Three days into a three-week tour I had my first moment of reckoning. I was on a Western Montana highway with mountains to my right and little other than blacktop before me. This was my first big chance to go deep on the thing I loved doing—riding my bike. However, as I was buffeted by the backwash from a passing semi, I was thrust upon the spiky end of a realization.

There were hundreds of miles between each of my big destinations. I was going to be pedaling a long damn time.

Going for a ride had always meant getting on my bike and heading to some destination; home, my apartment, work. A bike ride started in a familiar place, went someplace interesting and then returned to a familiar place. To this point in my life those adventures had been contained within a single arc of the sun. But now I was confronting the idea that I wouldn’t reach either the end of an adventure or my destination before the sun set.

I didn’t appreciate that I’d put myself to a kind of test. For days, I would wake, break camp, and then spend the day riding, only to arrive at another campground, with my destination closer only in my intellect. To my eye, I was still nowhere.

I was going to find out just how much I liked riding a bike.  But what is riding a bike? Is it the going someplace? Is it what you see on a ride? Is it the fun you had in riding the particular terrain?

That question eluded me, didn’t compute. I didn’t know enough to ask it.

When was it I finally understood that cycling is the act of pedaling a bicycle and pointing it in a direction, no more, and certainly not less?

It was a day in France, on an Alpine climb longer than many movies when I began to understand. I looked down at my legs and watch the circles my knees traced, my feet going round and round with the pedals.

This is what cycling is.

To say I like the rhythm, to say I enjoy the motion is to miss the point. What I didn’t understand even then was that cycling brings peace, and peace is essential to the human spirit.

It would be years more before I understood that what kept me climbing on the saddle wasn’t the thrill of cycling; most rides aren’t that thrilling. If my reason to ride was for the rush of flow, I’d have quit cycling years ago. I don’t, can’t, encounter flow each ride; those moments of magic can’t even be planned for like an anticipated vacation.

When facing the dilemmas of parenthood, the angst of modern life, the eternal quest for love, I get on the bike. It removes me just enough from those concerns that I can see them more clearly and without the emotion that can tilt me away from empathy. The lesson of the bike is that the peace it brings me comes after I disconnect, that only after disconnecting can I reconnect.

All the while, my legs turn, and they turn, turn they must.

It is fitting that to ride a bike, one must be balanced over it; it is the perfect metaphor for what happens inside. In centering ourselves on the bike, it centers us.

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  1. Neil Winkelmann

    Great read.

    On a motorcycle tour from Santiago to Patagonia in a past life, we encountered loaded-touring cyclists on the Argentinean pampas. 200 miles of straight, featureless and flat road, with the Andes forming a distant and continuous frame to the right. The road itself was paved with loose golf balls, baseballs and the occasional bowling ball, and caressed by a brutal and unrelenting and sidewind that had us leaning 30 degrees, even on heavy motorbikes. I contemplated the experience of those cyclists. As best I could tell, they were on this stretch for 3 or 4 days, each campsite essentially the same as the last – a rough patch of dirt and grass selected by exhaustion. Each days’ riding the same as yesterday. And tomorrow. We cleaned this section in an afternoon on our KTMs, but secretly, I wanted to be those guys.

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