycling since they were kids, sacrificing education and career opportunities for a sporting path. They had travelled far from family and friends to make it as a rider in Europe, and were then sucked into an environment in which doping was the norm – where it was expected by peers and mentors. For them, cycling was a job and doping became a tool of the trade.

But the reality for middle-aged cyclists is very different. There is certainly no fortune, as even the best amateur Masters racers spend far more on equipment, travel and race costs than they ever get from prize money. Cycling is a passion, not an income generator. Fame is also elusive, as Masters cycling is rarely reported on by the mainstream media.

We are not surrounded by people who encourage us to dope. In fact, those who cheat disgust most of my cycling peers. A Belgian rider who is almost fifty years old won his age-group category of a week-long Masters race in Italy this year, and also rode unbelievably well on the general classification. Not only did he finish in the top ten, but he consistently outclassed riders twenty years his junior – every day of the event. He has served a previous doping suspension, and was openly ridiculed by other cyclists at the race. I wondered if this was fair, but his performance on the road left few doubts in many peoples’ minds.

To me it seems that the prisoner’s dilemma still plays a role in elite Masters cycling – the fear that others are doping, so to win I must dope too. But what this also says is that the individual puts ‘winning’ above all else. And in the absence of financial rewards and fame ‘winning’ is essentially about two things: firstly a sense of self-achievement, and secondly recognition from family, friends and the Masters cycling community.

But in both cases the outcome is a lie for dopers – you have not achieved your true potential, and the recognition that you are receiving is undeserved. It is one thing to mislead the Masters cycling community about the reasons for your performance, but to do so to spouse, children and wider family and friends strikes me as very sad indeed.

And this is why I pity the mid-life dopers. Because what they have failed to acquire is the wisdom that at this stage of life, winning is not just about receiving a medal after a bike race. It’s about how you got there, and who you have become along the way.

Earlier this year I won my age-group classification and was also 1st International Amateur Rider overall at the Cape Town Cycle Classic. It was the first time in my life to stand on the top step of the podium at a major international race.

Standing on that podium in South Africa, I held the trophy high.

CAPETOWN

*For a good discussion of game theory and the athlete’s dilemma see: The Economist, Doping in Sport: The Athlete’s Dilemma, 20 July 2013. ARTICLE

Shut Up Legs

JamieLegs

When Michelangelo produced a marble sculpture, he talked of ‘releasing’ the figure from the stone. Each strike of his chisel moved him a little bit closer to revealing the potential within. When I returned to competitive cycling more than five years ago, I thought of my body like that heavy block of stone. I believed there was an athlete within, but it would take a lot of chiseling to release him.

I once read an interview with a former professional cyclist who was asked by the magazine’s journalist: “What does it take to become a great rider?”. The cyclist’s answer: “Choose you parents very carefully.” It is clear that genetic make-up represents a significant contribution to elite sporting success, especially so in endurance sports such as cycling. But genetics are only a part of the story.

Some sports scientists attribute up to 60% to 70% of an elite road cyclist’s likely success to genetic inheritance, with maternal inheritance (ie the mother’s genes) the most important. My Dad was never an accomplished sportsman, but my mother was a talented long-distance swimmer in her youth.

When I was seventeen years old I had my VO2 Max measured. VO2 Max calculates the amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute measured per mL for each kilo of body weight, and is expressed as mL (kg/min). A sedentary male typically has a VO2 Max of around 50 mL (kg/min), and a ‘recreational’ cyclist around 60 mL (kg/min). As a teenager I achieved a reading of around 76 mL (kg/min), which is close to someone like Simon Gerrans (Aussie pro cyclist riding for Orica GreenEdge). Tour de France winner Cadel Evans is reported to have had a VO2 Max of 88 mL (kg/min), and Greg Lemond 92.5 mL (kg/min). So thanks for the lungs Mum!

VO2

But while physiological indicators such as VO2 Max, efficiency of motion, and power output per kilogram of bodyweight are clear and established markers of fitness, most sports scientists agree that there is more to cycling success than physiology – other key factors include training methods, technique, tactical wisdom and motivation. Training methods can be learned, and tactical wisdom and technique (such as descending and cornering) come with coaching, experience and racing. But motivation is a completely different story.

Once you understand how to train, almost everything about becoming an elite road cyclist involves willpower – or what the psychologists call the locus of control. A journalist once asked the former professional Jens Voigt what goes through his mind when he is at the extreme edge of suffering in a race breakaway. “Shut up legs” was his response, a statement that has become a worldwide mantra for cyclists.

As Voigt understands, the key to becoming a winning cyclist lies in one’s ability to embrace suffering. It’s about riding in terrible weather, pushing yourself beyond your limits, dieting and sacrificing other priorities to make the time for riding and competition.

A few weeks ago I was training in the Belgian Ardennes near the border with Germany. It is a beautiful area with good roads, forests and long winding climbs. Although mid summer, the weather was foul on the day of one of my rides. Looking out of my hotel room window after breakfast, the wind was howling, the sky dark with clouds and the rain coming down sideways. When I Googled the day’s weather forecast things were only expected to get worse.

I trained for around 100 kilometers in the rain and wind, and did not see another cyclist for more than four hours. At times I crawled up those long sweeping climbs as the rain lashed in my face, and by the end of the ride I could feel that my body was completely drained – that I had used almost every ounce of energy to push the pedals and to keep warm.

At one point a few hours into the ride, as the rain penetrated my overshoes and my feet became soaking wet, my mind started to tell me to turn around and go home. But I didn’t. Because my will told me that this was part of the journey.

I can’t say that I truly enjoyed myself on that ride through the Ardennes – that would be misleading. But I understood that what I was submitting to was part of a bigger objective that will come many months down the road.

That’s the locus of control – the willpower to do the difficult work that needs to be done, in whatever endeavour you decide to excel at in life.

It’s about having the fortitude and self-belief to keep chipping away at that block of stone.

The legs of the top of the post are really mine – after five years of chiseling!

TEDx Liege – What is Success, Really?

TEDLogoTransparentNoir

VIDEO COMING SOON

TEDxJamie

Imagine if you worked for half of your life to be become a success, to really become someone.

You have this bold ambition to reach the moon.

But then when you become that person, you realize that it’s not who you want to be at all.

What would you do then?

I was born in a small country town called Shepparton about 200kms north of Melbourne in the South East of Australia. I was the 2nd youngest of seven children.

It was not always easy to make ends meet, and all of my older brothers and sisters left school to go to work by the time they were 15. It was a necessity, not a choice.

But as a kid, and despite the hardships, I had a big dream.

I dreamed of racing in Europe as a professional cyclist.

I started racing a bike on the BMX track when I was just nine years old, and by the time I was 16 I had progressed to the velodrome and racing on the road.

In 1987, the year that this photo was in the local newspaper I was one of the top riders in the State and on my way to the national championships with my friend and training partner Stuart McKenzie. That’s me on the left.

Cycling was my life, and I worked incredibly hard to reach my European dream. But at the same time, something had started to happen.

I was not just good at cycling; I was also doing very well at school.

I had dreamed of being a professional road cyclist since I was nine years old, but despite having enough talent to make it to the national level I had increasing doubts.

It was not that any one person told me that I should abandon my ambitions, and my parents were incredibly supportive.

But the influence of my environment – school career advisors, teachers and friends slowly but surely created anxiety and fear.

I was told that cycling was a nice hobby, but that I would struggle to make a living from it. That the chances of really making it to the top as a professional athlete were small.

I don’t think that people offered this ‘wisdom’ because they wanted to hurt me or to stop me being happy. Quite the opposite – they wanted me to follow a life that lead to stability and prosperity, and with that prosperity they thought would come happiness.

The message was that a cycling career was a dream, and that I should be more realistic especially since I was clever academically.  Dreams are risky, and dreams might not pay the bills.

These pressures were only compounded when I did very well in my end of School exams, and was offered a grant to study at the University of Melbourne.

You see, where I come from only a handful of kids had gone on to tertiary education. And now I had this incredible opportunity – this chance to get an education.

But I knew that studying a degree full-time, as well as doing the part-time work I would have to do to make it through, would never allow me the time to compete at a high level.

In the end, the choice to pursue an academic path was my own but it was not my most desired path.

I am not sure if you can understand what I am saying – I felt that it was almost inevitable that I should stop cycling, even though it was a heart-breaking choice.

A few weeks before my 18th birthday I moved to Melbourne, and I let go of my European dream.

What I did do for the next 20 years was work incredibly hard. I brought that spirit of discipline and hard work to my studies, and I was very competitive.

I really wanted to make my family proud. But there was also something else – as a kid from a working class background I really resented many of the people around me at university.

The ones who had been born into privilege. The ones who I thought had it easy. I wanted to be better than them.

I didn’t really have career role models when I was growing up, so I looked around. And the wealthiest, most respected and well travelled professors that I saw were the Business School Professors.

So I decided I would become a Business School Professor, and not just any Business School Professor but one of the world’s best.

After my undergraduate degree, I went on to another graduate scholarship and by the time I was 29 years old I was working in London at one of the world’s leading graduate management schools.

And I kept working hard and getting promoted. At the age of 39 I was a professor, I had published in some of the world’s top management journals, and in addition I had started my own consulting business. I was earning more money than I ever imagined could be possible, and I was travelling the world.

But something was missing. You see, when I left Shepparton back in 1988 I had this belief that if I worked hard, and if I had success, then I would be happy. But I was far from happy.

And this is what I looked like. Yes, I was “successful” in a professional sense, and I know that many people envied what I had achieved. But I was tired, I was arrogant, I was unhealthy and I had this inner unhappiness. I was a bit of an asshole, because I had to be to survive in that environment.

ANDERSON Lorange

I was now a husband and a father, and yet my obsession with work meant that I was not particularly good at being either.

I was working long hours, I was travelling constantly and I was obsessed with being the best.

I remember reading bed time stories to my three children at this time, and skipping parts of the story so I could get back to work. And of course, the kids had heard those stories countless times, so they knew!

The only problem was that I really didn’t’ know who I wanted to be.

And of course, I also realized it was no longer about me. It was about us. What did we want to become as a family?

There is a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

In 2009 my wife Anne-Mie and I spent many hours talking together, and these discussion culminated in a drawing exercise. We sat together with a large sheet of paper and co-created a hand drawn picture of what success really meant to us.

The pencil and ink sketches that we created revealed a much wider definition of success – we aspired to have a loving relationship and to live in a semi-urban environment in which our three children could play and be free.

We desired more family leisure time, and the opportunity to actively participate in the children’s social, artistic and sporting activities.

We both wanted to work, but to engage in professional activities that we enjoyed and which still provided the opportunity for occasional international travel.

And of course, in the bottom right of our picture was a hand drawn bicycle. I dreamed of returning to elite-level competitive cycling because that fire, that love for cycling had never left me.

I set a big and ambitious goal – to race at the next World masters Games in Torino in 2013. The World Masters Games organization is an amazing thing – its basically an Olympics for old people, and just like the real thing is held every four years.

The only problem of course was that this picture did not fit with my career, and a few days later I resigned my job at that prestigious business school to become a husband, father, writer, speaker and, of course, a cyclist.

Taking that leap involved confronting a lot of fears – but Anne-Mie and I decided to try and find our way.

On the 8th of August 2013, I stood on that start line of the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino with 160 of the world’s best Masters cyclists.

Startline

I had been preparing for this moment for four years, and in the process I had become a different person.

But of course it was not about who I had become. It was about what we had become.

With me in Torino were my three beautiful children and my wonderful wife Anne-Mie. Just before being marshaled onto the start line my little girl Hannah came up to me and said something I will never forget. She said “Pappa, it’s okay if you don’t win.”

And it was true, because I realized at that moment that being in Torino was about something much more than winning a bike race. It was about the journey.

It was about having the courage to create a new life and to define success in our own way.

It had not been easy, and there had been heartache and setbacks along the way. I had crashed in races and broken bones, there had been the two years when my income had been almost nothing as I learned new skills and connected to new people towards become a writer and a speaker.

But by 2013 almost everything that Anne-Mie and I had drawn in that picture four years before had fallen into place.

And the race was nine laps of an eight km circuit through Park Valentino and the streets of Turin. It was nine laps of pain as we averaged more than 40km per hour, and every single lap I was cheered on by Anne-Mie and the kids.

And I can’t tell you how this felt, to be living this childhood dream. A dream that I thought I had left behind.

Every lap we went over Mt Cappucini. That little mountain had a 1km climb with up to 18% gradient. And each and every lap there were twenty fewer guys, until there were only about fifteen of us left. Fifteen of the best Masters cyclists in the world.

And at that moment, something crazy started to go through my mind – I could win!

But in the end I didn’t win, That was an incredible Czech cyclist. And an Italian came 2nd. But I did come home with a bronze medal.

So my message for you is this. It’s great to strive for success, to shoot for the moon. But there are many moons out there in the Universe, so please make sure that the moon you are shooting for is your own.

Thank you!

Hannah

 

Getting Serious about Going Fast

I raced my first cycling competitions in Belgium in Spring of 2010 and it was a terrifying experience. I failed to finish my first two races, and struggled home several minutes down on the winners in the other kermiskoerses that I completed. I experienced muscle cramping in almost every event, not because of dehydration but because of the sheer exertion that I was demanding of my body, over and above what it was capable of delivering. It was a depressing experience. But at the same time that I was suffering on the narrow roads of Flanders, I was also learning a lot.

The first thing that I started to understand was that the elite Masters racing that I was competing in was nothing like the kind of long-distance road racing that I had trained for as a young man. At the Masters level, the distance is typically just 70 or 80 kilometres, not the 140 kilometres or more that is typical for the elite level amateur and professional racing.

I realised that I had to train my body to go very, very fast for a little more than 90 minutes – not to be able to race for 4 hours or more, as is typical of the professional cycle racing you see on TV. I started to understand that the first 30 to 45 minutes of that 90 minutes was especially important, for that was when the selection of strongest riders was typically made in a kermiskoers, and gaps would start to open-up in the race. If you were not able to stay in the front ten to fifteen riders in the opening laps, especially once that group opened any kind of gap on the chasing peloton, your race was pretty much over.

So in the summer of 2010 we spent almost two months on Corsica, and for six days a week I rode my bike along the beautiful coastline and into the mountains above Calvi and Ile Rouse. While I did a longer ride once or twice a week, what I really started to work on was intensity and really pushing myself to exhaustion on the long steady climbs that the Islands is famous for. I would do a five to six minute effort at close to my maximal heart rate, rest for a minute and then repeat. I would do this again and again until I literally started to feel sick and weak. At first I could only do two of these kinds of sessions a week, as I needed a few days to recover afterwards. But by the end of the summer I could manage three such workouts.

We came back to Belgium at the end of August and I headed to a race in East Flanders. As I lined-up I realised that I was not the only guy had been training hard over the summer – those Flemish guys looked muscled, lean and suntanned. The flag dropped, and I experienced a tortuous 30 minutes of pain before losing contact with the front group of ten or so guys who drove the breakaway. The rest of us knew it was over, and we raced the next hour with resigned effort. I just wasn’t strong enough, and I still had problems with cramp and back pain.

I kept riding my bike, I kept racing and I kept losing weight. The 2011 Spring racing season was better – I could consistently finish the races I entered, and I got in my first breakaway. Being in that breakaway as an Aussie cyclist in Flanders was an experience I will never forget – the pain and the effort, and the realisation that there was a group of fifty guys hell-bent on catching you just a half-minute or so back down the road. The guys in the breakaway pretty quickly realised I was a foreigner, and in true Flemish style started to shout at me in English. There is no friendship in that kind of group – just solidarity of effort until the final few kilometres when the guy beside you will quite happily lean you into the barriers if it looks as though you might sprint past him. In that race I came 4th (picture below), with just a few centimetres separating me from my first podium in more than 20 years.

4th

That summer I lived a lifelong dream. My family and I went camping in France, and I competed in road races in the Auvergne and Languedoc regions. It was a very different style of racing to Flanders – races of 100 to 120 kilometres on beautiful open rural roads. The first half of these races was usually pretty civilised, before the real action would start in the final 50 kilometres or so. The competitors were almost gentlemanly, and I loved every moment. I was consistently finishing in the top 10, and I got my first podium with a third place in a hilly a race in the Dordogne. I won a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and bunch of flowers. Fantastic! There was a big party at the campsite that evening!

In September I went to the European Masters Games in Lignano, Italy and I finished 7th in my Age Group Category. The race was on a very flat circuit, and not really suited to my physique, but I managed to make it into the breakaway with a Slovene, several Italians, a German and a Russian and we were able to stay away until the end. The Slovene guy won in a solo break, and Italians took 2nd and 3rd. I was over the moon with my 7th place – it was still two years to go until Torino, and I had really started to believe in myself. But the best part was coming home to Belgium – despite my 7th place, the kids had drawn a huge picture of a golden cup with a Number 1 on it.

P1060064

Something else started to happen – I think my body began to accept that I was serious about this cycling stuff. My fitness gains and weight loss had been slow and steady in 2010 and 2011, but then seemed to accelerate. At the end of 2011 I bought the most amazing performance enhancement tool than any cyclist can use – a power meter. This new tool enabled me not just to train with heart rate and feeling, but with accurate numbers of the watts of power that I was producing in any given effort. It was a revelation.

Performance in cycling is relatively simple – it is a combination of power-to-weight, aerodynamics, race nutrition and tactical wisdom. Training is about specificity – simulating the kinds of efforts that one will experience in competition. Improvement comes from incrementally and progressively overloading the body during training and racing, and ensuring that one has enough rest and the right fuel to recover for subsequent efforts.

I started to use my power meter to record my Belgian race data, and I could see quite precisely the kinds of power that I needed to sustain to finish at the front of races. After just a few weeks, I could see a certain pattern – I was having to average 290 to 300 watts of power output for the first 45 minutes of a typical kermiskoers just to stay in the front group, and an average of around 270 to 280 watts over the duration of the race. I sometimes struggled in races with a lot of corners, as although I could hold a good intensity I was unable to do the repeated sprints at very high watts after each deceleration. But I decided not to worry about this too much – the racecourse in Torino would not involve tight corners.

Now my training became completely focused. I developed my training plan around simulating the course that I would race in Torino – nine laps of an eight kilometre circuit, with sweeping corners, long straight sections and each lap an almost 1km climb of between 12% and 18% gradient. Each lap should take around 11 minutes at an average speed of just over 40kmh, so I would have to hold about 270 to 290 watts for around 8 to 9 minutes, and then go up into the 400 to 500 watt range for the 90 or so seconds of the steep climb, before recovering on the descent and repeating. I would also need to be ready to chase breakaways or close gaps – efforts of maybe 340 to 360 watts for 2 to 3 minutes at a time.

Racing kermiskoers in Flanders was perfect for the threshold work that I needed, but lacked the climbing, so I also started to do some racing in Wallonia. In summer of 2012 we found an amazing camping ground in the Cevennes national park in the south of France which had wonderful surrounding roads for training. A short distance from the campground I found a quiet road at the base of one of the nearby mountains. The first section of tarmac was about 1km long, with a 12 to 18% gradient and I rode up that damned thing hundreds of times.

I raced in France throughout the summer of 2012, and in the second half of August I won my first race in more than two decades – a regional Masters competition near to Lyon. I promise you something – it felt just as good standing on the top step of the podium at age 41 as it did when I was 17 years old. And I had the proudest family in the world.

And I still had a year to go to prepare for the World Masters Games in Torino.

Commitment, Cramps & Crashes: On Becoming a Cyclist Again

Brandenburg gate

I started training again in 2009, almost 20 years since I last raced my bike at an elite level. We were still living in Berlin, and I would ride my bike from where we lived in Prenzlauerberg on the East side of the city and out into the countryside. The outer suburbs of the east side of Berlin are a mix of turn of the century apartment buildings that survived the war, and housing and factories built during the GDR times. I would pass through Weissensee and Bernau, and then do a loop through the fields and a small forest near to Melchow and Biesenthal. On longer rides I might go as far as Eberswalde.

I tried not to get lost, as these were the days before I had a bike GPS and my German was non-existent. If you did ask someone for directions, the usual response was for the person to ask (in German) what kind of an idiot would ride with a map they could not read, and then point you in the wrong direction. The people out this way were Prussian, and they did not like the ‘outsiders’ like me who were coming to Berlin, forcing up prices and gentrifying many of the formerly working-class inner city suburbs.

The small rural villages in this part of Brandenburg were tidy and well kept, but far from affluent. Young people were notable by their absence, and you were more likely to see Dacia Logan sedans than BMWs. I would occasionally come across Confederate flags from the American civil war fluttering over small isolated houses out in the countryside, and my German friends later told me that these belonged to far-right supporters or neo-Nazis. I’m glad I didn’t stop at those places and ask for directions – the angry looking Rottweiler dogs in the front gardens would have deterred me anyway.

For the first several months that I rode my bike I didn’t have any special training plan or goals. I just wanted to ride, and I loved my time alone. I started riding in the early Spring of 2009, and the temperatures were frequently hovering around zero. I would leave home with layers of clothing, thick winter gloves and a thermal hat under my helmet. My cheeks would sometimes start to burn on the really cold days, so I also got myself a balaclava. Looking back now, I’m not surprised the local village folk sometimes got a shock when I asked for directions.

My first goal was just to build-up my aerobic fitness and lose weight. This is what cyclists call base training, and at first I was doing just four or five hours per week. Trying to fit in some riding around my young family and intensive work schedule was not easy, so I often headed out very early in the morning. I also got myself an indoor trainer, and would try to ride on it once or twice a week in the evenings.

The best thing that I discovered about being back on my bike was the thinking time. I had become so busy in trying to juggle the three balls of family, career and self, that the third one had been the first to drop. This meant that I was occupied all of the time, with very little time for mental down-time. On those rides through Brandenburg I started to reflect upon my life, and this eventually led to the worklife decisions that I have discussed in my previous blog posts. In mid 2009 I resigned from my job as a professor in Berlin, and moved with my family to Belgium.

Once in Belgium my new life as a cyclist really began. I had set myself the goal of competing at the next World Masters Games in Torino in 2013, and started to completely rethink how I could keep the three balls of family, career and self in the air. I have explained in my previous posts about how I started to focus my professional activities on becoming a keynote speaker, and at the same time was able to invest more and more time into my family.

When we moved to Belgium we rented a small house in Tervuren, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of Brussels. The choice of area was a very conscious one – we wanted somewhere that offered direct access to the countryside for the kids, that was well connected for transport (I would still have to travel from time to time for my speaking engagements) and which offered a good base for my cycle training.

Once settled, I joined a local cycling club and started to seek-out other cyclists who could also train on weekdays. My local club organized rides every Sunday from the famous ‘Café Congo’ in Vossem, with groups divided by ability – A,B, C and D. In the summer months it was not unusual for each group to contain thirty riders or more. The A group would average around 32 to 34kmh for a 100km ride, and the D group quite a bit slower than that, with each group followed by a support car. Of course, I immediately jumped in with the A group and found myself unceremoniously left-behind at around the 60km mark of my first group training. The rules of Belgian A-group club rides are pretty simple – if you can’t keep-up, then you find your own way home.

So for the next few months I dropped back with the Sunday B-Group, while at the same time increasing my week-day training to around 6 to 8 hours. The area of Belgium where we were living was called Vlaams Brabant, a beautiful part of the country with rolling hills and open countryside, dotted by small villages. It was just a short ride across the ‘border’ into French-speaking Brabant Walloon.

My first race in Belgium in the late Spring of 2010 was a shock. I had been back in training for more than a year and I thought I was in good condition. I was now able to join my club’s A-Group every Sunday, and was down to around 70kgs. So I thought I was ready to compete, and took a license with the Vlaamse Wieler Federatie (Flemish Cycling Federation).

What I was about to discover was that the level of amateur Masters cycling in Belgium is without a doubt the toughest in the world. Not only is the country cycle racing obsessed, but the sheer number of people participating in amateur competitive events is unrivalled. Many of the guys who race have been competing since they were nine years old and some have spent years as a professional. According to the Belgian press, doping is still prevalent in the amateur ranks and especially amongst the over 40s who are struggling to remain competitive into middle-age.

There are no fewer than seven provincial racing associations in Belgium, as well as the Flemish and Wallone ‘national’ amateur Federations. In the spring and summer months there might be upwards of 20 separate racing events per week, all in a country which is about a third of the size of the little island we Aussies call Tasmania.

The Flemish north of Belgium where I first chose to compete has a very special style of amateur road racing called the Kermiskoers. Belgium is a small country, so access to open roads can be difficult. The typical race format is therefore a short circuit, anywhere between 4 and 8 kilometers, that starts in a village centre and then loops out into the countryside. Total distance at the amateur level is 70 to 90 kilometers, and the circuit often involves sections of narrow farm roads, with a cobbled section thrown in for good measure. Flanders is very flat, so there are rarely any hills to speak off.

Re-entering the village can involve navigating sharp corners, speed bumps and traffic islands. Each and every corner involves deceleration and then rapid acceleration, and there are constant attacks. This would all be fine, if it were not for the 120 or so other guys who are all trying to stay at the front at speeds averaging 42 to 44 kilometers per hour! A professional cyclist once described the Kermiskoers as being as mentally stressful as the final kilometers of a sprint lead-out, but for the entire race. Crashes are common, and an ambulance crew is always standing by.

My first race was a 72km Kermiskoers in a small village near to Dendermonde in East Flanders, involving nine laps of an eight kilometer circuit with a cobbled section of about 400 meters. After four laps I was spat out the back of the peloton, with legs cramping and severe pain in my lower back. I pulled to the side of the road and proceeded to throw-up. I remember that it was not just any kind of vomit – it was that brown-green colored stuff that comes from someplace way down. I glanced at my computer – my average heart rate for the four laps that I had completed had been 174 beats per minute!

Bent over at the side of the road, I thought that I would never be able to compete with these guys. Then I told myself that this was just the first step on a long journey. Torino was three years away, and I had a lot of work to do.

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Guilt, Lies & Cycling

I stopped cycling at an elite level when I was eighteen years old. After accepting a scholarship to study at the University of Melbourne, I moved to the city, 200kms south of the small country town where I grew up. I moved in with my older brother and sister, and within a few weeks started classes. I also found some work to make ends meet – the first was an evening job as a kitchen-hand in the restaurant of a local pub, and the other was the 6am-8am morning shift at a nearby gas station.

I arrived in Melbourne with some boxes of belongings and my racing bike. But I think I had already accepted that racing at a top level was behind me. The previous year had been really tough emotionally and financially due to my Dad’s illness, and as I looked forward I found it hard to see any way that high-level sporting competition could fit with what would be required to get through university. Everyone at home had such high hopes for my academic future, and I felt a responsibility not to let them down.

After a couple of months in Melbourne I sold my beautiful Italian Chesini road racer and used some of the money to buy a clunky mountain bike for commuting to classes and work. In the second year at University I got a part-time job as a bicycle courier, and spent my free hours racing parcels and documents to and from offices across Melbourne. I was the fastest non-powered delivery guy that the company had ever seen, and it was fun to experience the courier culture of the inner city. I continued to follow professional cycling of course, and even mountain biked a bit, but my days as a competitive road cyclist were over.

As I have discussed in my previous blog posts, I spent the next twenty years chasing “success” before I had the chance to stand back and reflect upon what that concept really meant to me. I have described how my wife and I created a new picture of what we wanted for our future, and how part of that picture included my dream to return to elite-level road cycling. In 2009 I set myself a goal – that within four years I would compete at in the Men’s Road Race at he next World Masters Games in Torino, Italy.

When I embarked on my cycling dream I was 39 years old, and weighed about 15 kilograms more than I did when I hung up my wheels two decades before. My aerobic fitness was pretty lousy, as besides commuting to work I had done no real endurance training for a very, very long time.

But the weird thing about getting into training again was not how my body felt – it was the way my head worked. As I started to train again, I would find myself out on the road with a sense of guilt hanging over me. What I was guilty about was the fact that I was not working, that I was not being productive in a professional sense. There was this strange feeling that what I was doing was bad, and that I shouldn’t be spending time in such a self-centred way.

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Hard work had been such a part of my life for such a long time, that I had relegated my personal passions and hobbies to the domain of the frivolous. It was not just cycling – by my mid thirties I went to the gym infrequently, rarely read a long book and only occasionally relaxed in front of the TV with my wife. I was infected with the ‘busyness’ disease so typical of high-achievers.

So I would be out on the road, and instead of enjoying the riding my mind would be in overdrive – I should be working, I should be achieving stuff. Sometimes, especially in the first few months, I would be so overwhelmed that I would cut my training session short and head home.

I think the guilt also stemmed from the fact that I did not know anyone else my age who was doing what I was doing. I felt a bit ashamed that while others were working and being responsible, I was cycling in the middle of the day. I would drop off my kids at School in the morning in my cycling gear, and I could see the strange glances from the other parents, most of whom were on their way to work. More than a few mothers asked my wife Anne-Mie if I had become unemployed – they were genuinely concerned.

At first, I also felt the need to tell white lies. A client would ask to schedule a conference call or meeting, and I would say that I was not available as I had another work commitment. Of course, there was no work commitment at all – I was following a pretty disciplined training schedule, and if a call or meeting clashed with my plan then I would try to move it.

The same went for speaking or teaching opportunities – if a conference or program date conflicted with specific race event or important training block, then I would decline by saying I was already booked. I thought that if I told the truth about my training or racing, then people would think I was not professional and that I was putting my sport ahead of my professional responsibilities. Of course, this was exactly what I was doing, but I was fearful of the consequences of being honest.

The problem of course was that telling these white lies compounded my feelings of guilt as I was worried what would happen if people found out what I was doing. And some of my colleagues and clients did find out through following me on social media – I posted about my cycling, and often uploaded my training data to one of the cycling specific tracker apps. Not very clever, I know.

After about two years there was a turning point during a ride with a CIO friend of mine. We were talking about the feelings of guilt that sometimes accompanied my training rides, and Jean-Pierre said to me: “Jamie, you should not feel any guilt. Do you know how many guys would love to do what you are doing? You should feel guilty if you don’t go out on a training ride – because you can!”

That talk was the catalyst for a change for me and I can honestly say that the feelings of guilt completely disappeared after that. It was also a turning point in another way – from that moment I no longer told lies about my training and racing, Instead I did the opposite – I became completely honest by sharing my Torino dream with others.

Whenever I have the opportunity I talk to clients, colleagues and friends about my cycling passion. I talk about how much I love my sport, about the thrill of racing and of course about the bikes, equipment, nutrition and training. I show them photos of my races, and beautiful places where I have trained.

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What astounds me is how many other people have at some point in their lives also been passionate about something that they have left behind, and with a bit of prodding will share their hidden desire to reconnect to what gives them joy. And it does not have to be cycling – I talk to business people who have been aspiring runners, swimmers, triathletes, surfers, musicians, artists, chefs and writers.

But something else happened after I started to talk more openly about my dream to return to competitive cycling – people started to help me on the journey. Colleagues started to ask me about the best time to schedule calls, and if meetings might conflict with important events or training goals. My clients started to offer to do Skype video calls instead of me travelling to their offices, and I even had business contacts introduce me to possible coaches and training partners.

My colleagues at business schools such as Antwerp Management, London Business School and ESMT in Berlin have offered me understanding. The same goes for my amazing colleagues Eithne Jones and Sabine Bulteel who look after my international keynote speaking engagements. Of course, they are never delighted when I turn down an opportunity but they send me the message that my cycling commitments in no way damage our long-term work together.

That’s why it was not just me who won that medal at the World Masters Games in Torino, or who was on the podium at the Giro Sardinia last year, or who accepted the winners trophy in Cape Town earlier this year.

It was a collective effort.