The truest thing I can tell you about cycling is that suffering is inescapable. Not that cycling is a prison sentence devoid of enjoyment, but that to participate in cycling is to know suffering the way you know the quirks of your mother. Pedaling a bicycle is at once a joy, an opportunity to reunite with childhood fun, to kiss youth square on the lips and feel the wind rush over your body with the electric thrill of love, and yet it is also work in its truest sense. Each pedal stroke is energy expended, as quantifiable by watts as the rating of the light bulb in your bedside lamp. Competitive cyclists are as number-obsessed as baseball statisticians and in training they quantify the cumulative effect of each pedal stroke. No one stone is crucial to the great pyramid at Giza, but those millions of stones added together and arranged make up a stunning statement of human achievement. So it is with us. The difference in fitness between the typical couch potato and a professional cyclist is as profound as comparing a dog house to the Giza pyramid.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to view someone riding a bicycle and not think, “That looks like terrific fun.” It is, isn’t it? The fun seduces you, the come hither look found in the beauty of the machine, the instant acceleration, the liberated rush of tires on pavement, the pull of gravity as you dive into a turn. Show me a person who isn’t seduced by that and I’ll show you someone who shies from the world.
When I bought my first quality road bike, the urge was based on muscle memory, no more. I needed nothing else, in fact. When I walked in the bike shop the day I made up my mind to buy a bike, my personal hard drive was playing back memories of previous bike rides. There was the two-mile jaunt the previous winter on a friend’s bike. The one a year before up and down the block on a friend’s cruiser. Both those experiences brought back my childhood riding, first on a kid’s bike, then later on a department store 10-speed. Each time, as I got off the bike I held a question:
Why did I stop doing this?
It sounds trite to say I felt alive, but that is an utterly true expression. The experience so took me out of my ordinary day the sense was as if the world had been given a new coat of paint. I was living in a black and white world and the bike switched it to Technicolor. Boom!
Once I found a bike I began riding it everywhere. I was living in Memphis, Tennessee, a reasonably flat place and given time, anyone who wasn’t a cardiac patient could pedal from one end of town to the other, despite the massive suburban sprawl. When I was a teen my parents elicited a promise from me that I wouldn’t ride further than my neighborhood, an area of indeterminate size whose bounds I constantly tested.
Of course, this resulted in sit-downs with my parents in which they would tell me they or other parents had seen me orbiting Mars when I was forbidden beyond the moon. I champed and snorted at my bit, so when I purchased my bike as a college student, my sense of unrestricted freedom wound me giddy.
I pedaled with the enthusiasm of a puppy greeting its master. In minutes my T-shirt and jeans clung to me with sweat. I rode and rode with no destination or purpose, pedaling by landmarks of my life: the music store I had worked, a club my band played, the home of a friend, a favorite bar.
I don’t recall feeling fatigue. I don’t recall suffering.
What I do recall is that at some point I realized I should head home. Two miles from my dorm as I rolled in the gutter of a busy street my rear tire flatted. I picked up a framing nail, a huge specimen that seemed too gargantuan to have pierced my tire, but there it was, straight in through the tread and out the sidewall. I anticipated this the way the government saw the housing meltdown coming—not at all.
I pulled the nail out and began walking back to the dorm. There was a lot I needed to learn. The next day I bought a tire, tube and tire lever. The shop let me use their floor pump. I was back on the road.
I began riding everywhere. To class. To friends’ apartments. To beer busts. My parents’ home.
Everywhere I went, I rode flat-out. I had no idea what pacing was. All I knew was to get on the bike and ride as hard as I could, except through the middle of campus. But out on city streets, I never thought about which roads might be safer, which might offer a prettier route. I thought about destinations as opposed to the journey and I rode as if I was driving my car. I chose direct routes and I went as fast as my legs could turn a big gear.
Summer in Memphis is inhumane. The Swede who invented the sauna wouldn’t have done so had he spent a summer in the mid-South. Venture outside at noon and within a minute you’ll break a sweat. Undertaking aerobic activity between sunrise and set is something exercise physiologists file under “ill-advised.”
Despite heat that reached three digits and humidity that was complete, I rode. I’d arrive at destinations dripping like a cold beer on a picnic table. My shorts chafed me and sores convinced me there must be something to padded bike shorts.
Cycling shorts cut down on one form of suffering, but in increasing my comfort, they emboldened me, setting me up for a bigger demonstration of what suffering is.
One Sunday, with little else to do, I took off on a bike ride. I wanted to do 50 miles. I had heard the guys at the shop say that they would do 50-mile rides to Shelby Forest and back. Of my route I remember almost nothing, but I do recall getting on a four-lane divided highway on the outskirts of town and riding at 21, 22 mph for miles.
I had no idea there was a tailwind.
The highway eventually ended; it was still under construction. I decided to make a U-turn instead of going left toward the Navy base; I’d already been yelled at a few times by guys with unusually short hair cuts. I crossed over and headed for the shoulder lane when the breeze caught me. I felt like I’d just been chest-checked by a bouncer.
I fidgeted on the saddle. I shifted forward, back, then put my hands in the drops to get my shoulders down and my back flat. I emptied my water bottle. Rolling hills offered no solace. I caught wind on the downhills that slowed me and the uphills never ended; as I’d crest a hill, the wind would catch me again and the speed on my computer wouldn’t rise a single mile per hour.
This was suffering. Somewhere in the last ten miles I lost track of fun and cycling morphed into torture. What was I doing? I could be playing video games!
After more than a half hour of struggling on that road I made it back to the edge of town. I turned right and headed for a 7-Eleven a few blocks away. From the bag on my rack I pulled a fiver and purchased the largest chilled Gatorade they had and a banana that was so bruised it resembled a cheetah. The Gatorade tasted as sweet as soda, a detail I would learn months later indicated that I was seriously dehydrated. I was a desiccant. My body was so starved for fluid I was barely perspiring. A massive white crust decorated my T-shirt and shorts.
I was just as short on calories. This was my first bonk and what I didn’t know was that it would be a doozy.
More than an hour later I made it back to my dorm and when I stepped into the shower, the muscles in my legs quivered like those of a new-born fawn. I braced my feet against one wall of the tiny stall and leaned against the other with my knees locked. Hot water cascaded down me. Time stopped.
I played the ride over in my head. The memory allotted one exclamation point, and it wasn’t the trip back on the highway, it was the ride on the way out. I churned the big chainring on my bike and kept my pace above 20 miles per hour for the longest single stretch I’d ever ridden. The euphoria of riding that fast for that long held a transformative power, making the whole of the ride worth more and reduced the suffering of that return leg to a quarter stuffed in a parking meter—just a small price to pay.
Originally published in Peloton Magazine.
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