I have heard it said that old pros can still raise their level, defying whatever post-career dip in fitness they’ve allowed themselves, to ride at something like full pelt based solely on muscle memory. I understand that to mean two things. First, they know what the pedal stroke should feel like. Their bodies know when to stand and when to sit. They intuit the rhythm of a ride, and they can match it. Second, they know how it feels to go fast, and though the engine might not be finely tuned anymore, it has in it the memory of speed and acceptance of whatever strain that causes, and they are comfortable at whatever number of revolutions per second is required to perform on the day.
Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, the brain creates a long-term muscle memory for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort.Wikipedia
It’s funny the things my muscles remember and the things they readily forget.
I can swoop gracefully up out of the saddle at just the right point in the pedal stroke, at just the right place on the incline, to maximize my upward trajectory and maintain momentum. This is a perception of the subtle shift in power, and the execution of a movement with a shape that curves parabolically around a central axis.
I cannot, for the life of me however, recall how to keep my legs rotating in (at least rough) circles, once the beautiful crest of that momentum is reached and gravity takes over. My legs go wooden. My back arches in a way that’s unhelpful. Everything falls apart.
Equally unhelpful is my muscle memory of what it should feel like to ride, i.e. how fast the air should be moving over my body, how quickly the scenery should be passing me by. I find a disconnect there, where the aforementioned wooden legs will not achieve the recollected air flow or scenery passage. What fresh hell is this? Did I get on the local train, not the express? Is this what they call euphoric recall?
We were all faster once, as I recall.
I am grateful to have the basics. I know what riding a bike should look like. I know it in my body, so that I can make the appropriate shapes without much thought. But unlike the old pros, my body won’t do the dance without the base miles to support it. And of course, another thing I have memorized is the shape of the sofa, the spot at the end, under the window, where one pillow fits into the small of my back, and the squared off arm is the perfect width to hold a cup of warm coffee.
My muscles remember when I used to be able to ride fast. They also remember that it is a thing of the past.
My muscles remember that fast was never a thing on an absolute basis. They also remember that I’m not stopping until I’m done.