On the Nature of Ambition

On the Nature of Ambition

My car is an explosion of sand-encrusted cycling clothing and wet. The one place devoid of these castoffs is … my gear bag. I could blame it on my fatigue. Or I could blame it on the 45-degree temperature. Or I could blame it on the rain. Actually, I don’t have to pick one. With that combination I figured as long as the item was inside the car I could call it a win. Never before had I pulled off cycling shorts and donned jeans in the driver’s seat of my car. There’s just not enough room. Except today. How I summoned the energy to do something previously dismissed as impossible will be one of my lasting questions from this adventure.

So, when I write that my car is an explosion of sand-encrusted cycling clothing and wet, I mean right now as I type this, six hours post-race. My one nod to cleaning up my car after the race was walking my bike into the garage. At least it’s grey and raining, so nothing can ferment before tomorrow afternoon, when I’ll go fetch everything after the nap I just decided I will take.

The culprit for my responsibility-shirking was the Super Sweetwater Grasshopper. According to my computer, I got 78 miles, of which 65 were race. There was almost 6000 feet of climbing. And roughly 20 miles were on dirt. Very wet dirt. It took me a whopping 5:06 to finish this thing. And at my beach cruiser pace, it still took everything I had as a rider, in strength, aerobic fitness and skill.


When we rolled out the temperature was right around 50 degrees and a soft mist was falling. The cloud-diffused light made the landscape pastel and the peloton not quite so Kodachrome.

Even though only 20 miles of the course was on dirt, many of the roads were every bit as tricky due to potholes (which Miguel called out with spray paint!), crumbling asphalt and wet, off-camber turns. I got separated from the lead group, along with a number of other riders, at the first big acceleration, less than 10 miles into the race. Between you and me? I was relieved. It meant I was able to settle into my own pace. The entire length of Sweetwater Springs Road is an affront to road builders. At times, it reaches 18 percent and patched potholes have re-potholed.


The centerpiece, literally and metaphorically, for the race is Old Cazadero Road. This is the climb that begins with pavement, goes to bad pavement and then to dirt. This time, as we crossed Austin Creek, the water was only knee-high. On the muddy descents I had to constantly blink because I’d removed my glasses on the first descent because I wouldn’t see well enough; first time that pair of glasses was too wet to see through. As we passed between emerald farm fields on a road the tan of peanut butter, I watched a buddy’s 32mm, slick rear tire slip two inches to the left on a rock face. I think it scared me more than him.

Somewhere in there the sun clawed through briefly only to be shut out again. The whole of the day the rain had been, at worst, light. As I began to climb Fort Ross Road, our third big climb of the day, rain began falling in earnest. I could hear it strike my jersey, hit my helmet. Soon it became a full downpour. I was clad in a Castelli Gabba jersey, thermal bibs, embro and waterproof socks. I was, in a word, impervious.

One of my favorite scenes in Yellow Submarine is when the Chief Blue Meanie exhorts his minions, “Do your worst!”


How about a confession? One of the only descents in the world that frightens me is Meyers Grade. Riders of Levi’s Gran Fondo are familiar with it. It plunges down off Fort Ross to end at Highway 1. I’ve experienced fog and marine layer up on Fort Ross Road and Seaview Road, but this time a shore breeze was blowing enough to be called a wind. It carried fog so thick that visibility was limited to 50 or 60 feet at most. Oh, and the rain. There was rain. Steady.

I can’t explain it but perhaps because I could only see a small portion of the road at a time, I had one of the most relaxed descents of Meyers Grade ever. I wouldn’t say I was actually relaxed, but I was more relaxed.

It’s my suspicion that some part of me checked out on the descent to Austin Creek back on Old Cazadero Road. I can’t be certain, but a part of me did check out, but the departure so quiet, I don’t quite know where, but it’s precisely what I needed.


I’ve got some stuff going on in my life. Major stressers. By the time I was climbing Fort Ross Road, I was past my daily worries and into the onioning of layers, peeling back to the ego. Who am I?

I’m amazed that Old Caz is roughly 50 miles, half on dirt and it’s just a fun day out. Super Sweetwater is 15 mi. more with less dirt and for some reason it blows way past a good time and strands you in an existential meditation on the nature of ambition.

It’s a simple question: Do you have more to give? It’s elemental. How do you want to interact with the world? Will you sit passively by, staring at TV, or will you do things? Will you imagine? Will you execute? Does your life have a plot? A plan? Are you choosing your course or floating on the current?

It was easy to pinball back and forth between watching my pace and heartrate, to what I would undertake next in my life. And how far would I go for something that mattered?


I got even more lost—in my head—on Coleman Valley Road, the exposed pitch of crumbling asphalt that climbs from Highway 1 up to a rolling plateau before dropping back into Occidental. There comes a turn where you’re riding essentially across the hillside. Only a slight turn of the head to the left is necessary, even for the supremely fatigued, to see the Pacific Ocean. I glanced left and saw a sight so dramatic, I slowed down to take a longer look. The sun had pierced the clouds once again and it bathed a large rectangle of ocean yellow-orange. It was a window where grey had been the wall.

And that made me wonder about the divine.

This is what I do when I’m alone. This is why I would not be a good subject for a reality series. My dealings with the here, the now, are purely out of necessity. The less, the better.

While I’m a deeply spiritual person, I fell from Catholicism many years ago. That block of rules wasn’t doing it for me. I let 20 years roll by and then begin to have a crisis of faith. That strikes me as trying to get service on a one-year warranty 10 years after buying the product. I mean, what about God? Like others plagued by doubt, I can’t help but think about how we don’t really have smoking-gun proof. All we’ve got are a bunch of stories written by the world’s most unreliable witnesses: homo sapiens. I hate this. I hate not being sure. I wish I still believed the way I did when I was 18, the way so many of my friends still do. I’m sure of nothing. I mean, we don’t have proof there’s no God, either. Could be hiding. As a person who doesn’t have faith but enjoys the wrestle, I like posing the question of what could we infer about God, if there is one. If God exists, he/she/it hasn’t permitted us to secure that proof. Why? Well, wrestling with faith must be something h/s/i wants for those of us inclined to ask the bigger questions.

Which led me to a thought. You’re an all-powerful being. What are you going to do with yourself? (Yeah, the question of ambition again, just writ larger.) What are you going to create?


That’s a huge pothole. It could swallow my bike.

I always liked those trick-shot pool players who could—with one strike—sink all the balls into pockets and leave the 8-ball unmoved.

If there’s a God, that’s how I think h/s/i works. From a distance, but with all-powerful skill. One flick of a fingernail (or whatever God has) and the entire universe blew into existence. And supposing you were all-powerful, what would you want to create? Well, it wouldn’t be air and then nothing else. I would want as diverse an inventory as was possible, which would be infinite, what with being God and all.

It is then that my mind starts spinning through cows and trees and heavy metal and industrial design and the platypus and quantum mechanics and my son’s school. What doesn’t exist?

I noticed there was a slight tailwind and the rain was falling again, but I have no memory of watching the grass ripple in the wind, which is what it would have done.

Below my tires red paint spelled out, “SHUT UP LEGS.” That’s not what I need to shut up.

Just before a stand of Cypress trees I see Paul up ahead of me. He tells me he’s new to cycling. That explains why his helmet has a visor. In this wind it keeps moving around on his head. We had ridden the last of Fort Ross, down Meyers Grade and all of Hwy 1 together only to have him scoot away when we turned onto the final climb, up Coleman Valley. He’s strong. What did he do before he took up cycling?

I hadn’t imagined the possibility that he went out hard and was now paying. Then a woman passed me and went right across to him.

I consider how hard I’m going. My heartrate is still in the 150s, deep into the finite. Why am I torching the whole forest when one deadfall would do? I’m not racing them—okay I want to catch them before the line—but if not that, then why am I here?

Who am I kidding? I know the why. I’m here for the why. I’m here to investigate.

To take a flashlight to the nooks in my soul.


Images: Jorge Flores, JustPedal

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  1. Scott D Gilbert

    Chasing the elusive answer(s) to “why” many times myself on the bike. There is something about the action of pedaling for a few hours with nothing but your own thoughts (demons?) to elicit answers to questions you didn’t even know you wanted answers too. Cycling can be a “zen” activity.

    1. Author

      There’s been some very interesting work in neuroscience about how repetitive motions can aid meditation and reaching meditative states. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, I suspect that this is flow stuff that got wired in from having to run prey down over the course of a day.

  2. Scott D Gilbert

    Padraig I agree there is some connection between Flow State and the act of pedaling. I have found myself “zenning out” during Time Trial efforts when all of sudden your mind goes elsewhere.

  3. wyatt

    Great piece. This is the type of work I come to RKP for. Philosophical, open ended, well written, cyclists thoughts and experiences. While water bottle cages etc are useful, we can all waste many an hour on many a site looking at them and even debating them if so inclined. RKP is and hopefully always will be one of precious few places where the nitty gritty of life from a cyclists vantage point is articulately explored. More of this type please. Thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for the kind words. If I had the well from which to draw this stuff daily, trust me, I would. The bottle cages, etc., are what make doing this sort of work possible, so thanks for sticking with us through the more mundane pieces.

  4. wyatt

    I enjoy your perspective on even the most mundane, deeply understand what it means to pay the bills, and know to be patient with the creative process; so, all good here. Thank you for throwing the inspired work out to us all when it comes your way. Ill be back almost daily as long as you keep doing the do.

  5. Michael

    God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things. — Pablo Picasso

  6. Justin Barrett

    Well done, Padraig. Beautiful piece!
    I’m a classic over-thinker. To the detriment, even, of my sleep. I get on a train of thought, think it over until I’m all worked up into a lather of anxiety, and then ponder some more. It’s not a healthy way to go, but it’s the only way I’ve known since I can remember.
    Riding is the one thing I’ve found that has allowed me to relax a bit. To smooth the alpha waves and get a grip on life. There are those rides, though, like the one you describe above, where you’re able to transcend thought and go into another plane of thinking. Creativity is at an all-time max. Connections are made that wouldn’t normally occur to you. The really deep stuff is worked on. It’s rare (for me) but amazing.

    Thanks, Padraig. I second Wyatt’s sentiment. This is why I read RKP and will continue to. What is living and thinking (and riding) if not wrestling with being human and all it entails?

  7. TomInAlbany

    Padraig, I echo everyone else’s comments about the beauty of this piece. When I wrote my initial comment above, it was all I could think of. All I knew to say in response. You found a nerve…

    That said, I read your site for the practical as well as the moving. Keep’em both coming. It all serves a purpose. And, you’re like my own, personal R&D department!

  8. Rob Franklin

    Looking at the rain forecast for while packing for Land Run 100 this weekend, I was once again thinking about why we do this. It was nice to stumble across this article today. “Oh yeah… that’s why.”

  9. hoshie99

    I get it.

    PB – What’s the big straight downhill coming straight off the ridge before you hit Meyer’s grade? That straight rapid decline is much scarier to me than the sweeping S turns soon after that head down to the coast. Everyone has their thing 😉

    1. Author

      The Sweeping S-turns are on Hwy 1. The big, sometimes straight, downhill off the ridge is Meyer’s Grade. It’s not always straight, but that memorable section that is both straight and steep is Meyers Grade.

    2. Hoshie99

      Ah! That makes sense. That route over kings ridge and to the coast is really amazing; probably one of the best routes I have ridden.

  10. Pingback: Friday Group Ride #352 | RKP

  11. Dizzy

    When I read or listen to ride descriptions such as this, I’m reminded of the 2013 Tour de Tucson. A pineapple express storm saturated Tucson w/ pouring rain, 50 degree temps and 20 mph winds. The 100 mile route changed to 114 miles d/t a flooded dry river bed. With darkness creeping in and the riding turned into the wind, us pitifully amateur, debris riders could sense the sweep wagon behind us. Physically, I was shivering so hard, I thought I would fall out of control. Mentally, I went existential, “zen” if you will. I prayed the “Red Kite Prayer”.

    Your article is poetry that I could never get to but surely can relate to. Thanx, D

  12. Abbie Durkee

    I once heard a young Pro Tour Racer say, “On the bike, I solve all the world’s problems but by the time I’m on the couch I’m to exhausted to remember how, let alone execute”. It was in those 20 hours a week pedaling in solitude in the pouring rain of 2005 (training as a Pro) that I realized my purpose in life was not to overcome those ahead of me, but empower those behind me. Together we achieve so much more. Our own potential is is revealed as our competition pushes us to go beyond what we believe is possible. “I have learned I can keep going much longer then I think I can”

  13. Austin McInerny

    Thanks for this very well written piece. Interesting that we both had similar experiences on the same ride! Something about the group that assembles for the Hoppers and the weather brought out the deepest of efforts and introspection. I also felt at ease going down Meyers Grade even though visibility was nearly ZERO and I had lost use of my right thumb due to mild hypothermia kicking in. A serious 5-hour deep therapy session…As cyclists who are willing to face these types of rides, we are enabling ourselves to face ourselves in a way that few ever do. I am thankful to have had these opportunities as they have helped me learn who I am and how I want to expend my energy.

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