The saying “it’s like riding a bike” is one of those adages that we, as cyclists, are prone to feeling pride for. It’s as if we have placed something unforgettable on an altar. The greater truth behind those words is not of body, but of brain.
Neuroscientists are learning that the way the brain is wired isn’t as we once believed—static and unchanging, like the number of floors in a skyscraper. They have learned that the brain is more like a cube farm, with paths changing, walls moving and new lighting changing the landscape in response to the life we live.
I did my first race in nine years today, my first cyclocross race in ten years. Techniques I haven’t practiced or needed in ten years came back like a light bulb flicked on in a seldom-visited basement. While I do all my braking on road bikes with my index fingers, on mountain bikes and on ‘cross bikes, I do all my braking with my middle fingers. Though that practice has lain as dormant as breaststroke, it’s no less ingrained—my middle fingers went out without a thought.
The first time I stood up to accelerate I kept my arms relatively straight and my ass back. That’s not the weight distribution I use on the road. And I favored my rear brake in turns the way I normally favor my front brake. It’s not something I thought through, I simply did.
And though I hadn’t practiced dismounts and remounts, I swung my right leg over the saddle and slid it between the frame and my left leg like I’ve been doing it once a day for a dozen years. The one moment in which I became conscious of my movement was after I landed on my saddle the second or third time. There was a brief flash of recognition that I hadn’t done that little toe bounce that so many of us do when we fear committing to our weight to an airborne approach to that saddle. I was coming down on the right side of my pelvis, keeping the delicate bits out of the landing zone.
While I knew I still knew how to ride a bike going in and that I’d manage my way through the technical aspects of riding a ‘cross course, the question mark in my head was whether I’d be able to find that old feeling again. The feeling to which I refer is the one is which you’re fully committed to the endeavor. The race becomes a sort of question.
Once posed, the question reduces the barriers, berms, run-ups, serpentine turns, curbs and other obstacles to spice. The actual meal is your fitness. Can you go hard enough that you cease to think about the obstacles and instead focus on your physical limits?
There were moments when I took stock and wasn’t really pleased at just how slow I was. Mine was an anonymous finish—which was perfectly fitting. For most of the race I was going so hard I couldn’t have told you my name.