The Long Solo Ride

Cycling is almost by definition a group activity. The more people you ride with, the easier the ride becomes. You can draft, you can talk, you can challenge your companions in a sprint or help a slower friend up a hill. But sometimes it isn’t possible to pedal with others.  Life, timing, plans, all of those things can put a crimp in an otherwise dialed riding agenda.

In my early days, such impediments sent me into a tailspin. To get the needed miles, I would ride twice, sometimes three times a day. Then I spoke with a friend who touted the joys of  The Long Solo Ride. The ride where it’s just you and your bike and the road for five to six hours. Though skeptical, and more than a little intimidated, I decided one day to saddle up as a Lone Ranger and head out the door.

I’m so glad I did. Not because of the workout I get, or the miles I log, but because of what it’s taught me about myself as a rider.

I bore easily on roads that don’t light me up if I’m pedaling by myself. Thus, I always plan my routes carefully. If I’m looking at the map the night before and I think “meh,” then that’s a road I avoid. Sometimes, this means driving to a place I’ve never ridden before but have heard great things about, and sometimes it means revisiting old favorites that I haven’t seen in a while, family reunion style. The night before a long ride, I dream of the amazing adventure I’m going to embark upon in the morning; that’s how I know I’ve done my homework correctly.

I’m a spontaneous rider. It contradicts the above point, but I relish the ultimate freedom I have to do whatever I want. Who cares if the gameplan says Zig but I have the yen to Zag? It’s my prerogative to get crazy should the fancy overtake me.

I lose all sense of vanity, as the Long Solo Ride completely upends my super pro aesthetic. My pockets bulge with preparedness for every possible contingency. I bring food as if I will hit no stores. I bring an extra tube and a pump, even if I’m carrying CO2. I bring a patch kit. I bring my phone. I bring my ID, cash, and my medical insurance card. Upon swinging my leg over the top tube, the diameter of my body around my midsection appears to have doubled. But it only takes one error (see above) to learn the lesson the Boy Scouts teach from day one: Always Be Prepared.

Most importantly, I become zen. I detach.  I try to be ready for whatever may come my way. It could be a breathtaking vista where the sun hits the trees just right. It could be a descent that finally sharpens into a perfect, apex carved focus.  It might be a new friend I meet at my café stop. It might be all three, or none of the above. But because it’s a wonderful Long Solo Ride, I know it will always be something.

These are the truths I’ve learned about myself. My friend who first talked me into embarking on the journey has an entirely different set of truths. You may relate to some, all, or none. But that’s ultimately the great thing about Long Solo Rides: they take an activity usually defined by how you behave in a group, and redefine it based on how you behave in no one’s company save your own. My spontaneity? My Zen? These are parts of my personality I honestly didn’t even know existed. And I’m sure there’s even more the bike can teach me about myself in the days to come.

But first, I had to learn to give it my undivided attention.





  1. Jasper Gates

    Sing it, sister! There really is something calming, restorative about these kinds of solo rides. And while I do get some of my best ideas riding solo, for the most part on such rides I find that I don’t really think about, well, ANYTHING–beyond turning the pedals and taking in the view. This mindful mindlessness is part of my particular zen.

  2. dlovat

    Nice article. I used to be highly dependent on having other people to ride with. But over the years, my riding friends either quit, died, or our schedules never seemed to match up. So I started riding on my own.

    How Liberating!. I go when I want, where I want, and at whatever pace I want. The unexpected benefit is that it has made me a much stronger and mentally tougher rider. Now I revel in the fact that I don’t need anyone to “help” me through a 50 mile stretch into a headwind. I just do it, and actually enjoy the solitude.

  3. slowride(r)

    I love the solo ride. I get time to myself, just thinking, planning, hoping and dreaming. I do plenty of group rides, but when I get the chance to ride by myself I love it. Sunday morning rides are often a ride by myself to a coffee shop where I meet up with other bikers to gather, laugh and enjoy each others company. After a few cups of coffee and a bagel we’re back on our bikes and each off in our own direction, lost in our own thoughts

  4. Michael

    I have sort of the same situation as dlovat – between family and a demanding career, I don’t often link up with others’ schedules. They often wait until it is above freezing, and I don’t have that time. The 5-9-hour ride is my favorite, and I have a kit for it, including a large seat bag that holds an extra liter of water and a tube. It can be 3-4 hours between places to get water (they called it the Sierra Sinagua for a reason). Another lesson: boring roads are only boring in good weather – throw in a headwind or squalls and they get interesting. Still, some of my best solo rides have been when I met someone out there on the road or trail and we rode together a while, way out in the middle of nowhere. We seem to develop an immediate bond and respect – you don’t get out there that far without having at least some skills.

  5. Les.B.

    I’m too bound to my own whims to be much of a group rider. I lose my concentration on the bike, the road and the passing land when I’m distracted by conversation.

    Distraction spoils the spiritual experience, that’s what I find.

    I guess I differ from most other cyclists in this way, but for me the group ride is just not worth the hassle.

  6. The Tashkent Error

    one could say that by definition, something seems to have gone wrong when your long solo ride starts with a car drive. 🙂

  7. Peter lin

    Long solo rides are great. For me, it’s definitely more Zen than a group ride. On a group ride I’m so focused on the wheel in front of me that I don’t notice the scenery. On solo rides, I can stop to take pictures, enjoy the environment, go easy or hard and really feel peaceful. Nothing else matters in those hours, just being out riding with nature.

  8. Dustin

    I ride almost exclusively by myself on the road, group rides make me nervous unless I know and trust everyone. Small groups are good, big groups I don’t like.

    Solo rides rock though, for sure. I get a lot of thinking done.

  9. Dave

    Less than 1% of the miles I’ve done this year have been in a group setting. In fact the other day a guy drove up next to me and asked if I wanted a “training partner.” His look was incredulous when I said, “Actually, I’m not but thanks!”

    I think Jasper Gates above said it best when he labeled it “mindful mindlessness.” I’m in fairly close quarters, surrounded by people all day long. When I get on my bike I really don’t want that interaction. It’s restorative to my soul when I lose myself on my bike and enjoy the mindlessness.

  10. Patrick O'Brien

    Irene, that was a sweet read. Thanks.

    The only thing better than riding alone, is riding with my buddy and wife, one in the same, Sandy. We seem to sense when to talk and when to stay silent. We call the quiet periods the zone. Man those are good times on the road or trail.

  11. Chris

    The fact that someone can in all seriousness lead a piece about cycling by saying it is almost by definition a group activity is a testament to how far the sport has come in recent decades and how huge the growth in popularity has been. Perhaps a copy of Hearts of Lions is in order for the author. Might watch Breaking Away as well. Historical perspective is a good thing.

  12. Jay

    Maybe it’s because I come from a background of the long distance runner (who couldn’t stay the course due to injuries), or maybe it’s because my very being requires the meditative solitude that solo riding provides, or maybe I’m simply getting old, grouchy and antisocial, but 99.99% of my rides are solo, and I like it like that. For me, cycling is the antithesis of the social (external), and the paragon of the private/personal (internal). I’m happy you caught a glimpse of what that side of cycling can mean to the psyche and the soul.

  13. Pingback: Friday Group Ride #188 : Red Kite Prayer

  14. Michael Levine

    Well said,indeed! I started riding in Vermont in ’68. There were only a handful of other riders for many miles around. We’d ride all day solo, meet each other across the other states of Maine and New Hampshire, stop in the middle of the road to chat for a few minutes and then carry on. You’d run into that other rider or two, every few weeks, or sometimes , months, or seasons. Almost the only races we had were time trials. We’d ride the length or width of one of those entire states in a day,eat a bag of potatoes,a whole roast chicken, and down a six-pack; fall out and do it again the next day.
    I still see some of the same people from that time on the road today. Still, skinny, still tan, still fit, still killing it in the hills. Bicycles and bicycle riding…the gift that keeps on giving!!!

    1. Padraig

      Michael Levine: I need to share that when I read the sentence, “I started riding in Vermont in ’68,” I had the same reaction as I did many years ago when a friend told me he saw The Who in 1974 on the Quadrophenia tour. It was a full-bodied envy. Thanks so much for sharing that.

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