I was JRA (just riding along), my legs rising with the pedals and then falling again, letting the circles be circles without adding or subtracting anything. Sometimes it blows my mind that I can do this, just let the bike roll beneath me.

Momentum is mass in motion, a rider on a bike, just rolling along. It is a function of mass and velocity, but metaphorically also a measure of what we are moving toward or away from in our larger lives. In some ways, ‘Can I pedal harder up this hill?’ is a similar question to ‘Can I sneak in one more day on the bike this week?’ which is only a tactical permutation of ‘Am I getting better at what I’m doing?’ or ‘Am I moving forward in my life?’

I find that when I am moving well in the literal way, I am probably moving well in the other way as well.

I also think of momentum as what is happening in the moment. What forces are at play? Am I moving with them or against them? Sometimes just being present in the moment is a challenge, external forces rag-dolling me through like a kid caught in a too tall wave. We wait around for something magic to happen, maybe we put ourselves in magic’s way, ride a tall mountain, shoot a twisting descent, ramble over miles of dirt and gravel. We are only trying to force ourselves into the moment, gathering the circumstances that will focus our attention, if only briefly.

It is tempting to bring inertia into the discussion, but there we are talking about bodies at rest. Inertia is a measure of a body’s resistance to momentum. Even in a track stand the bike yearns to move. Sometimes it yearns hard enough to deposit you on the asphalt. That we control that movement is only our temporary mastery of momentum, the asphalt a measure of our hubris.

My form on the bike is more than just fitness. It is also my ability to work with whatever momentum I’ve got. Can I keep my fingers off the brake as I lean against a turn, dropping my knee as counterweight, edging the volume of my tire against the broad surface of the road? Can I find the will to drop down the cassette at the crest of a steep rise, to pound into those tall gears that will spit me out the bottom at something approaching terminal velocity? Can I wed concentration to that force, dance with it, bend it to my will, and accept its own thoughts on the subject? This is souplesse.

Off the bike, wiser heads ask me whether I want to be right or happy, and I smile and think this is really a decision about whether I want to squander the momentum I have to prove a point, to stop in the road to admire my own paint job. Do I want to swap momentum for inertia? Mostly not. Life is hard enough without riding the brakes all the time. I’d rather go smooth than fast.

I don’t know about you, but I capture very little of the momentum I receive. Mostly my ego revolts, pulls back hard on the brake levers, and I shake my head, over and over, at my own stupidity, the past welling up to overwhelm the present. Or else I am afraid. What will come around the next corner? What horrors await in the wreckage of the future?

The bike is like this, both teacher and blackboard, serving up lessons and giving us a place to practice. As ever, I struggle to pay attention in class, but I believe the answers are there, on the bike, in the moment, somewhere just beyond my front wheel.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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