Friday Group Ride #28

Sometimes, when I feel weak, when my muscles hurt, when the sweat is stinging my eyes, I stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It is, I think, a fairly common-sensical question. You put your hand on the stove. It burns. You pull it back. Why, when you throw your leg over the bicycle, and your quads go leaden, and your body gives up its salt, do you keep pedaling?

It’s not because you’re a moron, though to be fair, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe another way of asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” is “What is the bike teaching me right now?”

If you’ve read Joyce, or Pynchon, or Shakespeare for that matter, you know what it means to wade into the intellectual deep end, suffer a bit, become confused, glean a few truths and come out the other side a little wiser (if only by knowing you’re not up to the challenge just yet).

I like to think the bicycle is the physical equivalent of that same sort of intellectual challenge. Most days I ride (and read) for entertainment. Most of the miles disappear under my front wheel without attracting much notice or eliciting much response. Sometimes when I am riding, I am merely traveling, point A joined to point B. Sometimes when I am riding, I am actually just looking at the woods/river/pretty girls. The bicycle is only a chair.

And then sometimes when I’m riding, I’m Hamlet, poor tortured Hamlet. Is he crazy? Upon whom is he really visiting his revenge? What is the point of all this violence, of all this pedaling, into the wind, only to return home again, an absurd circle of suffering?

Quickly now, before I torture this metaphor any further, let me put the question to you? What has the bike taught you? What have been its lessons, and what do you tell yourself when the tires stop wanting to roll, your muscles stop wanting to fire and the fun turns to hurt?

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  1. Souleur

    Great Friday ride Robot:

    I asked myself this same question and some of my friends on Facebook, reporting in my miles, the heat, the suffering of summer and neatly tucked into the fabric of my post I noted my 25 lbs wt loss, and how I was coming to form. And I asked the proverbial question ‘Why’. Everyone simply responded ‘torture’, ‘oh the suffering’, your an idiot..and so on.

    In our myopia we can definitely look at the ‘absurb’ circle we spin, making a loop only to arrive’ at our original starting point. An effortless effort and one of unproductivity. But it all depends on what we are measuring.

    Cycling has taught me in an era of haste, to look, so sense, to smell, to see. I notice things that we really are by design suppose to sense…but often do not because we are trapped in these coffins hurling down an interstate commute at 80mph. Our lives become so cluttered w/minutia that we don’t listen, don’t look and don’t appreciate the essense of life around us.

    Bigger than this though, is cycling has taught me about myself. When I say something do I really mean it? I am going to ride tomorrow…. The challenge to myself to carry through with a goal even when I don’t want to gives me a glimpse into countless other aspects of my life. It seems silly indeed but it has hardened my soft arse up, made me committed and defined my life in such a way that other sport cannot. I look into my soul and because of cycling see some things ugly, some things pure, some thing admirable. Cycling cleanses the ugly and purify’s it through sacrifce to become virtous.

    And the real beauty is I don’t believe I have arrived yet…

  2. Rick

    Why must a dog stick his head out the window of a moving car? Don’t know what the reason is, but its the same.

  3. randomactsofcycling

    Yep, good topic. Cycling has taught me one thing: “success is a consequence and should never be a goal.”
    Work to improve. Train to improve. Just for the sake of being better, not because you might win a trophy or get a salary increase or whatever.
    I don’t race as much as I should. I train a lot and many ask me why I am on the road at 5:30am in the middle of winter.
    I want to be better. Friends and family think I am insane! But I am finding that my dedication to cycling is having the trickle down effect to the rest of my life and even the most mundane of tasks takes on importance if it can be done better.
    So when the lactic makes it less fun and the quads hurt as I walk up the stairs at work I know I’ll be better the next time.

  4. James

    “Alas, poor Robot, a cyclist of infinite jest…” I have found that cycling has taught me that I can exceed the limits I think I have (does that make sense?). I have ridden countless centuries and other long rides up monster hills in heat and cold and have always finished. I have never ridden in a sag wagon, ever. There were probably many times I should have hitched a ride but I tend to persevere and finish what I have started. So, like “randomacts” my friends and family are convinced I am insane but they cheer me all the way!

  5. howard h

    Robot, another good post, and some good comments as well. These thirty plus years behind handlebars have taken me many places in myself I had never seen and many places in the outside world as well. Sometimes riding is an anchor in a lagoon of soothing tranquility other times its a chain to the floor of a prison cell. Some days I experience both as my mind confronts my choices in the existential caldron of the bike. I have moved from East coast to West coast this past year. It’s put me in a place to, on one hand love the change, and on the other to miss the familiar. I was not expecting such dramatic fluctuations. I knew my “place” in the old, in the new I am still kind of invisible. There are no shared histories to share. But all in all I relish the chance to experience more.

  6. dacrizzow

    i was a musician for years. playing in bands at clubs from 15yrs. old to my last gig at 37. in my early 30’s i started commuting.then courieing. then racing. bikes didn’t replace guitars.(i still play). bikes just extended that need to do what i was doing. my reasoning behind bikes are the same as my reasoning behind music. I HAVE NO CHOICE. for whatever reason, it motivates me in all of my life activities and i don’t question it. never questioned music. the real question here should be “why doesn’t everyone ride?”. (and play guitar)

  7. cormw

    Great topic! I find the balance that cycling brings to my life makes me a better person, husband and father. I try to convey that to family and friends and only a few understand. Which makes me feel fortunate to have found this balance in something I love to do.

  8. Doug P

    Funny thing, I posted on this same subject this morning….
    Suffering is in the mind of the sufferer. To some, the act of breathing hard and sweating constitutes suffering. To me that state is a “state of grace”. My body has undergone a transformation the eternally sedentary can only imagine. I know from experience my aerobic capacity has doubled from my at rest state, the endorphins are coursing through my veins, and I experience a euphoria enhanced by the scenery and the sweet air I’m inhaling. Climbing allows this state at lower speeds, which permits me to relax mentally – as opposed to high efforts on the flats which lead to higher speeds.
    Racing is a different matter. Digging ever deeper as we lead or chase the peloton, gritting our teeth and vowing to keep up with that wheel ahead- now that’s suffering! When my heart is pounding so hard I’m afraid it might burst-that’s when I tell myself-
    today is a good day to die!

  9. Mike

    Cycling has taught me patience, perserverance, humility, self control, and to appreciate (beauty, limits, strength, solitude and friendship, the little things) … to name only a few benefits.

  10. bob

    I did our local club race this morning. I SUFFERED!. I am not built like a climbr, and there was a lot of it. On the last lap, on the last major climb, I thougt I was going to loose it. Then, I dug deep, thinking of my son daughter. The leason was to never give up. ” . . . nothing worth having comes with out some kind of fight . . .”

    Through my suffering, I want my children to believe that anything is possible.

  11. Steve

    In the immortal words of Greg Le Mond cycling has taught me that “it never hurts any less, you just go faster”. Words to live by.

  12. Dan O

    Great post. Why do we suffer on the bike at times? It’s a challange to the mind and body. When every muscle is screaming at you to stop, your heart rate is pegged – then you reason with yourself as to why you’re doing this.

    You know from experience you can back off a hair and get through it, then motor again as needed. You also know how freakin’ good you feel when the ride, or usually a race to feel that bad, is over. The feeling of accomplishment, that totally spent feeling from a super hard effort – how your lungs actually feel a little bigger, legs muscles fried, but head super clear. There’s no other way to get that kind of feeling.

    Two weekends ago, I did a mountain bike race. I don’t race often, it’s been a few years since I last raced on fat knobby tires. I felt dead from the start and completely received an ass whooping in the 45+ Sport class. As I circulated the course DFL, getting pounded on technical singletrack, legs screaming, lower back stinging – wondering why am I doing this?

    With that though, I was having a great time as well. It’s fantastic to push yourself that hard, play the necessary mind games to convince yourself to keep moving, concentrate on the effort you’re putting out. The only way to get to that level of pain, focus, zen – or whatever you wanna call it – is to race. You may think your “training rides” are tough, but it’s never the same as pinning a number to your jersey.

    In the end, I came in dead last for my class, a lame result for sure. Even so, for having a bad day and in my fried state, I pushed it a bit at the end – and felt great about that for days afterward. I can’t think of anything in “normal life” that will push you that hard, cause some pain, and get you to that level of being alive.

    The cool thing about bike racing, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Tour de France, a 100 mile mountain bike race, or getting your ass kicked in a local Sport level mountain bike race. It’s all a shared experience, some just go a hell of a lot faster then others.

  13. William M. deRosset

    What has the bike taught you? What have been its lessons, and what do you tell yourself when the tires stop wanting to roll, your muscles stop wanting to fire and the fun turns to hurt?

    Dear Robot,

    Thank you for the thoughts, and for the question. I suppose the answer to the second question is

    “This too shall pass”.

    The headwinds, the triple flat tire (my favorite when riding tubulars), hitting the wall five hours after dark and finding the convenience store has closed, running out of water three hours from resupply, losing the group and realizing that we were off course and I’m too crosseyed from the effort even to find North, let alone the correct route (on the Front Range of Colorado, this is a difficult state to achieve).

    Unfortunately, it is the same lesson I’ve learned from the hours and days when the tires sing, the effort is perfect, no hill is too steep or too long, my hands are light on the bars, and the wind is at my back. “This too shall pass”.

    I suspect I haven’t learned all the lessons I’ll get out of cycling despite all the years in the class. I’ll audit the course again next year, and still find something new.



    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

  14. Amityskinnyguy

    My bike has taught me that I can’t live without it. It has taught me that it’s OK to act like a kid sometimes.

  15. todd k

    What has the bike taught me? No two rides are the same even if you are covering the same familiar beaten path. Ride the same roads throughout the year and they will ride entirely different depending on the season (providing you are lucky enough to ride year around in different seasons). Some of this is due to weather patterns, conditions, temperatures and such. But some of this is a reflection of how you change throughout the year.
    What do I tell myself when the wheels want to stop rolling as the legs wish to fail me? I generally alternate between uttering blasphemous statements and telling myself to STFU. If some one is unlucky enough to be near me I’ll probably start lying about how great this torture is and how fortunate we are to be undergoing such difficulties.

  16. Ron

    I suffered a lot on my Sunday ride with three friends. Why’d I do it, I wondered during the crazy climbs? As soon as I reached the top I knew why: I’d made three new friends, all met through cycling, I’d climbed a mountain I never thought I’d get up, and I’d spent five hours in a beautiful part of the country that I’d never seen.

    The pain definitely fades away and what remains is a sense of accomplishment, for me. I grew up playing sports and sometimes miss the competition of team vs. team or player vs. player battles, but the gift I now love from cycling is the chance to push myself as far as I want to go. Some days I’m just happy to be outside turning the cranks after being inside too long. Other days I’m very unhappy to be chasing a break in a group ride.

    It is very rare that I swing my leg back over the top tube and haven’t gained something useful, whether for cycling or in life.

  17. crit rider 1

    If you have ever seen “Million Dollar Baby” with Morgan Freeman, you might remember this quote during the movie, which immediately came to mind after reading this post:
    “Frankie used to say that boxing is an unnatural act. That everything in boxing is backwards. Sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back…but step back too far, you ain’t fightin’ at all. If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, …beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”

    more often than not, we fight a battle on the bike beyond endurance, and no matter the outcome, we saddle up the next day, which leads into another quote:

    “Courage is being scared to death to ride, but saddling up anyway” -John Wayne

    Bike racing has taught me to perservere beyond a self imposed limit…which applies off the bike as well.

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