In the late 1990s I lived for a period in Brentwood—not the Bay Area City, but rather the toney neighborhood at the edge of Santa Monica. I’d join the group rides that would roll out from the Starbucks (there must be a rule somewhere that group rides that start before 8:00 am must meet at a Starbucks). Most mornings, as we rolled out, I’d notice a guy on his bike, riding alone. Clad in tights and a Screaming Yellow Pearl Izumi windbreaker, he would ride up and down the divided portion of San Vicente Boulevard. Roughly a mile gently uphill followed by a quick mile back down to the bluffs that overlook Santa Monica Bay. I’ve no idea how many laps he did each morning, no idea how many mornings a week he’d do those laps, but he had the regularity of a geyser. Wait long enough in the post-dawn light and you’d see him. I’m not a betting man, but if ever I bet on anything, I’d wager that he had done more miles on San Vicente than any other human being, on bike or in a vehicle. It is, to me, an achievement without worth, but who is to say that mattered to him?
However, when I think about the broad range of the appeal of cycling, I return to him. Even on occasions when I rode by him on my own, saying hi elicited no response, no acknowledgement. We were not kindred spirits; at least, not to him. Put another way, while I may have considered him part of my extended tribe, I was not part of his. His was a tribe of one. That difference notwithstanding, I shared with him a belief in the immutable merit of the bike.
I’ll admit: For many years I saw the bike through the lens of its utility to me. I saw it as useful as a tool in my self-development. As I chased my own fitness, as I chased my own happiness, as I began to define a community of my choosing, a community specified not by what we were healing or running from, but a community we wished to foster based solely on something we considered a net good in our lives. Although the bike requires you to ride from something and to something, its appreciation does not require you to analyze your past, chart a future. My compatriot doing laps of San Vicente was proof enough. He could do another lap, or not. In that, he lived in the moment, free of the question of route. There may have been questions of purpose, of goals, of duration or frequency, but his devotion proved there was no question of utility or satisfaction.
I have moved from one existential consideration to another in the last four years. The only questions I haven’t asked myself have regarded my love of my boys, the bike and writing. I’ve questioned everything else that could be up for grabs, to the point that getting out of bed some mornings has been an experiment in surprise.
I don’t question the bike.
When I say I don’t question the bike, by that I mean, I don’t question its worth. I don’t question what it can provide. I don’t question where it can take us, either internally or externally. I don’t question how it has the power to transform society, if we only give it a chance. I don’t question its ability to provide fulfillment, not matter how you define it.
That last is a greater mystery than we like to admit. While I was off making friends, deepening friendships, chasing fitness, researching the limits of my taste for pain, Lap Man was doing … something quite different. But it worked for him. That was the epiphany I tamped down repeatedly as I watched him on the other side of the median, or zooming around the median in sight of the beach. It worked for him.
I’ve made friends with a group of riders who will climb as if they were outrunning a fire, then descend with a nearly reckless abandon, only to pull up in a spot of unspeakable beauty, sit down on a log, pass a pipe around, and then 20 minutes later, get back on the bike and turbo their way down trails until the colors of the forest blur due to our speed.
I’m past the point of judging one form of cycling as being more legitimate than another. At a recent ‘cross race some friends and I offered riders beer handups. Other people presented riders with bacon, cookies, red wine and waffles. Not all at once, mind you, but you could encounter all of those in less than 200 meters. Some riders went in for all the handups. Other riders, in the hunt for the podium or a personal best, passed us without a blink.
Who’s to say one of those experiences is more valid than the other?
I’ve often argued that cycling is a better activity than others because it allows individual expression as well as collaboration. It’s better because simply doing it will make you healthier. You can’t be a cyclist and not become more fit than you were. But is fitness an objective measure of the value of anything? I’d say not. That’s but one lens. One might measure by friendship—how many friends you make. Or one may measure by mood—how pleasant are you rated by those who know you, upon finishing a ride.
Recently, someone asked me what sort of a cyclist I was. My answer was that I no longer think of myself as any one kind of cyclist. I’m cyclo-philic—I love bikes in general. In reviewing a travel bike (that had some limitations) some years ago, I wrote that it was better than having no bike. I’ve come to appreciate that statement as being universally true, not just applicable to that one bike.
Truly, any bike is better than no bike.
I’ve come to appreciate that cycling isn’t just a better sport; is the perfect sport. Cycling is perfect in that it allows any rider to have exactly the experience they seek. You want a solo ride on a monotonous course? Have at it. You want a massive, rolling society with factions, alliances and enemies? I’ve got just the group ride for you. You want a Go Pro-worthy experience of dropping 1000 feet in four miles and spending most of that drop separated from terra most firma? Take this full-face helmet. You want to ride to an overlook, crack a beer and chill for the afternoon? I know a spot you’ll love.
What I’ve come to see most of all is that if the riding you are doing satisfies you, there’s no need to change. But if you have an itch for something fresh, the world of bikes is there to open.
If you value independent media, please lend your support to RKP.
To learn more about our new subscription program, please read this.