The saying “it’s like riding a bike” is one of those adages that we, as cyclists, are prone to feeling pride for. It’s as if we have placed something unforgettable on an altar. The greater truth behind those words is not of body, but of brain.
Neuroscientists are learning that the way the brain is wired isn’t as we once believed—static and unchanging, like the number of floors in a skyscraper. They have learned that the brain is more like a cube farm, with paths changing, walls moving and new lighting changing the landscape in response to the life we live.
I did my first race in nine years today, my first cyclocross race in ten years. Techniques I haven’t practiced or needed in ten years came back like a light bulb flicked on in a seldom-visited basement. While I do all my braking on road bikes with my index fingers, on mountain bikes and on ‘cross bikes, I do all my braking with my middle fingers. Though that practice has lain as dormant as breaststroke, it’s no less ingrained—my middle fingers went out without a thought.
The first time I stood up to accelerate I kept my arms relatively straight and my ass back. That’s not the weight distribution I use on the road. And I favored my rear brake in turns the way I normally favor my front brake. It’s not something I thought through, I simply did.
And though I hadn’t practiced dismounts and remounts, I swung my right leg over the saddle and slid it between the frame and my left leg like I’ve been doing it once a day for a dozen years. The one moment in which I became conscious of my movement was after I landed on my saddle the second or third time. There was a brief flash of recognition that I hadn’t done that little toe bounce that so many of us do when we fear committing to our weight to an airborne approach to that saddle. I was coming down on the right side of my pelvis, keeping the delicate bits out of the landing zone.
While I knew I still knew how to ride a bike going in and that I’d manage my way through the technical aspects of riding a ‘cross course, the question mark in my head was whether I’d be able to find that old feeling again. The feeling to which I refer is the one is which you’re fully committed to the endeavor. The race becomes a sort of question.
Once posed, the question reduces the barriers, berms, run-ups, serpentine turns, curbs and other obstacles to spice. The actual meal is your fitness. Can you go hard enough that you cease to think about the obstacles and instead focus on your physical limits?
There were moments when I took stock and wasn’t really pleased at just how slow I was. Mine was an anonymous finish—which was perfectly fitting. For most of the race I was going so hard I couldn’t have told you my name.
They say an addict can’t begin to recover until he or she hits rock bottom. Read the literature. It’s full of the tales of men and women who have stared into the abyss, who’ve seen their own death writ large, in vivid color across the insides of their eyelids. Profound things happen. Human minds, roiling chemistry sets of hormone and electricity, change slowly, heal themselves, become worthy and admirable again. The word miracle gets thrown around like poker chips in a casino.
We say here at RKP that ‘to suffer is to learn.’ There is a parallel.
On the bike, we confront our limits. We push ourselves out to the edge of what we think we’re capable of, find trap doors, move on into undreamed of places. We do super human things.
What addicts do by virtue of their disease, cyclists do by their own volition. They empty themselves out and root around in their exhausted minds and bodies to see what’s left, panning for gold.
I struggled for a long time with the whole notion of spirituality. I’d never heard anyone define it in a way I could take seriously. I imagined spirits, floating and diaphanous, at the fringes of a room. I conjured religious iconography, saints with bright gold halos, garish depictions of the crucifixion. I shook my head and chuckled.
But then someone said to me, “Spirituality describes the connections you make to the world around you. You connect to your friends and family, but those connections are invisible. You can’t touch them. You can’t see them. They are spiritual.” Made sense to me. Finally.
Spiritual growth, then, is the strengthening of your connections to the people around you and the world as a whole. The stronger your spiritual connections the safer and less alone you feel. You gain mental strength. That strength may express itself as respect, considerateness, love, compassion, forgiveness, wonder, etc. I’m a cynic and skeptic by nature, but even I can buy into the value of that sort of spirituality.
My neighbor is a cyclist, until recently more of a mountain biker than a roadie. In fact, the other day he was talking about how much more he enjoys riding on the road than he’d expected to. For years, he had loved the feeling of being out in the woods, finding his rhythm on the trail, communing, as it were, with nature. He was surprised to be able to feel some of those same feelings on a skinny-tired machine, on the pavement, with a group of friends.
I told him, I think it’s about where the bike takes you. Whether your front shock is clicking and popping down a rooted section of single track or your freewheel is singing down a twisty stretch of asphalt, you are out at the edges of yourself, mind focused, senses saturated. This is our version of getting high, the absolute zenith of cycling, what my friend Padraig might call a ‘flow state.’
Buddhists have an interesting way of talking about these spiritual moments. They believe that we, as humans, draw a false line between ourselves and the world. We willfully sever the connection. And, the more we hold ourselves apart from the world, the more we suffer. The greater our connection to others and to the world around us, the greater our serenity.
The pivotal moment in recovery from addiction, that moment at which we hit bottom and see that we have to turn back, is a moment of spiritual awakening. I have been there, down the bottom of the mine shaft. It is not pretty. It is dark and terrifying.
Is this not like what we feel on the bike, when we’re in the red, when we’ve been in the red for too long. Our physical strength breaks down. We grow afraid that we can’t go on. The top? The bottom? They are just words that describe the edges of our experience. Our defenses are down. We’re too exhausted to keep them up.
And then, if we’re lucky, the line between our self and the world blurs, and we understand, if only for a moment, what’s really important.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As I sat and drained the last of my second bottle at the Mosquito Flat trailhead, the headache washed over me, reminding me of my lack of acclimation and need to drop, post-haste. Mosquito Flat is the highest elevation I’ve gained by bicycle without prior altitude acclimation. It’s as high as I’m willing to consider, which is why I never really engage friends’ invitations to do the Triple Bypass or Mt. Evans.
The descents of these mountain roads were generally something other than what I had hoped for. With few switchbacks, cars could overtake me, even when I was doing 50 mph. That was less than fun. And due to the often steep grades, it was easy to spend miles at or near 50 mph. Because I didn’t know the roads and because rock fall was common, I eased up on the speed in many places.
The most enjoyable descent of the bunch came in a surprising location. I had expected Onion Valley, with its many switchbacks, to offer the most Alpine-like descending, rock fall made the descent a greater challenge than expected. It was Lower Rock Creek where the road was clean, the turns frequent and the grade steep but not crazy steep where I most enjoyed the drop. I could do that five-mile descent on a daily basis and not get tired of it.
I keep asking myself what my takeaway from the trip has been. I went to recharge my battery. Between work for clients, editorial for peloton magazine and posts for RKP, I had composed some 50,000 words—about half a novel—in less than three months. For the first time in my professional life, I had exceeded my bandwidth and was paying for it. The time alone (my family was in New Mexico visiting friends) gave me a chance to read, stare at maps and go to bed early, all salves for my fatigued brain. But I keep returning to the thought that I should have uncovered some larger truth, larger than knowing that next time I shouldn’t pack the car until I have a compact crank installed on my bike.
Answers rarely appear like sodas at the bottom of a coin-operated machine, though questions arrive even more easily. There was a moment that haunts me, though. As I descended from South Lake there is a mile-long stretch where the gradient is nearly 9 percent. My speed, already in the 40s, climbed to a max of 52.7. That’s not the fastest I’ve gone, but something unusual happened as my bike accelerated. Somewhere in the high 40s, while I could still feel gravity pull the bike to greater speed, chills washed over me as if I’d had some intense emotional experience. I looked down at my arms and legs and could see goose bumps standing on my sweaty skin.
Research has shown that flow states and the chills are cousins, that those who are prone to experiencing chills tend to be more open to flow states. None of that explains what happened. My sense, at the time, was that I’d passed some sort of threshold, that it was some internal analog to passing the sound barrier. How or why I’ve no idea. It was a one-off experience, at least, so far.
All I’m left with is confirmation of a truth I hold to be self-evident: The mountains are a place of discovery and mystery and what comes from those encounters can never be guessed, which is why I keep returning.