Misery loves company but it doesn't really need it. I found that out this summer over the course of a thousand plus miles of beautiful, challenging and lonely riding in Germany. There were no groups, no brothers, no teams. Just me, my road bike, and the occasional dairy cow.
Riding hard on my own worked a whole different set of mental muscles that are great tools to have in business, life, and even group riding. It's made me a tougher, more self-dependent rider who can lay down 300 TSS without saying a word to anybody else.
Southern Germany is full of hills and windy farm roads which, if you're not careful, will carry you straight into another country. I sought out the hilliest rides I could to prepare for the biggest week of my cycling year: a trip from the west end of the Dolomites to its eastern most descent into Slovenia. The rides were typically between 50 and 80 miles with between 4-6k of climbing. There was gravel. There was shouldering of the bike up treacherous forest paths which RideWithGPS said were probably ok to ride a bike on. It was delicious, and most rides were between 200-300 TSS. To put that in perspective, the Horribly Hilly Hundred (my mid-year goal) was 400 TSS and our weekly morning group ride is about 150 TSS.
At first it was lonely. I felt like an outsider - no group to ride with. No one to heckle at. Every set of (German!) eyeballs staring at me as if to say "what eeez you doing hea!"
Over the weeks though, I became Solo Man. I spent less time being alone and instead focused on solid pacing and endurance. I played music in my head (I can do that) and could even do some writing and work-related thinking free from the reach of the internet and family.
There were times I wasn't sure I'd actually make it. I developed a mean bout of asthma while over there - I managed to get some medicine, but not before making a few trips between cities. Riding over a smallish mountain range called the Swäbish Albs inevitably meant winds reversed themselves. Sometimes it was sunny and warm on one side, and wet and foreboding on the other. I routed a trip up to the top of a mountain that had no roads so my cleats became shovels, and up I went w/ the bike in hand.
So what did it all get me? Analytically, it made me faster. I've ridden from southern Michigan to Chicago two times this year - once before Germany, and once afterward. The difference is clear: a half hour saved (even with more stops), a smaller TSS (less effort), and my state of mind upon arrival was one of conquest rather than defeat. Mentally, it built my sense of resolve. I depend on myself and, at the risk of sounding insane, I even get along with myself out there by putting my mind and body to work.
My trip to the Dolomites isn't going to be solo. I'll be with a group and support train, but given its six days climbing up mountains, the group may as well be the voices in my head which, after this summer, are definitely playing more cowbell and less funeral march these days.