For countless seasons I would open the door of my house to brace the cold winter’s wind by myself.
My headphones and the odd wave to a dog walker my only company.
This isolation at home, away from the manic racing scene in Belgium was something I often looked forward to, but soon detested.
Knocking about in any team or shared house with bodies frantically cooking, laughing and coming to blows with each other – plus, of course, racing and training side-by-side – can provide you with constant amusement and frustration in equal measure.
Without realising you become deeply attached to not only those people but the environment as well.
Anyone who has lived in a university house will share the same sentiment, the constant company is something you sorely miss when your sat on the sofa piling through episode after episode on Netflix, waiting to have a crack at someone or something, but yet there is no one to laugh with. You soon miss the days of relatable post-race chatter and welcoming faces.
One of reason cycling attracted me at such a young age was the stories I was told on countless occasions from old clubmen and stalwarts of the scene.
The friends created and the tales from cafes gone by, hot spoons scolding the blacks of their necks in the cafe, stripping off after a wet ride in a greasy spoon.
Chucking up on the side of the road after a hard night out the evening before a ride and the hardships shared on the bike.
The friendships that came from those clubs and the wider local cycling community lasted those I knew a lifetime and have shaped much of my life to this day.
That was exactly what I sought when hoped on my bike at a young age but yet those friends and experiences where nowhere to be seen.
I was an outsider at school, I didn’t really play football and had the hand-eye coordination of a melon, so at times anything other than cycling was a ill thought out attempt to find that community I was seeking.
Cycling, instead of being a social experience, was an alienating one and started to shape much of my mentality going forward.
It became the norm to ride alone, admittedly a pleasant experience when needs be, as often people say a chance to escape the stresses and strains of life, a constant meditation and practice of self-reflection.
Although when you have little experience with others, no real situations to recall what is there to reflect on.
I was missing the company of others, a shared experience was rare and even if it was there, it was a sour one. Not quite how I had built it up in my mind, those perfect days, kilometres ticking by without second thought seemed hard to come by.
Casual rides and training was becoming more and more of drag, I felt that I had already done my fair share of character building outside of sport and to subject myself to a lonely battle on the bike was all too much. I read time and time again paragraphs and parables of how cycling was a lonely pursuit but surely it didn’t have to be this hard. I was already feeling lost on sport by the age of 18.
It wasn’t until my first time in Belgium I had some idea of what how sociable push biking could be. I started to ride more often and make friends on the bike, have a bit of banter and a laugh, you could talk about whatever was going on in your life and share with others how you felt.
Then there were the infamous cafe rides. Regular days out to the home of Stella Artois, Lueven were some of the most memorable. I had been accepted into a group, I was no longer the strange skinny lad in lycra made fun of at school.
I had become part of gang, a world class one at that; full of talent and character.
Luckily this gang came without initiation other than how many espressos you could down without getting the shakes. I revelled in it and soaked up every word and sight. I could finally express myself and almost put on a show for a willing audience. Although I maybe at times placed too much reliance on those around me, leaned on them a little too hard; at least that was what I would tell myself.
Those around me helped me like no one had before. I enjoyed their company more than anything in the world, I don’t think they ever quite knew how alone I felt in and out of it all.
I was always grateful, and even the smallest gestures like handing over a cereal bar when I was about to blow or telling jokes through the rain made me rejoice inside. This didn’t last forever though, soon the season would end and I would be back at home facing the rough mud-laden roads of Norfolk by myself.
All I had was the chance to recount my stories of rides past to those at home. For some reason the punchlines would never work the same.
The thought of being back in the mix of things with those friends abroad, would just about spur me on in the winter and I would count down the days. I could just about focus in on that and keeping pushing through.
Upon my return I found that it would take weeks to come out of my winter shell. The art of conversation would be more than difficult, I couldn’t quite keep up with it all at first.
I would lose my confidence and sit there listening, listening and waiting for it all to come back to me. It felt as though I was intimidated by those around me, being around so much success and larger-than-life personalities would in many instances make me feel as though I was undeserving of being there.
Months at home had left me mentally battered and bruised knocked down a few pegs and doubting my own ability more socially than anything else. If I was a small fish in a big pond I had soon shrunk to a bit of plankton come the season start.
Nowhere was that more evident than my pre-season trip to Girona. Everyone couldn’t have been any kinder to me that stay but I felt at complete odds with it all, surrounded by so many cyclists after such a long time hibernating away in hedgerows of Norfolk. I was still in another headspace.
I was outside of the gang this time watching on. Only after a month or so later back in Belgium I found my groove again.
Incidences like this made me realise how much I need people around me in my life, a ‘tribe’ – a buzzword many now like to use – to call upon and provide the social interaction I crave in good times and bad when I’m on bike.
Only recently in this off-season I have been able to find friends and people to ride with at home, they may have always been there but I may have not been in the right place to find them. The difference in my training and riding at home had been night and day since.
No longer do rides alone seem a chore or roads seem to bore me, but rather a new world is opened up within the one I had been dormant in.
I can share local discoveries and sights with others, those historical facts ruminating in my mind can be of interest on group rides, a talking point.
Maybe all those times alone now allow me to be that much more exuberant and passionate when I’m in a group. Either way it feels right. Home felt like it was holding me back for so long, almost squashing me down and suppressing my potential.
Before, a club run would involve riding with people 20-30 years my senior and the age gap was more than apparent, on most occasions cyclists can be an incredibly welcoming bunch, but at a middle age many are set in their ways, and a Sunday club run can soon turn into an ego-driven half wheeling battle.
Gone is the fun and the chance to confide in each other, just mere chance to flash your carbon wheels. The childlike imagination and exploration has left many of their minds.
My faith in the English cycling scene was always tested, it often seemed lost in a silly game of bravado.
I had nothing to relate to and my stories of racing did little to suppress their efforts to impress me, they had no clue how it was or where I was heading. Luckily things have changed. I was able to find a much more relaxed group of people to ride with and laughter flowed in abundance; maybe it was the age gap, but it all seemed more natural and less forced, people out for rides to enjoy it rather than batter each other.
Each, of course, has its time and place but the latter seems to be much more detrimental to your mental state, and I believe turns more people off the sport in general than on.
Gone are the days of the cycle touring club, and young lads and lasses heading out to the seaside for a weekend jaunt. Heading to a youth hostel has been replaced by a luxury week in Spain, all understandable but somewhat less achievable for the average rider.
With the invent of advanced cycle computers, it has become a numbers game – even the most amateur of cyclists worries about their average speed. Social cycling suffers greatly. It saddens me a great deal to know that people end up feeling isolated from the sport which is meant to provide you the ultimate freedom and the chance to explore.
Instead it becomes something now obsessed with data. Cycling can be exactly what you make it in that sense, but so many are left without the choice though the pressure of others. This is why I believe so many end up riding by themselves.
I encourage everyone to reach out far and wide and don’t stop inviting those people out who might have training plans and coaches. As ever it becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate plans, times, training zone and allotted wattages, but find a way to make it work, as the benefits mentally will always, always outweigh the potential physical.
Finding friends now on the bike has never been so easy, since a recent awaking to those hidden around me.
Social media has played its part as well, staying in touch, organising and taking opportunities as they come allows me to explore and get out that much more.
The sense of community and purpose is back.
Life is better in the company of others, at home especially. The clouds suddenly seem a little less grey, and the kilometres are short, Norfolk is no longer the lonely place I once loathed, it’s helped me get back to where I should be mentally.
I can ride from county to county, country to country without fear of being alone again, the confidence I lacked I feel no longer comes into question.
The community at large is always a wide and close one, as within cycling despite it all you’ll always have a friend and new ones are in abundance if you look just that little bit harder.