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Julian Kyer Journal: Trust the struggle

Team SmartStop's Kyer faces a setback during winter training but knows his patience will pay off in the long run

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Editor’s note: Julian Kyer races for Team SmartStop, and will be contributing rider journals to VeloNews throughout the upcoming season. The 26-year-old American has been racing professionally since 2009. In 2014, he finished fourth in the U.S. national time trial championships, fifth in road nationals, and 11th overall at the USA Pro Challenge.

It’s noon and I am parked on the couch, wearing a hat, down vest, a sweatshirt, and a scarf. Two mugs sit on the table before me, one full of coffee that has long since cooled after my first nap of the day, the other full of yet another batch of double-brewed hippie tea meant to strengthen my immune system.

I was supposed to be on a 6 a.m. flight to team camp this morning, but when my thermometer told me I had a 102-degree fever in the middle of the night, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. While immensely frustrating, it should come as no surprise; when you train 4-5 hours a day during flu season, something is bound to hit you sooner or later.

When we climb back on our bikes in the fall, we build these fantasies about how our winter will go. We sit down with our coaches to draw up best-case scenario training plans, and we set the completion of these workloads as the passing standard. Really, we are designing an alternate, fictitious self. I know how many hours this version of me will have trained by camp, how much he weighs, how much power he produces, but nature never receives this blueprint and wouldn’t care if she had. As cold fronts sweep in, the roads become impassable, our knees start to creak, and little germs crawl into our noses and throats, threatening our ability to capitalize on the sunny days we do have available to train at our ideal standard.

For most of my career, I approached training camp like the first race of the season. Directors always tell riders how important it is to show up fit, but for a long time I didn’t understand that to mean, “Be ready to handle the workload we give you.” I understood it to mean, “Be ready to clobber everyone.” It is actually incredibly easy to dump your belongings in a giant suitcase, move somewhere warm for a few months, and build a mountain of fitness for winter camp, but it is a tactic rooted in insecurity, of being unsure of your ability to conjure form at the appropriate time. It allows you to easily establish yourself in the team pecking order, but at real risk of falling flat by spring.

This winter, my coach, Colby Pearce, deliberately held me back — a more difficult plan, psychologically, that involved staying home in Colorado, dealing with the elements as they came. It has been a real test, to relinquish control, to cut ties with that fictitious self. Every snowstorm and every head cold summons a little chimp inside an athlete that says, “You’re not doing enough. It’s never coming back. You’ve lost it.”

These internal temper-tantrums can turn out to be a real gift if you know how to handle them, because they are an opportunity to separate your emotional reaction from where you actually are, to see yourself holistically as an athlete. Every hurdle is a chance to either bemoan falling short in comparison to your unrealistic ideal, or to look at all the positives that have come about in spite of challenge. I have been sick three times this winter, lost days to snow, and my volume has been much less than I think it should be. And yet, when I do get those warm winter days, cruising along the plains and ripping up local climbs, I look at my computer and wonder what I was worried about in the first place. The numbers don’t care that they’re better than I think they should be.

I’ve smashed enough training camps to know they are poor predictors of race results, and though doing something different agitates my “monkey brain,” the logical human side of me knows it’s worth taking a risk in the name of May race results.

Taking the harder path this year has made me more resilient, and is an ongoing lesson in one of the hardest parts of cycling, which is, in the words of one mentor, to “trust the struggle.”