It’s a simple question: How strong can I be? When I began racing, that was the question. How fast would I be able to pedal a bicycle? With discipline, proper diet and rest and plenty of training, I knew I would become more fit, go more fast. Just what that entailed was a thing I had no picture of. I might as well have been a blind man battling Godzilla.

It’s a simple question: What does fast require? First, I had to start riding six days a week, not two. Then I had to eat more protein, which was work for my lazy vegetarian ethic. And then I had to get more sleep and rise early, both of which didn’t fit with my former rock musician lifestyle. I liked to think myself a morning lark, but only because I stayed up all night.

It’s a simple question: What is discipline? I had no idea. My career in the arts was about endurance, not dedication. I chased the rabbit with everything until I dropped. Setting an alarm clock, getting to bed at a regular time, being deliberate in my meal planning. I was suddenly living the regimented life to which my father didn’t think me capable.

There was only one answer: I had to learn. I learned more than I could have anticipated and those many changes, plus others that came in the wake of my newfound aestheticism, taught me lessons about myself that I might never have encountered otherwise. Among them? I like suffering. I like the feeling of muscles straining at the upper limit of my aerobic range. I like going so hard I nearly black out. I also like structure, routines so rehearsed I don’t have to think about the next step so that I can operate on autopilot while the rest of me thinks about anything else—everything else—all of which can be lumped under the heading of the business of being a writer.

There came a point when I realized that I was fast by some not-quite absolute measure. Certainly not fast by pro standards, but to the rest of the world, I was the Great White Shark of bicycle riders: all business of legs and lungs and a desire to eat whatever was in my wake.

There came the season where more discipline and more training broke me. The backhoe of a training plan I was working from dug, dug, dug and my fitness went south, south, south. I concluded I’d hit my apogee of fitness and the best I could hope for was to grapple back some of what was lost that season.

I figured I’d identified the one and only ambition there was for me within cycling. Oh, to find out how wrong I was. I began to work on technical skills, like descending. When I returned to mountain biking there was the ever-present need to shift my weight—forward, up, back, down, over.

Imagine my surprise when I began riding terrain rockier than any I’d encountered before and realizing I not only needed to read a trail left-to-right, but up and down as well. I needed to read in three dimensions, because over was often faster than around.

The greatest surprise was to recognize an ambition because of cycling that had nothing to do with cycling, but everything to do with what cycling had taught me.

I still want to be stronger, but physical strength will only take you so far. What did discipline teach me? Initially, it may have taught me an important lesson about how to be faster, but to see discipline only through that narrow lens is a bit like being a fan of The Beatles and only knowing the album Rubber Soul. There’s a good deal more to what discipline offers than being able to train better.

What I couldn’t articulate to myself until recently, what I’ve long sought, is to be stronger in my mind. To be more disciplined in my thinking, more resistant to negative forces, better able to use my gifts. Even so, bike racing can be credited with teaching me some helpful lessons: pain is temporary. Everything is finite. Luck is a thing, but hard work generates luck.

There was one other lesson that bike racing taught me that matters more now than ever before, which is to say, I didn’t even know I’d learned the lesson until I needed to recognize what I’d learned. The value in being strong is sometimes realized not in my own victory, but in the way I lend my strength to others. Sure, I can offer my draft to another rider, but I can also show the best line through a turn, or ride alongside and simply listen.

I was an adult a long time before I realized that strength can be measured not by how fast I am or how much weight I can lift, but by my ability to be there for another person.


Image: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal

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  1. TomInAlbany

    “I was an adult a long time before I realized that strength can be measured not by how fast I am or how much weight I can lift, but by my ability to be there for another person.”

    Honestly, I think that’s a measure of being an adult. Sadly, some never get here and, also sadly, all of us forget this from time to time.

    Great essay, Patrick.

    1. Author

      Thanks much. That was a pretty major epiphany for me, and to be perfectly honest, it only came a few weeks ago as I was working on drafting this piece. I might have known that in my bones, but I wasn’t able to articulate it until now.

  2. Austin McInerny

    Well said! I couldn’t agree more with you. Having just received a phone call from a past student who thanked me for my recommendation letter that helped him secure a position on a pro cycling squad, I feel deep gratitude and stoke that far exceed the emotion of winning a race (which I have only experienced a couple times).

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