The Existential Cyclist

During the fall of 1990 I returned home from grad school to visit family and friends. The visit also coincided with the birthday of a friend and one night a bunch of us took him out for dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant. As those evenings go, there was a fair amount of wine and beer. Talk of bicycles turned to talk of motorcycles and one of the guys shared that he had a Harley. Another guy at the table asked a few questions about the hog and it came out that the motorcycle was, at that particular time, in pieces on the floor of his garage. He was in the middle of a rebuild.

“So you don’t have a Harley, you have the parts for one,” the questioner stated.

It seemed a semantic point to me, but this was the South, and you simply don’t tell a good ol’ boy  that all the parts for a Harley is not the same thing as a Harley. There was shouting. Back and forth. There was a departure.

Later, it occurred to me I’d just witnessed a fight over Existentialism, by two guys who didn’t know the term.

I offer that as a backdrop to my next thought:

I’ve got seven bikes in my garage, two unfinished posts on the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, a whole dresser devoted to cycling clothing and three rides in my legs in the last four weeks. I have no clue if the illness I’m currently suffering is a relapse of the flu I thought I had recovered from just before leaving for NAHBS or something fresh I caught while there. I’m so off, I can’t even tell what better is.

What I know is this: I don’t currently feel like a cyclist. I’m a month from one of my favorite rides of the year and am questioning the wisdom of even entering the event. Scarier still is that I’ve been far less disturbed by my inability to ride than by the fact that most days recently, when I sit down at the computer, I can compose nothing more complicated or insightful than an email. This bug has left me in a cognitive haze.

By Existentialist standards, I’m not a cyclist. I’m not much of a writer either (though this existence of this post creates a paradoxical problem in me disproving my existence as a scribe). All my life, the things I hated were things that were. Things that existed. Now, I hate nothing. That seems pretty strange. How do you hate the nothing of not being something? I don’t know, except that I do (hate the nothing not riding makes me).



  1. Steve Bauer

    As a fan of Albert Camus and cycling, currently sidelined by 17 fractures (broken chain, standing sprint) I really appreciated the combination of this post and Robot’s Bad Brains. Existentialists, Camus in particular, focused on human choices. I may not be a cyclist today to Camus but I am a recovering cyclist! Not in the AA sense of recovering from the disease of cycling but in the physical therapy sense of recovering from the disease that denies my cyclist existence. Today and every day till I clip in will be dedicated to rebuilding my body to recover that existence.

  2. dvgmacdonald


    I know the feeling all too well. After the birth of my triplets last April I got in precisely 3 rides all year, for a total of <100 miles. As someone who defined myself (or at least my summer self) as a cyclist, there was more than a little cognitive dissonance. With a new touring bike, in the middle of an outfit for carrying all 3 tykes, I've got a new lease on my identity, with as many rides this past week as the prior 11 months combined.

    Concentrate on getting healthy, then get back out there & ride. It won't take but a week before you're feeling like yourself again.

    I'd say you're still a cyclist, at least until you've had a year long layoff & lack the motivation to get back out there.


  3. Ransom

    I’ve generally found absence almost exclusively to be awful when it is in the context of loss. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

    The good news is that more often than not, we *do* get to appreciate the return of what’s been suspended. You’ll write, and you and Steve Bauer will ride again. And chances are good that at least for a while you’ll have a heightened sense of how wonderful that is, even if your legs take a while to come around to the idea.

    And I *do* have a Honda CB160, even if its engine is across town from its chassis.

  4. blacksocks

    P –

    As long as your mind turns the pedals, you’re still a rider.

    Steve Bauer –

    I’ve long appreciated your feats on a bike, and wish you a swift and full recovery!

  5. Wattsie

    I can not help but feel. If you ride, then you will write, and it will stimulate the entire creative process. Even more true when you are sacrificing your riding in order to write more……… all sounds downward spiraling to me?

  6. naisan

    I stopped riding for 25 years.

    Gravity always wins. One lucid day in the next week or two you will go for a ride, and with a big smile you will forget all about this week.

  7. Ben

    Hmmm. This post makes me want to both read Kierkegaard and ride my bike. I do know which of these two activities will make me happier.

    Despite feeling whatever sick you are feeling, if you can take a quick spin to get the blood flowing, I can’t imagine any better medicine. This is advice I should take myself.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the encouraging words everyone. As much as I’d love to go for even the briefest ride, I still too woozy to trust my balance. Not sure what that’s about, but to get on a bike right now without my full faculties would just be a colossal frustration. And if picking my son up can leave me feeling worn out, I doubt a ride would be much more enjoyable.

      Of course, I feel silly sharing any of this. It’s not like it’s cancer.

  8. Full Monte

    Oh, God, Padraig…thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Cuz I thought it was just me. Dude, I’m a flu zombie the last three weeks. A walking Pink Floyd verse: My hands feel like two balloons, Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.

    Now I know I’m not alone and this flu – whatever it is – is something lingering, nasty, sapping.

    Heck, it’s been in the 60s – in March – in Chicago. It’s going to be in the high 70s tomorrow. I don’t even have the strength to pull my bike off the trainer. I’ve been dreaming of spring, and now I can barely drag my sorry butt to the back deck to get some sun on my face. Every time I start to feel a little better, a fog drops back down, my chest tightens, my head swells, my knees shake, and all I want to do is sleep.

    And turning a phrase at the keyboard? I’m lucky to write something that’s barely literate at this point. What the heck is going on with us? As a cyclist, I feel like a guilty hypocrite. Harden up, man! Get out there and suffer gladly. But I’m afraid I’ll just tip over and not get up. Just lay on the gravel by the side of the road and wait for sleep and a good Samaritan to pick me up and drop me off at a hospital.

  9. Trailer Park Cyclist

    I have tried and tried to relate to RKP. Many of my readers are devotees of this site and the basic context is one to which I also adhere, except:

    Oh, nothing. Never mind. Hell is other people and so, until I find my way to whatever belief system I am migrating towards Today is all that I have.

    Padraig, I also have been ill of late and my weakness of body is not an existential experience, I really am fucking tired. So that is something we share. My belief system? Bicycles. It is all that I need. My soul understands and rewards me when I pedal a bicycle until it hurts a little and then a little more. I ride alone and thus escape Hell but all of humanity is my neighborhood and someday, my friend, I hope we meet.


  10. Gary Watts

    I can empathize at least. I got a bad cold at Thanksgiving, turned into bacterial pneumonia, 10 days of antibiotics, sinus infection 3 days after that, 10 more days, then 4 days after that got bronchitis. I’ve been back on the bike for about 4 weeks and my lungs are totally scorched. I’m now expecting some months before things are “normal”.

    This is also the first year in MANY (I’m 53) that I’m not racing. Given the illness, that’s probably a good thing……

    As my wife says about challenges, This too shall pass.

  11. @Pub_Cap_Scott


    I understand your feelings, as I think I’m one step further along. With recently separating from my wife (her decision), I was off the bike for about 2 weeks. During that time, I had no motivation to spin the pedals, which was very depressing. Cycling is my life. Even if I’m a struggling Cat 5 sitting at a desk forecasting production of tractors during the day, I feel cycling is what defines me. Everyone who knows me, knows cycling is my passion.

    Whether it was due to lack of motivation, or other events, it wasn’t until this past weekend I was finally able to get back out and ride. The first ride was emotional at the end, but the second was liberating in a way. Marriage was not a disease for me, but I finally was able to see that I was not completely happy. Having a new found freedom to ride/train when I want, and be able to go to any races I want in an attempt to be an amateur journalist, it is invigorating. It’s like I found that missing piece of happiness I’d been searching for. Maybe years down the road, I’ll find that (female) cyclist that completes it all for me.

    Get better, and get back out on the road. It will reboot your creativity, and it will all be just a distant memory.

    Heal up too Steve!


  12. Robot

    My wife and I are both very active. I ride and play soccer and climb rocks. She teaches spin and boot camp. As we age, all those activities take their toll on our bodies. Periodically, one of us gets hurt. She tore a calf muscle a few months back. I tweaked a hamstring.

    They’re small injuries, but they’re hard to deal with because we’re used to being active. In a lot of ways, we’re dependent on being active.

    We always think mental toughness is tested the most at the limits of our abilities, but I would argue it’s tested more when our abilities are limited. Much harder, mentally, to scale back when injured, than to push the edges of suffering when we’re fit.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for sharing. The great mystery of RKP to me is how the things I’ve written seemingly only for myself, the posts that I fear will fall flat are often the posts that resonate most with readers. It’s one of the better examples of empathy at work in my life, maybe the best. Go figure.

  13. Steve

    First, we love you for your perspective and how you make us think and feel. Please continue.

    Second, get well soon.

    Third, never come to any conclusion when you are not feeling well.

    Hand in there.

  14. The_D

    Let’s accept that a cyclist is he who cycles. But is he the only one? If you make sacrifices to have all the goods to cycle, then cannot, and then feel tortured by it, are you not also a cyclist, albeit a frustrated one? At minimum, are you not more a cyclist than he who casually buys all the cycling goods, but never hears the call of the saddle?

    What I am saying is, chin up! Once your health permits, a bike ride will set you straight!

  15. DavidA

    In my mind im still 25yrs old bridging up to the first group in a killer side wind after the 14th crossing of a 600 yr old cobblestone road on the outskirts of Gent, Belgium. Reality is im a 51 yr old man diagnosed with a deep vein bloodclot in my leg who has had to stop riding for 3 weeks and inject Lovenox into my stomach and must take bloodthinners for 3 months. Who is the real DavidA….we both are, because in my heart and my mind im racing with the wind….on or off the bike.

  16. RightClick

    A great read, probably not by your conventional standards Padraig, but for it’s frankness and resonance. At the same time, it’s a vivid illustration of the singularity of life. Strip away a vital part of your being and the rest risks falling like a house of cards. It calls to mind the following quote:

    “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
    – L.P Jack, 1932

    I’m just getting back on the bike after being sidelined by back/disc problems for the better part of a year. Cycling is a key part of my being, creative professional is another. My return to the bike is almost a necessity. Bit by bit, it feels like my brain has been shutting down, taking with it the rest of my life. My creativity, my ability to socialize even with close friends, my drive and desire were all waning.

    With the arrival of an early spring, a few easy rides on the bike have already made a huge difference for me. Hopefully your fog will lift soon and you can embrace the oneness of your life again.

    1. Author

      There are people who spend a lifetime writing and never enjoy an audience as warm and generous as the lot of you. Those of us who have the good fortune to be RKP’s writers are very aware of this little detail. Thanks to each and every one of you.

  17. Dan O

    All lifelong cyclists take breaks from cycling, self induced or from something out of your control. It can be a few weeks or a few years. The simple fact you want to ride and always come back to it – is proof that you’re a cyclist – and always will be.

    The last two winters I’ve fallen off to just the occasional trainer session and mountain bike ride. In some ways a good thing. Now that the clocks have changed and spring is around the corner, I’d raring to get rolling again. I will curse my fitness level the first few weeks, until the “motor feeling” as a I call it, slowly comes back. Not having that makes you appreciate it all the more as it kicks back in.

  18. Gravatar

    ‘Once a roadie always a roadie’. An old club member told me this when I was about 15, explaining that the sport gets in your blood. I’m reminded of that at the big events I occasionally go along to watch and inevitably catch up with people I used to race, along with older fatter guys donning worn-out biretta’s. The above maxim has rung true with many who aren’t mad enough to sacrifice family life for a Peter Pan existence, obsessing over racing bikes. For me, until common sense loses its grip and I decide to renew my masters license, I keep a nice bike and enough kit for a few lightly frosted winter mornings; the best time to ride.

  19. SWells

    Gravatar: YESSSSS! I DO keep just “enough kit” for those mornings, indeed. The best time to ride? Whilst the kids are still sleeping.

    Does climbing one mountain make one a mountain climber? Maybe not. Does racing one criterium make one a bike racer? Yes. Yes it does.

  20. Ron

    I’m in graduate school right now & one of the reasons I’m still here…is because I fell in love with cycling a few years back. Cycling is far more exciting than sitting in some dusty archives room. Thus, as I said, I’m still here. (there are other reasons, but I choose to look forward!)

    Anyway, I’m finally tired of being in graduate school & want to finish up. I’m used to riding every day, from one hour to many. After a few years of fighting it I’m finally saying that it is far more important to work each day than to ride a lot and maybe work some. In three months, what will matter more? Having my degree (and a job to pay for new bike goodies!) or being in awesome form?

    I ride mainly for fun so there is no need to be in peak form all the time. Plus, the only racing I do is cross, which is many months off. Additionally, if I work hard & efficiently, I can find time to churn out work AND ride a bunch.

    I don’t feel like a cyclist much right now either. I’ve been riding first, then working for a few years. It has been great & I’ve gone from nothin’ to a pretty solid cyclist. But, the time has finally come. It’s okay for me to not feel like a cyclist for a few months. I’m officially putting it on the back burner until the TdF. I feel guilty. I feel badly. I feel off. But, it’s better than the guilt of stringing out my degree another year.

    Get well, Padraig!

  21. Matthew Wikswo

    I wrestle this question from time to time, and also with other rock/ice climbers. The last time it came up, I was talking with a friend who had sold all his climbing gear when he got frustrated with its variably good and bad impacts on the rest of his life; then decided “Dammit, I am a climber!” and replaced it all with brand-new gear; then re-discovered all the drawbacks; and was at this time contemplating selling off Gear Round 2. We got so caught up in the question of, “Am I a climber?” that it started to smell so fishy that I was able to look around and see that it’s an artifact of our mind’s attempt to escape from the fear of ambiguity and reassure itself with the illusion of certainty. Basically, we crave identity, because it makes us feel safe, however delusorily.

    With this realization, we dismantled and re-phrased the question(s): What have I climbed? What has the climbing I’ve already done brought into my life? Do I want to climb more? Do I want to “retire” (more labeling!)? How much more do I want to climb? What can I adjust in my life so that climbing plays a more constructive and less destructive role in the rest of my life? Do I enjoy climbing for the pure pleasure of it? How much do I need to train to have access to the pure pleasure, if performance isn’t an end goal? And so on.

    What I ended up with is that yeah, I like to ride a bike and climb rock and ice (more than some folks, less than others). I’ve done some things that people from elsewhere whom I don’t know would recognize; most of it has been local stuff with buddies. What really matters to me is staying fit enough to be healthy, getting outside, and sharing the experience with comrades. The way I accept riding the same roads and trails and climbing the same routes day after day is to think of most of my activity as my daily practice, just like we do the same asanas day after day although for some reason in that case we agree to see it as the regular process of getting enlightened. I’m willing to train some and make some sacrifices in other parts of my life, but only in the larger context of balance with vocation and other relationships. When there’s ice in the winter, I get out for it as much as I can; when there’s no ice, I ride my bike more, but I have still climbed ice in the past and look forward to some in the future. You get the drift.

    So, this line of thought can go on for a long time, and may not yield any results if you don’t work to make it converge somewhere somehow. It can also be exhausting and off-putting to people who are more committed to the quest for identity. But it also opens the door to a lot more understanding, nuance, flexibility, and possibility than repeatedly bludgeoning yourself with the tempting but ultimately meretricious dead-end question, “Am I a cyclist?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *