Most of life is in the professional* cycling scene is somewhat of a paradox. The constant tussles between freshness and fatigue, training and over-training and being well-fed, but never fat, to name a few. However there is one time in the year this all goes out the window; the unruly, much anticipated and highly planned ‘offseason’. And ironically, despite breaking from the norm, I think this is perhaps the time in which ‘the cyclist’, thrown from his or her natural habitat, reaches peak paradoxical proportions.

I believe to be successful at something as all consuming, as physically and as mentally intense as elite level Sport, takes a degree of the all or nothing attitude to life, and in most cases, this means the athlete is very much ‘all in’.

And this approach, habit if you will, doesn’t simply extend to one part of life. Training, nutrition, rest, yes they are all included. But so to is the offseason. The time everything else flies out the window. The time in which an athlete throws themselves in at the deep end, exploring their idea of real life.

*a friend recently described my chosen career, only half jokingly I suspect, as an extension of my adolescence, so loosely he viewed my ‘work’…

This is how it goes for me:

Week one

I am essentially still an athlete in this period, albeit it decliningly so as the week wanes. The overwhelming feeling is one of mental and physical fatigue, and my body reminds me of this at every opportunity. I may be be jetlagged, actually tired from my last race, or perhaps just feigning fatigue to enjoy my time off all the more, thus feeling I have deserved it. Most likely it’s a combination of the three. And whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter as the result is the same: it feels bloody great to do something different.

I am tired, but I’m also relieved: another season finished, ticked off and safely in the bag. For good or bad, it’s done. It has no doubt been a long year, so the relief would be best described as a warm blanket of emotion, loping over everything I do. It’s a glossy finish over a time which at points can feel like that moment you suddenly go from the light to dark, feeling around for familiar objects with your finger tips. I am unaccustomed to normal person activities of staying up past 11pm, drinking and so on. It takes time to adjust! Perhaps it's a different form of training...

During this week I consume no end. I mean I always eat, but now I really eat. Anything, at any time and seemingly half for the sake of it as much as anything else. I ignore the future and enjoy the moment. Oh and yes I drink too, potentially for the first time since Christmas (it’s now November..) This is a potent combination; the willingness to drink, the lack of memory of the effects of ten Gin Tonics and a skinny cyclists body with frankly no ability to soak it all up. I regret it the next morning, particularly the very first morning, after a little to zealous initial crack at the methodical normal life. Hopefully I’m not abroad, but this year I had no such luck, waking up with the hangover from hell and an eighteen-hour journey home ahead. In one word: grim.

Week two

This is the honeymoon period and when I try to plan my much-anticipated holiday for. I feel great, all the time, especially as the week progresses. I find joy in very small things, like flying without a bike, packing a bag with no cycling kit and again, eating whatever I damn please. I have energy for day-to-day life that I can never normally muster. I do alien, utterly unfathomable things, like running up stairs, or by the week's end, when restlessness creeps in, actually going running.

Inevitably like 75% of the peloton, I feel like superman for the first two thirds of the run, before my lungs start to write cheques my muscles simply can't cash. At this moment, seemingly all off a sudden, everything gives way. I limp home, arriving satisfied, ready to eat some more and content to put the running shoes away for another week, or maybe another year...

And then the next morning I wake up in agony, the legs of a ninety eight year old suddenly attached to my far younger torso. I hobble around for a few days, much to the amusement of friends and family, who love my unfit state worryingly so. I start to question if I have perhaps ruined my calves/achillies/body for life by the twentieth ‘argh’ of the morning, my girlfriend busy shaking her head in dismay.

The post-run state aside, I really do feel remarkable in this week, scarily infact. I start to question if everyone, those strange ‘normal’ people I keep referring to, feel like this all the time? I am energetic, my mental capacity bolsters threefold and creativity flows back in to my mind for the first time in well, a cycling season.

Then the paradox: I feel great, making plans for the exciting next year*, but I am constantly one glance from a mirror.

*next season is always exciting – any bike rider telling you otherwise is a liar {or maybe >35 with four kids}, I think it is simply too hard to do otherwise.

A mirror? This takes some explaining…

Cyclists are almost all self-conscious of their bodies, I’d imagine it has something to do with going outside in skin-tight, very thin lycra. Pro cyclists are another level, as ‘performance’ and the fact our livelihoods hinge upon it, is thrown in to the equation. It is programmed in to every rider (again in varying degree’s…) and is a necessary evil. I’m sure Google can point you in the direction of all manner of content surrounding this subject, the results of the new oeuvre of cycling journalism, blogs and ofcourse, books.

But what I want to talk is simply my cheeks, and maybe my legs a bit.

One sighting of my cheeks is all that is needed to remind my not-raced-nor-ridden (and thus lacking reminders of reality) brain, that I am not superman, no matter how much energy and enthusiasm I may posses. The round face, by all accounts a very different one to my in season look, is a stark reminder of the hard work to come, post week three. Occasionally the thicker than normal legs will come out from hiding too, covered in weird short blonde hairs and a layer of fat, to reinforce this message.

And the effect of all this? It simply sends me deeper in to offseason mode, with renewed enthusiasm to enjoy the offseason, cakes, beers and all, before the hard work once again begins.

Count how many times you see your own reflection out and about tomorrow. It’s something you notice a lot more when the face staring back at you barely resemble your own (to exaggerate ever so slightly – but that’s how it feels!).

For in the ‘all of nothing’-ness, however badly we suffer, we fully immerse ourselves in the offseason, all the while denying, putting on hold, the existence of our other, regular (to us) lives. Whatever shape or form this takes, we live how we see ‘normality’. What that is I will probably never know, nor will anyone I suspect, but that is the beauty of it in some ways. For ofcourse it doesn’t really exist and as such is imagined differently by each and every person. It may manifest itself in a holiday, the school run, or just perhaps a few lazy mornings in bed. Regardless, it's our off-season, a memorable and cherished time.

But all the while, as the croissants, copious flat whites, and pizza's are consumed, the other life, somewhere in the back of our minds, looking over our shoulders, lurks. The leg stubble, my infamous (in my family anyway) cheeks, my bike gathering dust and unpacked bags from my last race, provide constant reminders of this life. Of the two lives, if you will; the eleven or so months of the training year, and the other month, at most, when we reinvent ourselves, dance our drunken hearts away and generally cram in as much as we can.

Week three

I start itching to do something. Possibly I sneak in to the Gym, against my Coaches wishes, repeating the exact mistakes of last week’s run and being far too keen, but with far more disastrous consequence. The next three days I can't walk… This year I was on a stag-do and it took some styling out.

I try to enjoy this week as I know the end is near, but really all I want to do is get back on my bike and start working again, I’m sick of not feeling desperately tired and starving after a long ride. I miss the satisfaction of creating and achieving something each and every day. Heck I guess my brain probably misses the endorphins.

I spend the week battling my coach to let me start training next week, complaining about how unfit and fat I am. He holds me back, I push, he holds me back, I push. We settle at starting with a few easy rides and gym sessions, or something along those lines.

I just want to return to normal again. This fictitious offseason limbo life I dreamed up was fun, but I like my life a lot better. The one that lurked, that I hid, that reared its head from time to time, during my break. Yeah that one, it’s a keeper.

And with that, the offseason goal is achieved – perspective. Enduring the paradox of being a professional athlete doing all he can to live in a state as far from athletic as possible has been worth it. I’m ready for the next eleven months of what some might describe as ‘sacrifice’ – you might have gathered by now, I don’t see it that way, not after my break anyway!