My legs and lungs and heart are the baseline. Their unreliable interactions with available time, motivation and passable weather are the great arbiters of my form. My form! Like that’s even a thing. My form is formless. My shape is two-dimensional, an X and a Y that describe nothing.

I spend my days, and large portions of my evenings, working away at non-baseline functionality. I think about oversized head tubes. I consider gear ratios. I think about tire width and pressure. All of these elements, plotted on the graph with my baseline X and Y, still mostly amount to nothing. A pair of 175 gram pedals do very little to amplify the force being applied thereto, when the baseline values are so low.

It is nice that there are wind tunnels to help bikes slip through the still, summer air like the ice cream truck with a packing of chasing, yowling kids in its wake. My personal wind tunnel testing has yet to identify the superfluous bits of my own physiognomy, though I can point to some I’d be willing to give up.

What is performance really, and why should I chase it? When I have it, what will I do? Likely squander it in an extra vainglorious minute on the front of a group ride to nowhere. This is the cycling equivalent of putting every dime you win on blackjack into the cheap slot machine by the door on your way out of the casino. Speed is not a thing for me really.

I could be cynical about it, but speed is over-rated. In fact, I would wager that most of us are measuring the wrong parts of our performance.

Pardon me while I switch metaphors here, but at some point between the bicycle shop and the runway the Wright Brothers took flight. The continuous pursuit of those last percentage points of performance can yield results no matter how unlikely, and we all want to fly. I justify a lot of time and money spent under the banner of performance optimization, when the baseline numbers don’t suggest a conventional lift off is possible.

Speed isn’t really what we’re after. What we want is lift, to get that freedom we all crave. When we’re on the bike, we want to forget about everything else. We want to be one with the machine, to share jokes with friends, to discover new places. When we’re off the bike, we want to escape into the minutiae of cycling. We want to read about the compelling benefits of a stiffer bottom bracket. We want to pretend we know things about material science and about proper training and nutrition.

This is all lift. My legs and lungs and heart don’t suggest much is possible for me, but I have not stopped trying to get free of the ground. Sometimes, it seems you only need to let go of the things, like a yearning for speed, that might hold you down.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Paul I.

    I’m getting more and more into the mindset that cycling should be fun, not work. Training is boring. Chatting with my buddies on the ride to the coffee shop, or showing my girlfriend new roads that she has never ridden before, that’s where the pleasure is. Hanging on the back of the bunch for dear life and not really even knowing where I am — not so much.

  2. Pablo

    paul’s got it right, and so do you Patrick. I used to have the other mindset when I raced but stepping away from racing bikes, and from the bike altogether, gave me a new perspective. I like to be fit, fit enough to be kinda fast and hang. Now I don’t “train” to be a racer, I just ride to enjoy the riding. Glad to see some of my friends agree.

  3. August Cole

    It’s a great escape both on and off the bike. I do think there is something, to mix metaphors, of an escape velocity. Speed is a means, not an ends, to freedom. I find that when time is short there is a joy in seeing as much of my world as I can. That means looking inward as well as out to the road.

    1. Padraig

      Paul I: Word.

      Pablo: Thanks for the compliment, but this piece is by Robot; I can’t take credit, though I’m completely congruent with the mindset.

      Paul: Likewise, word. That concept is becoming a bigger part of my writing and my outlook on life. If you haven’t seen it, you should check out the book “West of Jesus” by my friend Steven Kotler. It’s about surfing, but it breaks down the neuroscience behind flow.

      August: That’s what makes the bike such an incredible tool: I can use it to look in or out.

  4. LesB

    One of my favorite rides is from the Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point and then the 30-mile coast back down.

    One time on the ascent part of that ride up by the tunnel I passed by some granola and oats type hiker and remarked sarcastically as I passed, “Enjoy Yosemite”.

    He didn’t get it at all.

  5. Patrick O'Brien

    Riding for us has always been like two dimensional flying under your own power. It’s always been too much fun, whether we are on road or trail. Add some lift, and who knows?

    “If you desire to be groovy and flowing, instead of battling and conquering, mile per hour is the last equation you want to pay attention to.” Bob Roll

    Robot, your pieces always get us thinking and smiling.

  6. Gummee!

    I agree with the OP: speed isn’t everything. While I AM still racing and speed is important, I have more fun on ‘explorating’ rides. ‘Hey! Where’s THAT go?!’ or ‘I found a new piece of gravel. Let’s go ride it!’ are as much or more fun than ‘I killed that last interval/sprint/whathaveyou’ and hurt less too.

    Just getting out and smelling the honeysuckle and listening to the cicadas (you can’t miss em!), re-charging the mental batteries is a fantastic thing to do.

  7. Michael Schlitzer

    Patrick has it right. Riding is the closest thing to flying under your own power that I’ll ever get to experience. When you climb a hill just right and transition seamlessly to the downhill, it is a beautiful, beautiful thing. That is the one experience I hope to be able to transmit to my son – that fantastic feeling of flowing with the topography.

  8. Jim G.

    So that’s why the only time I need a better bike is when I’m not riding one that I already own. The one I am riding is always the best bike in the world. And when I’m riding alone, speed doesn’t matter because I’m faster than anybody out there. I love how a road that I drive every day is a whole new road when I’m on a bike. Getting shelled on a fast group ride? Well, I was tired of looking at that guys back wheel anyway and I’m way faster when I ride alone. I can really fly then. Great work, Padraig. So much content in those few paragraphs, more than many chapters and more than some books.

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