The Point

The Point

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental health—Abraham Maslow

During my final season of racing, there was a weekend in which my ambition got the better of me. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be standing on the podium, but I dreamt I would be getting stronger, still uncovering simmering potential, the way you lift the lid to taste the marinara once the basil is stirred in. I had planned to do four crits in less than 48 hours. Two Saturday, two Sunday, between seniors and masters.

I’ll just cut to the chase: by the time we were a three laps into the fourth race, I was so fatigued I couldn’t maintain the pace and either dropped out or got dropped, depending on how you like to tell stories of humbling miscalculation.

It was on the following Tuesday’s ride that I heard how all my friends who weren’t racing industrial-park crits had been up in Malibu scaling the canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains. And that’s when I knew I’d lost the plot to my own life. What they’d been doing was, by any measure I cared about, far more fun than what I’d been doing. I needed to make a change.

Bike riding started as fun. I hadn’t needed to prove anything and I was no longer sure what I was meant to prove, or why. I’d already gotten far more fit than I’d ever expected I could, so I was chasing something increasingly fleeting or appreciable. But riding up and down hills, especially on roads that twisted and turned in ways that made you appreciate the terrain and engaged your senses more completely than an amusement park ride, well the appeal of that never faded.

So when I lined up near the back of the group on Bohemian Highway in Occidental, Calif., on a recent Saturday, I did so with the conviction that nothing for which I’ve ever pinned a number has asked more of me as a rider. Old Caz is the first of the year’s Grasshopper Adventure Series races and it demands a full suite of cycling skills and fitness. To ride the 52 miles in less than four hours—which doesn’t seem like a tall order—you’ve got to have the ability to climb, to descend steep and unpaved terrain, to feed yourself on roads that are rarely flat and straight, to summon power while simultaneously threading your way down roads that look more like mine fields.

It was, in short, my idea of fun. However, one doesn’t need to register for a race to ride such roads, or do you? As I’m new to Sonoma County, I do need a guide; I’d never find half this stuff and there’s a fair chance that what I’d find on my own would lead straight into the heart of private, and with that a reasonable opportunity for armed enforcement of my imminent backtrack. It can get like that ’round here.

A compare/contrast between an industrial park crit and a gravel event reveals as many surprises as it does expecteds. It’s easy to focus on the topographic differences, but they are rather alike in that they both take place in the middle of nowhere. A business complex on a Sunday morning is quieter than church. Same goes for the dirt roads I encountered at Old Caz. But they are different enough that you need different bikes. Sure, they both demand all the fitness you can muster, but at root, a crit is more about you beating other competitors than overcoming a course. It’s that difference that is key to making the gravel events I’ve done much more enjoyable than the traditional bike race. When I arrived at the top of Willow Creek, the climb that finishes off Old Caz, I didn’t much care that the guy I’d been chatting with, Phil, finished a minute or two before I did. I didn’t care that a person or two had caught me in the time that lapsed since he dropped me. What I cared about was that when I crossed the finish line I’d dug as deep as I was able. I wasn’t there to beat anyone else. I was there to take as many minutes off of my previous year’s time as possible.

Competition has always been more interesting to me when viewed as a matter not of digging more than you, but of finding more than I thought I had. That’s why I find the late-race attack far more engaging than the finish line sprint. It’s those unplumbed depths that taught me the best lessons. So when I cross the finish line, I do so knowing that everyone has had to dig in the same way I did at the course’s most crucial junctions; in that, we’ve shared something, so the feeling of camaraderie runs high. Honestly, I like cycling better when it brings us together.

Exploring unfamiliar roads in a mixed terrain event is a chance to see something new, to sample a slice of the world that isn’t a part of daily routine. I may not look around much if I’m sitting in a paceline doing 28, but I do look around. I may only pass this place once. That reminder is helpful for me. It brings me back to what I thought was the point of the bike in the first place—to grab the world by the shoulders and give it a big bear hug.

Let the bike take you someplace and look around. You may only pass this place once.

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  1. Tom in Albany

    When I was a rock climber, I used to say one of the reasons I did it was to get views only a tiny percentage could get. It’s not quite the same with cycling but, it is. That cow I just mooed at? I never noticed it from the car. That father and son marvelling at more than a dozen baby garter snakes sunning themselves after having left their nest for (probably) the first time, I’d have just driven by in the car and almost NO ONE walks that stretch of road from nowhere to nowhere. So, maybe I’m just a frustrated elitist? I don’t know. But I’m still chasing the rare…

  2. Pat O'Brien

    One thing I have recently noticed on fun, relaxed rides are odors. Smells. Everything from overdone and stinky dryer sheets, to Texas laurel trees blooming.

  3. Mike E.

    That’s exactly why I love the mixed road/gravel “roubaix” style events in my area…if you can stay with a group and drill it, great, if not, then your race isn’t over and you’re not going to get pulled by a commissar…you bite down and it becomes you against yourself against the course.

    Did an event in Harrisonburg, VA just last weekend…the first 5-6 miles were just ever so slightly downhill (reverse of a false flat) so my goal was to stick with the A types until we hit the climbs, which I managed to do, then myself and a teammate fell off, traded pulls, and enjoyed ourselves on some extremely awesome low-traffic dirt roads for the next 25 miles.

    Cyclocross is also appealing for the same reason…I am never going to podium, but it always ends up a group of the same 10 or so guys all season vying against each other each week to see who comes out on top within our little mini-race in the middle of the pack.

  4. Thomas Trombley

    Hired a coach this year to prep for a big mountain bike race in Colorado. As I live in Washington, I know it’s going to be extremely challenging at altitude, so hence the need for a disciplined program. When I told her I didn’t care about winning or even placing, she asked me why I wanted to train with her. Told her I just wanted to finish strong, dig deep on personal boundaries with a smile on my face, and enjoy the time with my friends.

    Your article brought me back to my old Schwinn, banana seat and baseball card, and why bikes are the most fun thing ever. Really appreciate that, thank you.

  5. SBC

    “Honestly, I like cycling better when it brings us together.”
    “I may only pass this place once.”

    Good stuff.

    Honestly, imo, time spent forging deeper connections with people, is time best spent.

  6. brian borchers

    I am blessed to be able to ride these rides from home. I never take it for granted, and have long since given into to the experience over the work out. Luckily I have never been fast so it was an easy transformation.

  7. Jay

    It’s always been about the scenery for, that, and the health benefits of riding. Groups are good, solo is as well. Too often the groups want to go fast and to heck with the landscapes. I still compete, but mostly in “fun” races like the local donut derby. Bottom line: Cycling should be about fun.

  8. Dolan Halbrook

    That is why many of us prefer cyclocross and mountain bike racing to road racing.

    That said, this past Saturday I did my first big gravel ride (the Dalles Mountain 60) and it was a blast. It felt like a giant rolling party, everyone going at their own pace, through gorgeous scenery. Great stuff.

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