Identity

We’ve all heard the statement at work, at family gatherings, among friends, at parties: He’s a cyclist. It’s the same sort of explanation that you’d give if you showed up to a Super Bowl party with E.T. You’d introduce him around and then say, He’s from another planet.

For a lot of folks, that little explanation is actually an apology. In three short words they’ve told everyone gathered, He’s a little weird. He won’t eat your pie. Don’t expect him to touch the mashed potatoes. Your beer is safe. He spends more time on a torture device than I do in my car.

Your mere presence has upset the equilibrium of the room and the explanation is an effort to keep things on an even keel.

And while your dedication to something that doesn’t make you pantloads of money may arouse the sort of suspicion usually reserved for felons, what non-cyclists miss are the dividends that cycling pays. Sure, they can guess that you’ve got a rigorous diet if you’re lean, but that’s the least relevant of the lessons cycling teaches us.

Hanging onto a pack screaming down a country road at 28 mph will teach you unquantifiable lessons about endurance. Each time you dig deep to close a gap, move to the front or maybe even attack the leaders, you make a big statement about reserves, not just that you have them, but that you have faith you’re not at the end of your rope.

Outsiders only see fatigue, expense and deprivation when they look at cycling. We know otherwise. When you or I look at a bike, what we see is fun waiting to happen, maybe the key to a greater performance. When we see an open road, the exhilaration centers in our brains fire. When we see a hill we imagine deep suffering followed by childlike fun. The world thinks we eat like refugees, but we know that 5000 calories burned means a mammoth dinner with no guilt. Fatigue? As if. Cycling renews us, gives us strength to tackle the rest of life.

Outsiders don’t see how those lessons can inform other parts of our lives. A baby that cries for 20 minutes is much easier to deal with than a climb that lasts for an hour. Examining posturing by coworkers in a meeting is much easier to do if you’ve had to size up the competition when your legs burn so bad you want to sit up and stop pedaling. A bad day or even a bad week can be endured when you’ve dealt with months of bad form.

The point is less that we can do these things because we are cyclists than because we are cyclists we can bring more to these other parts of our lives; thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from cycling, we’re more complete. After all, if we needed to drop one part of our lives, as much as it would hurt, cycling would go long before we’d give up our careers or our families.

So while we recognize one another as fellow cyclists, and therefore friends, we understand a greater truth. Cycling helps to define each of our lives, enriching our days and giving us an outlet of expression that makes the mundane easier to endure and the high points that much more joyful. But it isn’t the whole of our identities is it? When in the peloton we identify each other not as cyclists—that denominator that unites us—but as doctor, lawyer or father of five girls. After all, your identity is written by those to whom you matter most.

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18 comments

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  2. slappy

    Sometimes i forget how lucky i am to live in a mountain town where the weirdo’s are the one’s not getting after it up high and most everyone is up for some sort of adventuring. Thanks again

  3. Souleur

    wonderful work Padraig!

    This happens to me all the time, yet sometimes it is also complimentary like ‘He’s a cyclist!’. So, yes, sometimes I feel like the metromale in a room of neanderthals but also some given company its cool.

  4. Mike

    Great article … a keeper! Maybe sadly (maybe not) one of the reasons I ride the miles and pace I do is because I like to eat (and it’s often not the healthiest choices!). I have my periods of rigorous diet. However, I am not much into denying myself simple pleasures these days … and at age 51, 5’11” and 160 pounds, and logging 10-12,000 miles a year usually at a 20-22 mph pace, I think I am doing just fine.

  5. Dan O

    Great post.

    I’ve always been the “Bike Guy” to people who know me. Sometimes, most times, that’s great – I’ve given out advice, loaned bikes for rides, organized rides, fixed people’s bikes – try to keep the bike thing going between folks. Even though I’ve been riding forever – I have soft spot for new riders, people getting back into riding, and kids riding. The enthusiasm you see from that is a huge kick for me.

    At times though, it’s like you’re from another planet. My 11 year old son has gotten into mainstream sports over the last year or so – basketball and baseball – and that’s cool and a learning experience, even if not really my gig. When I talk to the other parents at practice and games, we’re on another wave length. Nice folks for sure, but I don’t click with them like I do with my bike related pals, on a sports level anyway.

    It is true that suffering on the bike a bit, makes other aspects of life easier. After a few days of commuting or riding in cold, wet, nasty conditions – even the heat and warmth of just being home is more enjoyable. A long hard ride make other parts of life seem easier for sure.

    Of course, the food. Refueling the calories is always a benefit. As I head towards 50 years old, also hard not to feel quietly smug when around most people my age. Being a cyclist has incredible awards.

  6. Fausto's Schnauzer

    Based on past experience with a large number of brew-loving cyclists, the statement “Your beer is safe” seems to assume that the most adjacent refrigerator is stocked with something cheap and domestic. Stocking that ‘fridge with some suitable micro-brew (Mad River John Barelycorn comes to mind) and all bets are off!

  7. MattS

    People who never experience the world in its fullness – its smells, sights, undulations, gusts of wind, temperature changes…sensations – through effort, pain, and exhaustion, will never understand cyclists. I think runners can get it, xc skiers, climbers, hikers; can, don’t necessarily. Not all cyclists even understand what motivates them. Sitting at work on the computer is not living; riding is. Cycling is life affirming, exhuberating, renewing, fulfilling. For me, in order of importance, its family, cycling, career. Maybe I’m extra weird.

  8. Matt

    Good post Padraig. Yep, most people will never grasp the complex pleasures of: knowing you would quit all those well planned and patiently ridden miles for your nearest and dearest the moment you need too do so (usually not any sooner than absolutely necessary!); knowing the feeling of hitting the wall unexpectedly early on that first training ride at an easy pace after a long layoff yet understanding that in a few weeks you’ll be a different man; knowing the feeling of nailing a solid 4 hour ride before work; knowing the feeling of downing an ice cold beer after a 20+ hour training week; knowing the feeling of happily hanging out with your kids on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon at a level of exhaustion which others never experience; knowing the difference between work stress and physical exhaustion; knowing that rarified feeling of once in a blue moon achieving your peak physical condition to an extent that the most torturous moment of the key race on your calendar is all of a sudden within your grasp.

  9. randomactsofcycling

    Cycling has definitely helped me to define myself. I can agree with a lot of the comments above and within Padraig’s post. I am definitely with Matt: Family, cycling, career.
    Truly what I am searching for is a career that fulfils me the way the other two do. If my career were as inspiring to me as some of my most memorable efforts on a bike…..oh let’s not go there. I’m off to put the battery on charge and fill the bottles for the morning ride!

  10. Ron

    Great post!

    Actually, at most parties the beer is all I’ll drink as most of the food is far too rich.

    I took two kids who live next door to me for a spin last Thursday on Thanksgiving. They ride their bicycles up and down the sidewalk, but no one ever takes them somewhere new or fun. I took them for a short spin around a quiet loop of the neighborhood. When we got back the mother asked me in for some food. I thanked her, but declined. “You’re probably on a diet!” I think she assumes this because I’m pretty skinny. “Nah, I actually am heading over to a friend’s place in awhile, but thank you.”

    Funny how many people assume we are dieting because of our fitness. Cycling is a built in diet – hauling one’s fat arse around keeps you skinny!

    Great article. And yes, I find that most people consider me to be an alien. “You are going riding? In this?! You must be crazy.” Nah, I’m excited to get out and turn those cranks.

  11. Gary

    This is so true. And if you aren’t a cyclist, you have no idea. My brother doesn’t get it, definitely not my dad, and not even my wife, who’s lived vicariously through my nearly 20+ years of riding, racing, and dropping major dough on expensive cycling bits. I think it’s something you can only comprehend if you experience it firsthand.

    As a cyclist living here in SE Michigan, you are a perpetual outsider. Around these parts, riding a bicycle is a pastime reserved for the town wino or the homeless. Needless to say, “fitting in” isn’t easy when the sport you love involves lycra, shaved legs and being lean.

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