As I head out on my ride, I decide to take a route that’s not been traversed for a good year. It’s not an epic route or a long route. It has some bike path, one teeny climb, a few rollers. Little traffic. Little spectacular scenery. But pleasant all around, and just the right mileage for the day’s needs: AT intervals and clearing out the cobwebs in my head.
I start pedaling.
As I hit the bike path that leaves town for my warm up, I’m reminded of what spun through my mind the last time I saw this particular view. The problems of then seem insignificant when compared to the problems of now. Why was I so worried? Yesterday feels like a pebble, today feels like a boulder.
The path ends. I turn left onto the road, and begin my first effort.
In the middle of my effort, the one amazing view the route has to offer greets me. A vista of rolling hills, which are now golden in the California October. I recall what they look like when dressed in February’s emerald green. By default, I also recall what was going on in my life the first time I saw them in such a state and realized that the West coast is the polar opposite of the East Coast in winter. Another perspective offered up from another ride.
I continue on, and recover by spinning up a little hill.
It feels alarmingly easy. There was once a time when I couldn’t climb this hill without struggling in my smallest gear. Now, I don’t even drop down to the smallest chainring. A conversation I had with my friend Greg two years ago replays in my head. I remember telling him how lucky he was to have the choice of suffering versus not suffering while ascending it. Now here I am, not suffering myself.
I descend the other side and turn left, heading back towards the start and beginning my second effort.
By now the problem-dust in my head has been swept a little. Old memories begin to clear it out as I see familiar sights. The last time I passed by this house I was piecing my way through an argument with my sister. The last time I crossed the bridge I was thrilled at the prospect of buying a home. The last time I avoided that pothole I was deciding whether or not to break up with my boyfriend.
As I ride, I suddenly feel like the needle on a wax spindle, recording in the road the grooves of my life as it stands today. I know the next time I play this particular route, the music will come flooding back, along with all the previous songs I made, creating a harmonious collage of memories.
We do this every time we get on a bike, etching into the pavement our own personal stories of time and place. We can’t help it. We ride. We think as we ride. We look at things as we think. We leave conflicts we can’t deal with in the current moment behind us, replacing them with conflicts we previously left from another ride. We see the old problems with clearer eyes. We gain both perspective and distance.
As I pull back into the parking lot, the ride over and my head significantly lighter, I know I’ve grown a little bit as a cyclist with my intervals. But I’ve also grown as a person. And to me, that is the greater win.
Cycling is almost by definition a group activity. The more people you ride with, the easier the ride becomes. You can draft, you can talk, you can challenge your companions in a sprint or help a slower friend up a hill. But sometimes it isn’t possible to pedal with others. Life, timing, plans, all of those things can put a crimp in an otherwise dialed riding agenda.
In my early days, such impediments sent me into a tailspin. To get the needed miles, I would ride twice, sometimes three times a day. Then I spoke with a friend who touted the joys of The Long Solo Ride. The ride where it’s just you and your bike and the road for five to six hours. Though skeptical, and more than a little intimidated, I decided one day to saddle up as a Lone Ranger and head out the door.
I’m so glad I did. Not because of the workout I get, or the miles I log, but because of what it’s taught me about myself as a rider.
I bore easily on roads that don’t light me up if I’m pedaling by myself. Thus, I always plan my routes carefully. If I’m looking at the map the night before and I think “meh,” then that’s a road I avoid. Sometimes, this means driving to a place I’ve never ridden before but have heard great things about, and sometimes it means revisiting old favorites that I haven’t seen in a while, family reunion style. The night before a long ride, I dream of the amazing adventure I’m going to embark upon in the morning; that’s how I know I’ve done my homework correctly.
I’m a spontaneous rider. It contradicts the above point, but I relish the ultimate freedom I have to do whatever I want. Who cares if the gameplan says Zig but I have the yen to Zag? It’s my prerogative to get crazy should the fancy overtake me.
I lose all sense of vanity, as the Long Solo Ride completely upends my super pro aesthetic. My pockets bulge with preparedness for every possible contingency. I bring food as if I will hit no stores. I bring an extra tube and a pump, even if I’m carrying CO2. I bring a patch kit. I bring my phone. I bring my ID, cash, and my medical insurance card. Upon swinging my leg over the top tube, the diameter of my body around my midsection appears to have doubled. But it only takes one error (see above) to learn the lesson the Boy Scouts teach from day one: Always Be Prepared.
Most importantly, I become zen. I detach. I try to be ready for whatever may come my way. It could be a breathtaking vista where the sun hits the trees just right. It could be a descent that finally sharpens into a perfect, apex carved focus. It might be a new friend I meet at my café stop. It might be all three, or none of the above. But because it’s a wonderful Long Solo Ride, I know it will always be something.
These are the truths I’ve learned about myself. My friend who first talked me into embarking on the journey has an entirely different set of truths. You may relate to some, all, or none. But that’s ultimately the great thing about Long Solo Rides: they take an activity usually defined by how you behave in a group, and redefine it based on how you behave in no one’s company save your own. My spontaneity? My Zen? These are parts of my personality I honestly didn’t even know existed. And I’m sure there’s even more the bike can teach me about myself in the days to come.
But first, I had to learn to give it my undivided attention.
As a latecomer to both the industry and riding at 28, I dove in during the spring of 2010 with the unbridled enthusiasm of a five year old at Disney Land. I wanted to learn everything about everything, immediately. My first lesson?
Lighter is better, carbon is lighter, therefore, carbon is better.
Cycling also turned me into a fierce competitor; someone who was obsessed with going faster and getting stronger—than other people. That was key. Going faster and getting stronger than other people. And to do that, I needed the best bike. I needed carbon.
And I did get faster, and I did get stronger, and eventually, I started to become the rider I wanted to be.
Very soon, I scored a job at an amazing bike shop in North Carolina, owned by a man renowned in the biz as The Vintage Expert. When he talked about the old racers and the old bikes, his eyes became brighter, his gestures grander. We sold carbon, but his first love was steel, and so the shop burst with his personal collection. An all original Masi Gran Criterium hung next to a 1950s Hetchins track bike that hung next to a Schwinn Paramount. I spent slow winter Tuesday afternoons studying them, honing my eye and discerning what made each one unique. I came to appreciate an even weld and a well-executed lug.
I even dabbled in vintage steel myself, scoring a beautiful red Gios with SLX tubing. I painstakingly pieced together an entire Dura Ace Black drillium grouppo for it, hubs and all. I found a Nitto Pearl stem and Sakae bars. I felt a true connection to that bike, but I still never rode it. I didn’t see the practical point, since it wouldn’t make me faster, stronger, or the rider I wanted to be. Eventually, I sold it to get money for a new carbon rig, sad at the loss but knowing it was for a greater good.
After moving to California in 2011, I found the state played the game at a whole new level. In my opinion, I had become a pretty good rider, but as soon as I saddled up on the West coast, not a single group ride went by that I wasn’t shot off the back. And so I had to up my game. I rode more and rode harder. I bought a newer, lighter carbon bike so I could benefit from every advantage and stay on track to become the rider I wanted to be.
But steel never went away. I bought a purple vintage Rossin off ebay. I loved the way it rode and preferred it to the feel of my race rig, but still treated it just a nice lark to play around with on rest days, an eccentricity. It wasn’t carbon, so how could it possibly help me be faster and stronger?
Because I was sure the carbon bike had a large part to play in my progression as the cyclist I wanted to be, and as such, I continuously looked for ways make it lighter and faster. Last year’s bike became disposable and next year’s bike became coveted in an endless cycle of discarding and wanting. It felt empty, but also necessary.
Then, my crusher friends Steve and Jason invited me on what would be my first cyclocross/road ride in the Santa Cruz mountains. I accepted, excited to be included on a ride with such strong company. Still, I felt that I needed every advantage possible, and so borrowed the lightest carbon cross rig I could for the occasion.
We started riding.
Two hours later, completely cooked, I looked up at my friends riding 10 meters in front of me, side by side, their hands resting lightly on the tops of their bars and a conversation clearly on their lips. We were one mile into the three mile Empire Grade Road, a name synonymous in that area with steep, unrelenting stair step climbs.
I looked up at their bikes, now 12 meters in front of me. Jason rode an emerald Gunnar, a bike he had for ten years and rebuilt several times, the parts a mash up of forethought and whatever he happened to have in the garage. Steve rode his all-time favorite bike, a red Rock Lobster built for him by his good friend Paul. He painstakingly chose each component, making sure the overall picture was simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. You could tell that each bike had a relationship with its rider, and you could tell that both bikes were loved.
Then I looked down at my bike. High modulus carbon, lightest of light, stiffest of stiff. But it wasn’t a bike I chose because I loved it. It was a bike I chose because I thought it would make me faster and better. Except it wasn’t. Jason and Steve rode away from me, while talking, because no bike could hide the truth: they were simply stronger riders than I.
But as their relaxed, upright backs disappeared around a switchback 15 meters ahead of me, that fact was suddenly OK. They were just enjoying their ride, and it was OK to not be as strong or as fast they were. It was OK to simply be the rider I was at that given moment, and to enjoy the ride with them.
With that realization came a sense of freedom. I could finally choose whichever bike I wanted to ride, simply because I wanted to ride it. I didn’t have to rely on a bike to try and turn me into something more, or better, of faster. I didn’t have to constantly strive to be the rider I wanted to be; being a rider was enough.
And my God, did I want to ride steel.
Today, I have two metal whips. A Caletti Cycles custom adventure road bike that will double as a cyclocross bike this fall, and the vintage Rossin. The Caletti is a light blue with black decals, and built with great attention to every detail. When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life. The Rossin is a no nonsense, what you see is what you get sort of partner. It was a solid bike when made in 1989, and it’s still a solid bike today. I built it up with a mix of modern Frankenbike components. When I ride it, I feel like it says to me, “All right, ready to play?” I always answer yes.
Some days I’m strong. Some days I’m tired. But I’m always a rider. And these are my bikes.
This morning, as I climbed up the gentle gradient to Scott’s Valley from Santa Cruz, one sentence resonated in my head:
“Krabbé’s 20 was clean as a whistle.”
It is a line from Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, which a friend lent me the week before and I subsequently devoured. The book is without question one of the most iconic narratives about riding bikes ever produced. You feel the torment he’s going through on each climb. You relate to the shortcomings in his own riding, and you experience each of his emotions as he takes you from Km 1 to Km 150. You put it down knowing at least a little of what it meant to race in Europe at the amateur level in the mid 1970s. A time when nutrition equaled fruit, hydration equaled water, and gear selection occurred cog by cog.
So when Krabbé referred to his 20, he meant the teeth in his gear ratio. As in 43/20. But he wasn’t even in his 20, he was climbing in his 43/19. Probably on a gradient of at least 6%. At race pace. He was truly suffering.
I thought about my own gear ratio on the easy, 3% ascent out of town. 34/24 probably. I wasn’t in my 28, but I was sure before the road ended it would get used. I was not suffering. Truly.
And it hit me that cycling today is infinitely easier than it used to be. And that probably sounds like the understatement of the century to some riders out there. A better way to put it is this: cycling used to be prohibitively difficult. Cassettes maybe went up to 23, compacts weren’t even a twinkle in Campagnolo’s eye, and wheel technology has come a long, long, (long) way. Because of these facts and more, riding bikes used to be inescapably agonizing.
Even if I weren’t a woman, it’s safe to say that it would have been impossible for me to enjoy the sport even 30 years ago. I’m simply not that strong on my own. To get that strong would have taken hours and hours of punishment to a degree I simply can’t bear. I love to cycle, yes, but what initially turned me on to riding? The fact that I initially was pretty good right off the bat sans pain. Modern technology, as compared to what Krabbé rode, allowed me to be pretty good right off the bat sans pain. In his day, that was nonsense. Nobody was good right off the bat sans pain, because it was an impossibility.
Upon finishing The Rider, I finally understood what the Golden Age of cycling represented: an age when every man was a hardman, and the level of passion required to even be a recreational cyclist pinnacled anything that’s needed today. The suffering of riding bikes couldn’t be separated from the act itself, so if you did ride bikes, you had to whole heartedly love said suffering. I mean, love it with every pore of your body. If you didn’t love it, you didn’t ride bikes.
Today, we cheat. We have super light bikes and super easy gearing, allowing virtually anyone to get on a bike one day and climb a mountain the next. You don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to experience discomfort in order to participate in the sport. Modern technology has given us a choice which wasn’t available in the Golden Age. You can sort of like to ride bikes and still ride them. You can take it seriously, or not seriously, as the spirit moves you.
Do I believe that my love of cycling is in some way tarnished because I side stepped that particular learning curve? Hell no. I plan my Saturdays around long rides and can’t imagine going a week without swinging my leg over the top tube. I whole heartedly love to ride my bike with every inch of my body. It’s not less than Krabbé’s love, it’s just different.
To those who feel sad about the passing of the Golden Age, I say that’s OK. Romanticizing the past is a universal human tendency. But to those who believe cycling has diminished since the Golden Age, I say open your eyes. Take a look at the wonderful diversity of the cyclists in your community. I promise you, every single person who rides has a unique story describing how and why they fell in love with the bike, full of just as much nuance as yours or Krabbé’s. Many of them have stories like mine, where cycling took away suffering instead of inflicted it. Ultimately, the power of the bicycle to relieve inner turmoil, or calm a frenzied mind, or soothe a broken heart, trumps any power it has to deliver physical pain.
And I think even Krabbé would agree.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International