Off the front: A cyclist’s guide to self-isolation

With the exponential spread of COVID-19 growing each day, social distancing and self-quarantine have become household terms. You know the drill: no physical contact, no group gatherings, and don’t forget to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

If you’re a cyclist who enjoys casual (or competitive) group rides outside as part of your training schedule, then these new rules have affected you already. Solo riding may as well be everyone’s new prerogative.

But how do you cope with an overload of solitary pedaling? We asked two cyclists who specialize in going off the front — Esther Walker (SDBC Powered by Spinergy p/b UC) and Stephen Pedone (Landis/Trek Elite Team) — for advice on how to approach the loneliness that may come with social distancing on two wheels.

Esther Walker (SDBC Powered by Spinergy p/b UC)

Walker (Photo by Sarah Bartlett)

If you’re familiar with the San Diego, Calif. cycling scene, then you’ve probably been dropped by Esther Walker. The freight train makes long, endurance efforts her forte, and it often involves getting it done alone.

Walker has powered her way to the podium at national championships during her cycling career, including a bronze medal for individual pursuit at the 2016 USA Cycling Elite Track Nationals, as well as riding for the University of California — San Diego Cycling Team and later dominating at huge fixed gear races like Red Hook.

We asked Walker about how she has adapted her training schedule to social distancing guidelines and how she tackles solo training head-on.

CI: When riding by yourself, what do you think about?

EW: It depends. If I’m just riding casually (or commuting home from work), I’ll often use it as time to brainstorm potential solutions for any problems I need to solve at work, or my mind will drift to more important topics, like what I’m going to make for dinner that night or for breakfast the next day (because, priorities). If I’m doing a hard workout, my mind tends to go blank (still not sure if that’s a good or bad thing), with the occasional fight between “you should definitely stop” and “no, you need to keep pushing” popping in here and there. And then again, probably what I’m going to eat for dinner.

CI: Describe your ideal route and/or workout to ride alone.

EW: Before the world got turned upside down, I’d probably say either hill repeats on Mount Soledad in San Diego (I love being able to go up different faces of the hill for each repeat) or flat, fast laps around Fiesta Island. Both are easy for me to access riding from home or from work and I love being able to just settle into rhythm and pushing hard (did I mention I like time trials?). These days, I’m spending a lot more time on my trainer, and though I still enjoy my solo workouts, I’ve been getting into Zwift and have really been enjoying the social aspect of it (and no one can hear my extra heavy breathing in the “easy” group ride).

Walker rails it at the Red Hook Criterium Milano in 2017.

CI: What habits/practices do you think are important for solo riding?

EW: Make it part of your routine, and make it something to look forward to. It’s a great opportunity to just clear your mind, listen to your body, and take in your surroundings. Oh, and always make sure your saddle bag is packed and your lights are charged (if riding at night). Getting a flat without supplies and running out of daylight isn’t a fun combination to deal with when you’re riding solo.

CI: What kind of benefits do you get from training alone?

EW: Mental toughness: when there’s only yourself to answer to, it can be a lot easier to make up excuses to quit. Being able to cut through that noise and learn when to pull back and when to really push is a really valuable skill when training and racing.

Mental clarity: riding solo provides you with an opportunity to reflect, to soak in the beautiful environment around you (assuming you’re not riding solo in your hallway on your rollers), and to clear your head.

Efficiency: If you have limited time to train (e.g., full work schedule, social and family obligations, etc), riding solo is a great way to ensure you get your desired workout in.  You don’t have the stress of having to speed up or slow down to accommodate other riders – you can just focus on what you want to achieve and do your thing.

CI: Do you listen to anything when you ride solo?

EW: If I’m riding outdoors, I only ever listen to the beautiful melodies of southern California traffic (I never ride with headphones in, I like to be able to fully focus on everything that’s going on around me). If I’m riding indoors on the trainer, I listen to a wide variety of music – as long as it has a beat and keeps my legs moving, I’m happy. Since I’ve been spending much more time on the trainer recently, I started looking for new music and was curious about what other people listen to while training. From that, I stumbled upon Kate Courtney’s Spotify playlists — some great stuff in there (and it’s obviously working for her)!

Walker puts in a dig at Tour de Murrieta in 2020.

CI: What is your day-to-day schedule like with increased social distancing?

EW: I try to keep it as structured as possible to keep myself busy. Which means: food, work, bikes and sleep.

During the week, I wake up, drink coffee and eat breakfast and then get to work. And yes, I always change out of my pajama pants. I’m usually already thinking about lunch an hour into my workday … but I try to keep working until around noon and then take a break for lunch. I like to take a short walk through my (tiny) apartment or go outside on my patio, just to get moving a bit, and then will get back to work.

After I’m done working for the day, I can’t wait to hop on my trainer (I know, I can’t believe I’d ever say that either), and get in a couple of hours on the bike, either doing a structured workout or a Zwift ride. After that, it’s time for more food (yay!), and then maybe some games and Netflix with my boyfriend, or Zoom calling with friends or family, followed by sleep.

On the weekends, it’s a lot of the same. I’ve made the choice to just ride inside for the next while, and so it’s a lot of the above, but a bit more time on the trainer. I’m working on a new personal record for trainer time, but despite all my newfound excitement for the trainer, I struggle to keep enjoying it past two hours.

CI: What do you feel is the most difficult part of self isolation, and what do you do to combat it?

EW: I’m lucky that I live with my boyfriend, so I’m never really alone, and so far, despite us just staying at home for many days so far, our days still feel pretty normal. However, that’s not the case for everyone (and I know some of my friends and family are dealing with this).

One of the most difficult things they encounter is pure loneliness. No matter how introverted they are, it’s hard to go days without interacting with another person.

However, with many people spending so much time at home, I’ve also found it easier to reach out to others for a video call or even a quick game of virtual Pictionary, and even though you’re not physically in the same room, being able to still interact with others goes a long way in combating that loneliness.

CI: Do you feel more or less productive when training alone? Why?

EW: If I happen to be doing structured training, I usually am more productive when training alone. I can focus on what effort I want to put in, how much I want to recover, and how long/where I want to ride.

However, if there are days I’m feeling less motivated, training alone can sometimes be a challenge. In those cases, I usually aim to do a hard group ride and throw my power meter and heart rate right out the window.

These days, of course, there are no group rides on the road, but I’ve been really happy to discover Zwift and get just as good of a beat down in the group rides as I would on the road.

Walker leads UCSD Cycling to a bronze medal in the co-ed team sprint at the 2015 USA Cycling Collegiate Track Nationals.

CI: Describe your pre- and post-ride routine.

EW: These days, I pretty much transition right into my cycling clothes after work and get straight onto my bike (I’m pretty sure at this point it’s permanently cemented to the trainer). After my workout, I try to drink as much water as I can (which usually isn’t much), because I’m pretty sure I’ve just lost half my body weight in sweat while riding the trainer. Then, I go straight into preparing dinner (while also attempting to stretch and down more water).

CI: Do you have any advice for cyclists changing from group riding to more solo time?

EW: If you haven’t done much riding alone, try to ease the transition by trying a program like Zwift where there is still a social and competitive element, but you’re riding on your own. If you’re able to ride outside on your own, find a nice loop that you can easily ride to and give yourself mini goals to achieve along the way. This will keep you focused and motivated to push through your ride, despite being alone.

CI: Do you prefer riding alone or in a group and why?

EW: Each has their time and place. Pre-COVID-19,  I used to love looking forward to the weekends and riding with my teammates.  I also thoroughly enjoyed doing a good, hard, group ride just as much as a nice, easy coffee ride. However, during the week, when I have limited time, I’ve come to really enjoy my time riding alone. It’s some of the only time I have completely to myself, and I like the physical and mental challenges that come along with solo riding.

CI: How do you fill your free time when you’re not training or working?

EW: Other than training or working time? Eating, obviously. (And Zooming with friends or dusting cobwebs off my keyboard and playing some music).

Stephen Pedone (Landis/Trek Elite Team)

Pedone puts in work on the front at the Avondale Crit. (Nick Wilson Photography)

For anyone who has ever wondered, “How can I possibly fit my training into my packed work schedule?” Tucson-based cyclist and accountant Stephen Pedone has the answer: wheels down hours before the sun rises, no matter the season or weather.

Unsurprisingly, this training tactic often results in a fair amount of solo riding. Pedone uses this time to his advantage — not only has he ridden in UCI road races across the U.S., but he also rode as a tandem pilot with Team USA paracyclist Chester Triplett to secure championships on the road and the velodrome.

We asked Pedone how he applies his previous experience training alone to today’s new social structure.

CI: When riding by yourself, what do you think about?

SP: I often find my riding time to be the most productive time. It’s a time where I have come up with ideas as serious as starting a company, but it’s also a moment to take in the nature around me and appreciate the places I am lucky enough to be able to ride in. I often finish my ride with a list of items I want to accomplish with the rest of my day, so I prefer early morning rides alone to set the tone for the rest of the day.

CI: Describe your ideal route and/or workout to ride alone.

SP: For the past four years I have made a habit of riding Mt. Lemmon early in the morning as often as possible. I never tire of riding up mountains alone, because it is you vs. nature. I like to give myself goals such as “go hard from mile 6-7” or “let’s go to mile 19” as goals that keep my motivation up when riding alone.

There is also something special that speaks to the soul when you find yourself completely alone in nature in the mountains. The sound of birds and the gentle trickle of a creek are the only sounds. It is in a sense my yoga or mediation, and it is the essence of why I ride a bike.

Pedone (front) and Chester Triplett win the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championship in the individual pursuit. (Photo provided by Stephen Pedone)

CI: What habits/practices do you think are important for solo riding?

SP: The No. 1 rule of riding alone is to be prepared. That means bringing a flat kit and tools, clothes, and the food you will need. I try to take fewer risks when I am alone, especially on descents. Many years ago I crashed alone descending Mt. Lemmon. Without cell phone reception it took 30 minutes for someone to help me. I now try to remember that I alone am responsible for my safety.

CI: What kind of benefits do you get from training alone?

SP: One major benefit of training alone is the ability to ride exactly your pace. You can take your easy rides easy without feeling pushed, and there is no one to hold you back on your hard efforts. You are in complete control of your ride. Sometimes when I ride alone I will just stop and sit on a rock and enjoy nature. It’s little things I often wouldn’t do with others that make riding alone personal and special.

CI: Do you listen to anything when you ride solo?

SP: When I ride alone solo on Mt. Lemmon I do often listen to music. I think it helps to set the mood. If I ride in morning before dawn, I especially enjoy listening to the band Lord Huron. Their music intentionally brings to mind adventures and mystery. I find that it puts me in a surreal head space and makes my imagination run wild with fantasies and adventures. I recommend everyone try it once.

When I was in college I would record my lectures and listen to them in one ear on long solo rides. I found this to be great multitasking. I would do most of my “studying” on long solo base fitness rides.

CI: What is your day-to-day schedule like with increased social distancing?

SP: Since we have begun social distancing, I have been working from home. I now wake up most mornings and still drive to Lemmon to ride, but I no longer stop for food or coffee. Just straight to the mountain and straight home to work. It has allowed me to spend more time enjoying riding and less time focusing on race efforts and specific workouts.

Pedone rides solo at La Vuelta a Santa Catalina Road Race.

CI: What do you feel is the most difficult part of self-isolation, and what do you do to combat it?

SP: I think the most difficult part of self-isolation in relation to bike riding is the tendency to quit when things are hard. When I am riding and I am tired or cold it is easier to push through when you don’t want to let your riding buddies down. I am lucky to have my wonderful girlfriend Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing) to ride with. Since she is my “social isolation” partner, we have spent more time riding together, and we have helped each other avoid burnout.

CI: Do you feel more or less productive when training alone? Why?

SP: I generally feel more productive training alone because I am able to go speeds and paces that I can recover from. This allows me to have more consistency in the long run. I feel healthier both mentally and physically to know I have a routine, and it brings some self-discipline into my day.

CI: Describe your pre- and post-ride routine.

SP: A usual day for me begins before dawn. I often make a coffee and bring a snack and pack my car. I drive to mile post 0 of Mt. Lemmon and sip my coffee to wake up on the way over. The hardest part of riding in the dark for me is getting started. I am alone and it is often cold and intimidating. But the second I get riding into the wilderness that tinge of fear turns into a drive for adventure. I have ridden Mt. Lemmon over 500 times, but the mystery of the wilderness in the dark always inspires me. After my ride, I will check work on my laptop with a mobile hot spot, and then head back home for a full breakfast and a productive day of work.

Pedone takes a flyer at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race Crit.

CI: Do you have any advice for cyclists changing from group riding to more solo time?

SP: My advice is to find a route that inspires you. Find a route with nature and start your day early. Use your solo ride to set the tone of the rest of your day.

CI: Do you prefer riding alone or in a group and why?

SP: It really depends on the day for me. I love riding in large group race rides such as the Shootout – it is a great social outlet. But I would be just as happy to ride alone up a mountain most days.

CI: How do you fill your free time when you’re not training or working?

When I am not training and working I spend a lot of time playing guitar. I geek out on vintage 1960s electric guitars, and I enjoy collecting them as much as playing them. It is also a great way to recover from biking.


What are you doing to keep your solo-riding sanity while maintaining proper social distancing? We would love to hear from you – drop us a line here!