Lessons

I came for mountains and discovered these.

I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. I didn’t take it up to get fit, to prove that I was faster, stronger or smarter than anyone else, that I was special. I didn’t take it up as a means of self-expression.

I took it up because it was fun. Oh, and I dig bikes.

It’s true; I like the mechanical-ness of bikes. If we are stored energy, they are the expression of it, a noun to our verb. They move as if they are equations describing the very action of human potential, gravity, the laws of physics.

I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. But learn I did.

At first, the lessons revolved around equipment and learning that being a cyclist meant more than having a bike. There were the shorts, the pump, the shoes, the seat bag, jersey, water bottle, computer, even the non-dorky helmet. Next came the education in how to care for the bike and all that gear.

I read magazines by the pound. At first, I read them because they took me places that I couldn’t go on my own rides: the Rocky Mountains, California, France. As I read more I began to decode the language of the dedicated. I learned about sew-ups, intervals, the wonder of titanium. References to a guy with a misspelled first name (who spells Eddie with a “y”?) peppered talk of the great races, greatest racers.

I was no student, yet I learned.

There were other lessons that came unbidden, lessons for which there was no guide. My first bonk was an event of such supreme impact on my body I could have confused it with a mystical experience. I arrived back at my dorm room and gradually pieced together my state, a drunk fitting the house key in the tumbler.

There came a turn. Just when, just where, I’ve no idea. However, I began to understand that I, like Plato, knew nothing. All the knowledge I’d collected didn’t add up to an understanding of the sport. I didn’t understand what fast really was. I rode everywhere at the hardest pace I could sustain. I arrived anywhere I went by bike leaking sweat. I was as unaware of what fast really was as what slow meant.

I began riding with a group. They showed me pacelines, drafting, how to hold my line. They taught me how and when to eat. I’d arrive home as tired from from absorbing all the skills as from the riding.

I became a student of speed. I entered races. Glued tubulars. Pinned numbers on. Learned to pin them on the right way—out of the wind and so you can get to your food.

Yet even once I chose to learn, became a student, I continued to learn lessons that were unexpected, surprising. Some, like road rash, were unwanted. Others, like being second into the final turn of a crit only to get 10th, were mystifying. At some point I experienced an epiphany. My entire conception of cycling had changed. When I started, riding a bike was fun. Nothing more and certainly not less. But in my application of self to the body of knowledge that is cycling, riding a bike had taken on a personality. The sport had moods.

Suffering dominated my days. There was the pain of the interval, but I came to understand how legs can hurt following a ride, sometimes waking you up from sleep. There was the calm of the recovery ride, a serene meditation of the pedal stroke. Once I moved to a land with mountains, ecstasy entered the sport. Icarus had it wrong; the drop held life itself.

As the years river their way through my life, the desire to learn continues, an appetite that can never be sated. What surprised me is how what cycling now gives me isn’t cycling, it’s the world.

I’d never have studied French were it not for cycling. I’d never have wanted to visit the country. I’d never have discovered lavender or the way a ton of any fresh-cut herb will fog the air with a perfume to beguile your consciousness, drugging you with reality itself.

In a twist of irony only a cyclist could appreciate, cycling gave me wine. As a racer, I’d all but sworn off alcohol. I drank alcohol less often than Sean Kelly had sex. I’d turned my back on micro-brewed beers and never considered what I was missing. That is, until I was touring through Provence and my glass was graced with a single ounce of Chateauneuf du Pape. That one sip contained within it more tones than an orchestra, more words than a Pynchon novel.

I faced a choice: reject wine, or surrender some speed. I chose wine. As a result, I’ve traveled from Napa to Nice and ridden the roads between the rows.

Cycling was making my world bigger.

The strangest, most unexpected lesson is the one now unfolding before me, how to age, how to slow down, how to share the sport with others. I won’t be the guy winning national championships in the masters races, and I’m more than okay with that. For me, the prize is striking that balance between fit, fun and family. I haven’t learned how to do it just yet, but if cycling has taught my anything it is faith, that an answer, like fitness, comes when I do the work, and I trust the sport holds a lesson or two more.

 

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10 comments

  1. Matt Walsh

    I learned my French thanks to falling in love with Francois Truffaut films in college and discovered wine when I got a job in San Francisco. But I totally agree with the truth of a bike taking you places you’d never think to go and opening doors you didn’t even know existed. Even writing about biking has the magic to transport. When I started my cycling blog two years ago I’d never seen a race in person. This past July I was standing in Rotterdam with a Tour de France press credential and a cycling magazine assignment. That’s the beauty and power of the bicycle. Keep riding and keep writing, Padraig.

  2. Doug P

    In 1973 I received $500 for transportation to college. I realized a $500 car would be a headache. I walked into the local Peugeot dealer and asked for “your best bike”. I have never regretted that decision for an instant. I unwitting had opened the door to worlds I never knew existed. Forty years later, I would find myself riding in France, eating lunch at L’Alpe d’Huez, my life transformed! I give thanks regularly for “la petite reine” and what she has brought me.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Writing teachers and books about writing always exhort the fledgling author to write from the heart, to write what you know. It’s all just advice until it happens.

      But once that connection has been made, you want to do it over and over. Few things feel as good.

      Thank you all.

  3. Jim Morehouse

    I no longer know how it started back in 1973, what drove me to buy a bike and begin racing. I just know now, 38 years later, cycling is so integral to who I am and what my life means to me I can’t imagine a day without it. Without the bike and all it entails, it would be like the sun going down and never coming up again.

  4. todd k

    I liked reading this Padraig. It resonates. I’m always fascinated by how much I learn about life from events that originate from my time on a bike.

    I’ve had a few minor events knock me off the bike for the past several weeks. I’d have to go back three years to when my first born entered the world to find an equitable amount of time off the bike. It is funny how prominent a bike has become to my life. I am now slowly finding my way back onto the roads. While doing so I’m now having to relearn a lot of lessons both on and off the bike while I readapt.

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