I try to keep things simple. I ride my bike, and I write about it. That seems to be the one and only “technique” that works for me, and when I’m true to it, it’s true to me.
The problem comes when the motivation to ride everyday wanes, when getting out the door requires more mental calculus than my tax forms. That’s where I’ve been lately. Unlike past winters when I’ve ridden into the teeth of the wind, smiled, spit and rolled on, I’m finding it cold this year. My hands hurt. Rides aren’t leaving me satisfied and inspired. They’re leaving me trashed and tired, ragged and spent.
And the harder it gets, the worse is my rider’s block, the harder it is to get out the door. I am only really commuting now. Every other week or so the guys from the office drag me out for a trail ride, but I’m forcing myself. Even with a new bike, I’m forcing myself.
Fortunately, I’ve been this way before, and I have faith in the bike and faith in the process of riding and writing, and riding and writing, over and over until I’ve crossed all the invisible finish lines and rolled out of all the imaginary start houses and climbed all the unrated climbs and arrived at all the destinations that weren’t the point, because it’s the journey, right? Always the journey. Keep riding. Don’t stop. Find the rhythm.
Is it working? I’m riding everyday, or awfully close to it, and I’m still writing. I’m just not in that beautiful unconscious place you get to when you’re fit and motivated and every hill is a dragon to be slain and every ride is a deposit in that Swiss bank account in your soul. I’m faking it to make it. I’m muscling through, instead of finessing it.
In the past, when I’ve had conventional writer’s block, I’ve employed this basic method. Keep writing, or perhaps more importantly, keep reading. Find the inspiration. Write through all your bad ideas. Go back. Revise them. Make them worse. Start over. Put them in an envelope. Seal it. Light a match. Move on.
What I can’t figure is, the weather has been kind to me. It’s mid-January and we’ve had a dusting of snow. That’s it. The cold hasn’t even been very cold. Al Gore’s got his thumb on the thermostat, I guess. The conditions are right for success.
I must be one hard road ride away from salvation. Or maybe one day of trail flow, stump hurtling, switchback slaloming flow. Or maybe, just maybe, a few hours of wrenching will put me right.
I’ve done the hardest part. I’ve identified the problem. That allows me to accept ride invitations despite serious misgivings. That allows me to get out of bed before dawn and pull up the bib straps. Ride the bike and write about it. Keep it simple. Ride.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
At our core, we are believers. To be a cyclist is to know the way the world goes wrong. Flatted tires, lost skin, sudden showers, nervous groups, malicious drivers, there is an ever-growing list of risks you can claim as intimate. Each threat is a variable you plug into the risk calculus that might tick out, “Stay at home.”
It’s not as if we forget. But the doing gives us little time to think. At the top of a descent we might suggest to others or ourselves to be careful as we drop. But on descent we shift from awareness to is, evaluating only the line itself, not how things could go wrong. Little else can make us as nervous as thinking about a touch of wheels transforming the pack into yard sale. Funny how safety isn’t awareness of the thing itself, but rather awareness of the shifting electron cloud of wheels. It’s the is that is.
Of all the activities we regularly undertake, the one requiring the greatest physical skill is arguably pack riding. Race or not, 80 warm bodies occupying the same amount of space as a nightclub—only moving at 30 mph—takes trust to the point of absurd; to non-cyclists, we might as well profess a belief in the Great Pumpkin. We trust those around us to maintain their line, to accelerate on schedule, to brake no sooner or harder than utterly necessary. And given that unlike a freeway, anyone can show up for a ride without so much as a test, we’re putting our trust in the unproven in a way we wouldn’t accept among cars and drivers, even with the addition of airbags.
But no amount of awareness can prevent all accidents. Sooner or later we all go down. That’s not the mystery. This is: We persist. The recovery is ugly. From bandages to range of motion, it is work as true as the training itself. It lacks the cool of riding—no team gear, no screaming crowds, no finish line—which is why in its solitude, recovery is totally PRO.
Honestly, statistics are no match for the fear that moulders. Those spores can poison more than just one ride or one road. The saddle itself can become a minefield leading us to washouts, flats and T-bones that never materialize. To get back on the bike we must make a mental leap—everything will be fine.
Sooner or later we throw a leg back over the saddle. Maybe we ride alone at first. Maybe left turns feel trickier than right. Maybe we pick back roads for a week or two. But that timid heart gives way to our old self and we head back to the group. We continue to believe that the rides and races go well more often than not, that the good days outnumber and overwhelm the bad.
But our faith is greater than knowing most days turn out well. Faith is the knowledge that all of the days—good, bad and dripping—add up to something more, a meaning, one we’re left to make sense of on our own. That answer gives the sunniest days a luster, the darkest days warmth and our final days a reassurance that we played with all our heart.
When I think about descending and what is required to go downhill with the abandon of a pinball, what I think about are the turns, not the straights. Once the road arcs with the lazy bend of a river descending becomes little more than an equation involving mass and gradient. The heavier the rider, the greater the speed. Full stop.
But there’s a point at which gradient, turn radius and the distance between turns levels the playing field and descending shifts from a gravity calculation to a matter of introspection. How we enter a corner is determined by our understanding of the road surface, the shape of the turn, our speed, our bike’s ability to respond to input—and more—and we sum up the conditions in the blink of an eye. All this, to decide if, when and how hard we should brake.
So at a certain point our ability to descend becomes a measure of our right brain’s ability to turn these disparate factors into a kind of art. Think of it as a cyclist’s response to the succulent curves of a Ferrari California. There is geometry enough to describe every swell, every arc, every contour, but the numbers miss the point, don’t they? The fastest line down a road has a certain art and it can only be appreciated in its whole.
I live in a city consisting of more millions than there are eggs in a carton, so I’m constantly meeting new people. Inevitably, it comes out that I’m a cyclist. Next question: “Where do you like to ride?”
I’m as unable to contain my enthusiasm for riding in Malibu as the average dog is to go on a walk. I all but wag my tail as I jabber about the views, the twists, the speed, the suffering.
“Oh, so you’re a risk taker.”
And just as inevitably, I’m on the defensive, differentiating what I and my friends do from BASE jumping and big wave surfing and all other manner of dare devilry. To me there is a central difference. I won’t enter a turn at a speed that I don’t have every confidence will allow me to exit said turn intact. I don’t personally know any riders who do.
While I don’t think it is possible to break descending down into discrete steps the way you might team someone to build a wheel, in my mind, there is a hard line I never cross: the line that separates what I know my bike can do from the unknown.
There’s something deeply spiritual and ethical about taking a turn at high speed, but a speed that you know with confidence will allow you to complete the turn. It’s a form of faith. Sure, things can go wrong; you can run over an unseen piece of glass, encounter an oil slick or have a brain fade that sees you ride off the shoulder, but the point of the effort is to assess the known conditions and then reduce your presence there to the briefest possible span. The burglar’s alter ego, if you will.
A high-speed turn can define a certain sense of faith, one informed by reason. It’s the same act of faith that leads many of us to treat our fellow man with consideration, to go to church, to obey the 10 Commandments. We view these acts as the wisest choice for a peaceful existence now and in the afterlife.
Entering a switchback at freeway speeds is a bit like hoping God will help you win the lottery, or that he’s really, really forgiving.
The ethical dimension is a question of responsibility, of impact. Every time a rider goes down, the crash ripples through the community. The first impact of course is to the injured rider. The second are the riders in his company who must tend to him; their ride will be marred, perhaps cut short and certainly disturbed by what they saw. There are the emergency workers who may be called upon should the injuries require it. There’s the news through the local community: local residents who saw the hullabaloo and area riders who hear about the crash through friends. It makes folks question the sanity of cyclists.
We speak of reducing our carbon footprint, but the footprint left by an accident takes a psychological toll on many and can be largely eliminated with a touch of the brakes. But that begs different questions: How much braking is necessary? What does it mean to ride your brakes down a descent?
Aside from the obvious hazard that comes from heating the rims with excessive braking, riding the brakes indicates a lack of faith, faith in one’s own ability to read the road and conditions, faith in the bike’s inherent ability to carve through a course of your choosing, even faith that at speed you have not abdicated all control.
Faith isn’t defined by maintaining micro-control, nor by hoping for the best in a foolhardy rush. Paradoxically, it lies between the two, in a state where not every inch of road is known and yet shy of that point beyond our ability.
It is within that window bounded by a fear of loss of control on one side and a disregard for ourselves and the future that we find true faith, a point where skill allows us grace in our liquid movement through the world.