Red light. My brakes howl, openly challenging my timidity. Right foot down as the bike stops. Penned up cars and trucks inches from my front wheel tremble and roar, waiting to pounce. The light remains red. I could sit and bask in it, feeling the cool dampness of the light rain along the river. I wait. And wait.
Right foot clicks back into the pedal before I realize it and I’m inching into the intersection. Red light then turns green without preview. My brain picks up the snort and growl from a lurching pickup on my left and I am through the intersection with a primal burst of speed that carries me to safety before I am cognizant of the danger.
It was a moment when one foot could be measured by an eternity. An instant after which all riding could reasonably stop.
These reminders of how fragile our bikes and bodies are can come during the most mundane trips to the grocery store or an evening trek across towns to hear new stories from an old friend. They force reflection of the most serious kind about what we mean to our families and friends, and what we ought to expect from our own short lives.
There is nothing so spirit-crushing as the fear of a big snarling beast being within a few inches of causing you great harm. It carves out a void in your gut that takes hours to fill. Recent articles and op-eds in The New York Times, among other publications, have driven this home to our loved ones. They have plenty of ammunition should they decide to ambush us with cycling’s dangers as we don a colorfully clownish array of kit in the early morning hours.
What defense is there? As cyclists we have come to understand awful things. We know bad things happen to good people, even the best and most responsible of us.
Yet we believe something else, and it is beautiful. Each of those hulking machines, so at odds with the freedom of pedaling our confines away, is a reminder that we control far less in our lives than we think we do. Their ability to rob us of our very breath is also what gives life to something as potentially mundane as riding a bike.
Every one of us has the potential for their world to change for the worse in an instant. Diagnosis. Betrayal. Loss. It’s just that most people we see on the road in our daily lives do not realize it. They are alongside us, in a sense, yet they cannot see what we see, or feel what we feel. What we have is an understanding that to live a life fully means accepting a lack of control.
What enriches us and our loved ones should define us, not what we fear. In that light, each day, and each ride, becomes a gift. Such freedom also means accepting great responsibility and weight, perhaps more than some of us are capable of.
Consider the opposite, a life of emotional and physical paralysis that comes from the imprisonment of the false certainty of the overconfident and the fearful. Such an existence is made up of defeat and surrender.
There is no room for riding in that world. There is no room for bikes at all.
“I saw my dream bike today.”
How many of us have said that? How many of us say it a couple times a year? For some of us it is a mantra.
It was my 7-year old daughter who uttered those words, without reservation, to my wife following her first trip to the bike shop to buy new handgrips for her 20-inch wheeled bike.
“You sound just like your father,” said my wife. Of course. I am a cyclist.
The object of my daughter’s desire was a 24-inch bike. It had a single chainring up front and a derailleur in the back – technological progress from her singlespeed. The color was a blue-grey fade, which gave it a look of joyful utility rather than a bike matched to the one-legged Barbie doll that haunts our mud room. Her dream bike had a simple steel fork, like her current bike. The tires were semi-slick and promised to reward effort with speed. Most importantly, it is bigger. That is the foundation of what a child asks of cycling: A smile.
For adults, it is more complicated. More so that it is dream-bike season. Eurobike’s siren song calls to us after we resurface into regular life after giving a month to the Tour de France. This is a moment when we ought to be bound to our bicycles with Velox rim tape so that we are not allowed to lose precious hours sitting in front of a screen staring at the bikes we should be out riding.
Now that my life affords less and less time for as much riding as I desire, I dream of really nice bikes more and more often. The carbon Santa Cruz Highball. A steel Seven Mudhoney. The Cervelo R5. Think of the 50-mile races in Vermont! The beer hand-ups! Riding L’Etape du Tour! The happy binds of daily life make these visions, often coming as I am trying to fall asleep, that much more of an escape.
My dream bikes change with my mood or my outlook on the day. It’s been this way for a long time. Before I could drive, I dreamt of owning rally cars like Audi’s ’84 Coupe Quattro. When I got around to buying my first car, it lacked all-wheel drive, race heritage or a turbocharger’s feral hiss. Instead it had roll-up windows and manual locks and barely enough horsepower to make it through Colorado’s Eisenhower Tunnel. Reliability, not rally nous, won the day. Twelve years later it is still driven daily.
Though the bicycle industry is working towards a one-bike quiver, a machine capable of keeping up with a 25 m.p.h. paceline one day and bombing a rutted gravel descent with the surefootedness that only comes from hydraulic disc brakes and fat rubber. This means it’s a great moment for looking inward at not just what you want to buy, but why. I don’t want a bike like my Honda Accord. I want one like the Coupe Quattro that I never owned – or even drove.
If you could only have one bike would it be a multifaceted machine capable of, literally, any wheeled adventure you dream up? That is what Eurobike appears to be offering up as a preview of next year’s bikes. Or would it be a purpose-built machine with a soul that comes from a singularity of design and intent?
I can speak to the merits of both. I had a jack-of all trades Bridgestone X0-2 that once spent a night in the hands of Corsican thieves. After years of hard duty in West Philadelphia, it retired to a sedate life out back of a friend’s condo backyard in Palo Alto, nestled next to a hot tub. My Redline Conquest Pro, a cyclocross race machine that today looks like it might give me a tetanus infection if I botch a dismount, time and time again continues to free me from writer’s block. It was bought in the weeks following 9/11.
My daughter has yet to think about these questions. We want bikes as complicated as our lives. She wants one as simple as hers. She never asks who designed her bike, or if the tubing is butted, or if she should be on disc brakes next season. She rides her bike because it makes her smile. That is its most important feature.
I also know if she sticks with cycling like I hope she will, someday she too will be thinking of her dream bike. With the way our society is advancing, and bike technology with it, that dream bike may well be her very first one.
Six years ago the iPhone emerged onstage with the late Steve Jobs, a totem for those who believe in the transformational power of personal technology. It was a turning point that opened people up to giving technology a truly intimate role in their lives.
New pitfalls appeared on the path to enlightenment. There are many who spend more time staring into the glass screen of an iPhone than into the eyes of their children. Among cyclists, a sweatier narcissism can be found in the longing gaze at a Strava segment on a tiny screen.
Fortunately, cycling already had its iPhone moment. It was more than a century ago with the adoption of the “safety bicycle” as the high-wheel design phased out. With that perspective, we need not worry about being left behind technologically even if it feels like the sport’s essence is slipping from our hands.
The rider’s role remains essential, whether dashing in the dark to the store for a pint of half-and-half or carrying a sponsors millions on their shoulders at more than 50 kilometers an hour across the Arenberg’s cobbles. While driverless cars offer a rolling sanctuary for those burdened with an excruciating commute, a bike that steered and propelled itself risks being an abomination. If anything, driverless cars may make bikes the most exciting vehicles on the road.
The best wheelsets are lighter and more aerodynamic than ever. They are unmistakable for what they are, no matter the price tag, no matter the spoke count or the braking-surface material.
As for the rest of the machine, some perspective is in order. There are wonderful technological changes taking place in but whether they are revolutionary is an individual opinion. Much of it is about measurement, such as GPS bike computers replacing the Avocet two-button devices that are the equivalent of the cellular brick-phone.
For sure there are energetic debates over whether disc brakes have a place on road bikes, or even what size rotors are best. Electronic shifting sees cyclists choose sides quicker than Yankees and Mets fans. These back-and-forth are often so heartfelt because they are, in fact, fights over very small stakes. They also take place mostly online. Once on the road, it matters so much less if your rear cassette has 9, 10 or 11 cogs. Or if a servo changed gears for you or a disc rotor slowed your carving descent.
None of this enhances the feel the wind on your cheek. Or richens the laughter of a good friend. Or deepens the fatigue and gratitude of a hard ride.
We can mount more and more electronics on our bikes but cycling’s spirit is rooted in its analog years. Steel’s resurgence as a frame material is testament to this. It is a wonderfully defiant response to disposability and impermanence – twin curses of our age. These hand built frames are surely lighter and more refined than those ridden a century ago but their lineage is unmistakable. Like the hum of a ferrous railroad track ahead of a speeding train’s arrival, a similar energy is found in the muscular flex of a bottom bracket or the delightful ping of a stone ricocheting off a downtube. The Tour de France’s centennial this summer is a beautiful reminder of the sport’s continuity that is inherent in every steel bike even if the current generation of cycling icons may never have ridden the material.
The most memorable bikes are often our first. They were ridden with abandon before we learned to bind ourselves in straps to monitor our hearts and regard small screens with devotion instead of the horizon before us. These bikes were heavy, flexy and often cheap. Batteries had no role in our joy. In their imperfection was their attraction. Feeling, not knowledge, defined our riding.
Our current bikes are the product of rational and informed choices, even if they cost more than half a year’s rent or a first car. The latest are stirring designs made from a supply of quality carbon fiber that Cold War fighter engineers would have sold their children for. They are adorned with wireless sensors and GPS navigation that the bicycle-making Wright Brothers would have put to good use — just not on the ground.
The best innovators like Steve Jobs understand innovation is less about technology than it is about discovering new ways to enhance a shared human experience.
Cyclists have known that all along.
We love cycling for the transformative suffering on display ascending amid the majestic ski stations in France. The searing, soul-stealing pain that surely marks each lap of the track during a 60-minute bid for glory occupies a different place in our consciousness. This hour-long contest is the essence of man’s competition against himself.
For many of us, our hardest hour is not on the bike.
It is a dark place we know better than we think even if we will never, ever wind up a 54×14 on a velodrome with a shot at fame.
The hardest hour started minutes ago when you should have gone to bed.
Instead you’re reading this essay. Or sitting on the couch with someone warm and loving. Drinking Scotch with a television on.
The hardest hour kicks off around 10 p.m., without fanfare or a starting gun, when you know you should go to bed in order to rest tired legs and weary eyes.
Getting an extra hour of sleep for an entire week is akin to an extra night for most of us. Maybe more. Some cyclists pay hundreds of dollars a year to ensure they are topped up on electrolytes and the right kinds of sugars all in order to get a performance edge over their friends on a group ride. That pales in comparison to the edge an extra hour of sleep gives you.
The hardest hour begins at 5:00 a.m. when against all odds you awoke at 4:55 and turned off the alarm five minutes away from your reckoning. The tender nudge from a warm leg was all it took.
The hardest hour almost kept you from driving to go for a ride with a friend you haven’t talked with face to face in over a year. Or was it two years? Three? Is an hour to drive for each year of absence really too much? All it took was a few white-knuckle, 53×12-powered descents to be back at the elemental togetherness that transcends separation and defines true camaraderie.
You push. You fight. Our hardest hours are seeded with what writer Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance,” a slow leeching of the sack of poison that we all carry inside. That we have the bike means we’ve stitched it up as best we can. Pity those whose veins run thick with it. You at least know you have the tools to overcome.
We can also use the preparation and execution of an hour record as a window into the professional’s life. What amateurs don’t see is that every day of a professional’s life is made up of a progression of hard hours. They chain them together like cigarettes. For a professional cyclist, worth is accounted for by the watt, nourishment is measured to the gram, love is meted out by the minute and recovery is scheduled to the hour.
For the rest of us, the true measure of our success and failure is revealed by our performance during the hardest hour.
What is your hardest hour?
Sometimes we ride for community. Sometimes we ride to escape.
Our kids ride out of love and wonder.
After a day spent cheering the Boston Marathon’s athletes at mile 16 with friends, we returned home to our quiet street in our neighborhood well outside the city.
“Ride bikes?” said my three-year-old daughter, hopped up on enough orange slices, potato chips and fruit juice to tackle the Cauberg.
What kind of cycling parent can say no, particularly to a girl who the day before began riding a bike without training wheels? I’ve stood watch over her older sister riding in front of our house during the middle of winter, harping about slippery ice and slippery road grit. And still she would ride until her fingers ached and turned red.
“Of course!” I said.
The car wasn’t even unloaded before she was being launched down the road. One moment my hand was firmly on the cheap white vinyl of her princess bike’s seat. The next I feel that distinct loss of contact as she is on her own.
This was one of the best weekends of my life. It was also one of the worst.
A few minutes later our neighbor across the street quietly mentioned there were two explosions downtown near the marathon’s finish line.
My thoughts raced to our friends who should be finishing right at that moment. I contrived to dash inside to check in with my wife, and then helped my 3-year old get back on her bike.
Up and down the street she rode, me a step behind. The steady tattoo of my footfalls betrayed my anxiety. I ran ready to pounce in order to protect her from her own inattention or a careless driver or a curb. I know there is so much I can’t protect either of my girls from, no matter how well they learn to ride their bikes. We can’t protect our friends either.
My oldest daughter and I spent the weekend practicing leaving skid marks on the dirt path along the Charles River. She can handle her bike. But can I handle her world?
There is a particular nausea when listening to your first-grade daughter recount her first lockdown drill at grade school. Legs pressed to her chest, nose buried between her knees, all on display at the dining room table as she unconsciously recreated the posture that I know could be a final position.
She recounts the boys who didn’t listen and the teacher who secured the classroom door while the local police involved in the drill rattled the handle to see if it could offer protection against the unspeakable.
In the coming days many of us will turn to our bikes for solace, for comfort and for strength. Ride together. Ride with your kids and let their joy, as they bat away stray hair with one hand and confidently hold the handlebar with the other, steel your nerves and warm your heart.
They say you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes. I say you can tell a lot about a cyclist by their tires. When I worked in Washington, D.C., if you met someone wearing glossy ebony dress shoes and an over-sized Timex running watch with a nice suit, they almost certainly spent some serious time in the military.
Likewise, when you’re out on the road this spring and your eye catches the green stripe of a plump Vittoria tubular and a supple big-ring cadence, that rider is someone you don’t want to half-wheel. You want to follow. If you can.
An inch-wide tubular painstakingly glued on a carbon rim symbolizes all that is wonderful about a sport endlessly grappling with its origins and its future. That is why this combination of past and present will be the weapon of choice during the spring racing in Belgium and France.
Bicycle frames, particularly at the high end, become more alike with each season but the tires we select reveal our individual traditions and aspirations. There is so much bound up in that tiny friction point between our Earth and our speeding bodies that fly above it. What you choose says more about you than your kit. Maybe even your frame.
Show up on a Sunday ride in April looking like a Flemish hardman? That’s cool. Got 25s? On that day anything narrower than your thumb won’t cut it even if your legs reek of embro. Equip a crit-specialist’s machine with 28s? Trouble. The good kind.
These days picking tires is like cruising the cereal aisle with a 5-year old. Everything looks delicious. The wide wheel and wide tire movement sweetens things even more, whether you’re a winter commuter, a century aficionado or a Cat 3 who gets regular pro-deals.
For my part, I count on 25mm clinchers tougher than four-day old rice.
Some of the best advice I ever received was from a mechanic at a Seattle bike shop where I worked selling bikes right around the end of high school, half my lifetime ago. I bought my first bike there with the intent of racing, a slick red Cannondale 2.8. When I asked a mechanic I liked a lot what I should do to make the bike “better,” he had two pieces of advice: Learn how to fix it and ride 25s.
That sage in the shop apron offered me a direct path to competence and comfort. I wasn’t ready for that mundane answer. It was the early 90s. Something anodized and unaffordable was the response I wanted. While I failed to become even a passable wrench even on my own gear, I did eventually start riding wider tires a couple of years later after my brain started returning my aching lower back’s persistent calls.
That’s what works for me. What works for you will also say a lot about your origins as a rider, and your future. With that in mind, maybe you should not measure a man by his tires, at least until you’ve ridden a mile, or 40, on them.