Cow Shit


We rode along in silence, chains whirring. The sun was only just lumbering up into the sky, and neither of us was quite awake. After a bit, he glanced over and said, “You get a ride in this weekend?” as you do when you’re breaking the silence.  And I said something stupid like, “Yeah. Got 60 miles in, probably averaged 17 or 18mph. Good weather,” and then fell silent again.

I’d said nothing, and we both knew it. Did any of that information, I thought, say anything interesting or meaningful about my day in the saddle? Is it true that if I go far or fast or don’t get wet, by default it was a good ride?

In a previous life I spent hours and hours in pro sports locker rooms or huddled by the sides of practice fields frantically scrawling the half statements and platitudes of sweaty athletes and harried coaches. Sometimes I held aloft a pocket recorder and transcribed tape later, all the better and more accurately to relay the wisdom of the unwise to my fickle and cynical readers.

And then sometimes I would stand next to Francesco, the beat reporter from the big paper. While I furiously jotted statements word-for-word, he would carry on a normal conversation, only in the end turning away and dabbing briefly at his own notebook in shorthand. When I read his story the next day, I could see clearly all the adjectives he’d missed, all the nuance he’d left hanging in the air. His facts weren’t wrong, but his stories lacked the texture of the moment.

Shorthand is like that. Distance. Speed. Weather. These are all inadequate descriptors. True, they form a composite, but, if anything, they also obscure what really happened, what I really thought and felt when I was out on the bike. At the very least, we should come up with a better shorthand for what we do.

My family are Welsh farmers, and as a boy I spent some of my favorite summers rambling around the farm with my cousins, a pack of filthy farm dogs in tow. The smell of fresh cut grass and the impossibly large cow flops mouldering in the sun are my madeleines, the olfactory spark for happy memories.

The smell of cow shit is, for me, usually a good indication that I am enjoying myself on the bicycle. This is mostly geographical calculus. If you can smell that rich, organic something wafting on the breeze, chances are you’re in farm country. And farm country is where I like to spin my wheels. It connects me to my youth, to a sense of freedom and adventure. Green pastures and stone walls, rambling wooden fences and the slow churn of cattle at their leisure. Narrow lanes that swoop and gather. The sun bright and dappling through the trees. These are better descriptors.

Speed and distance, especially as I exaggerate my relationship to them after the fact, only tell you about the ride relative to yourself. I went faster than you can or farther than you did, at least if I exaggerated properly. Maybe you can imagine what it was like to have done what I did, but it presupposes you’re not paying attention to anything beyond the end of your nose, that you don’t like the smell of cow shit.

In the bike game we see this, too. What something weighs, a frame or a derailleur, a wheel or a handlebar, often passes for what is important about that thing. Don’t get me started on “stiffness.” If a bike is light and stiff, does it follow that it’s a good ride?

Because we are so starved for that ineffable something that cycling gives us, the madeleine moments of fresh cut grass and cow shit on a gentle breeze, we succumb to the shorthand. We buy into faster and longer and lighter and stiffer. We accept their equivalence to the quality of our riding.

Despite my nom de plume, I remain something of a romantic, and I get really tired of seeing things, instruments of joy and freedom, reduced to simple numbers, simple ideas,  even if I fall into the same dull habit of reductio ad absurdum whenever anyone asks me about my ride.

Next time I’ll just say, “Cow shit and fresh cut grass. A cold start and warm middle. Well packed dirt. A lung-searing climb. A good joke that carried us for about fifty miles, but probably less. A greasy cheeseburger at the end. And I still had it in me to mow the lawn.”

Image: Scott Bauer/USDA

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  1. Ransom

    Ah, that effing ineffable! That certain I-don’t-know-what, which sounds better in French…

    Quantifying the attributes of “rightness” is a tricky business.

  2. Jan

    There’s a week in spring when on a certain ride, I practically ride through the Lilacs to get all the scent in I can. And then the week is gone taking the lilac scent. Happily, on two of my regular rides, there’s often a strong piney smell, and that’s delicious, too, and lasts a lot longer through the year.

    The biking’s great (though I go neither fast nor far), and part of that is how wonderful it feels to be outside, breathing really hard, and knowing that my heart, lungs, and legs all work enough to get me up some hill.

    Gah. Now I want to leave work early and take myself for a ride.

  3. Bart

    The way I see it is that if you went 60 miles at 17 or 18 miles per hour, you experienced all sorts of wonderful and difficult moments along the way. We all know and understand that translation but we also know how hard it is to find the words to describe the personal experience of the ride. Your last paragraph captures it well.

  4. Irene Bond

    So well put! I actually had the same exact experience of sounds/smells/sensations riding this past week in central PA. It’s too bad they can’t come up with a Strava like app to track this visceral kind of ride marker.

  5. John Kopp

    I grew up on a ranch in western SD, so cow shit and new mown hay are familiar to me. Had a Schwinn three speed that I shared with my brothers, but my main ride was a horse or a Johnny Popper. I later got a 10 speed C Itoh and rode my first century ride from the ranch to around Mt Rushmore and back. The cool fresh pine scent of the mountains was a welcome relief form the hot Hereford ranch of the prairie below. I always loved the sound of the wind blowing through the pine needles of the forest.

    Thanks for bringing back those memories.

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