Sometimes you just need a new thing. As much as I love riding bikes, I don’t stay uniformly inspired and motivated year round. I get my head down into a routine, and I work it over and over until one day I sit up and say, “Nah. I don’t feel like doing this today.” And that’s when I need a new thing.
That thing might be mountain biking. When I get tired of the swish and swirl of traffic or the bump and rattle of potholes, riding trails can be a good palate cleanser. I switch over to that for a few months, find new motivation and get excited about turning pedals again.
Maybe the new thing is a new group, either slightly faster or slightly slower. The new group rides different routes or stops at different coffee shops. You get new stories and learn new customs.
Here, at the end of the summer, I needed a new thing, and fortunately I have discovered two things in the last month that have me all excited and in love with cycling again. The first thing is that I there are a lot of very small, local trail systems that I haven’t ridden before. These range from simple paths through vacant lots to full, serpentine systems tacked onto the back of reservoirs or parkland. With a pair of 28s on my road bike, I can string these small systems together into a pretty kick ass ride, mostly traffic free. The need to focus most of my energy on bike handling distracts me from the effort I’m making and hours fly by in veritable cyclo-bliss.
A friend introduced me to this style of riding, and I spent some time trying to memorize all the quick lefts and rights that would guide me from one patch to the next. My memory and sense of direction being what it is, this process was proving not as quick or effective as I wanted it to be.
Enter a small GPS device.
Some readers will know that I mostly eschew technology (said the guy called Robot, not at all ironically). I have ridden electronic shifting and found it remarkable, but have no interest in actually using it on one of my bikes. I find most cyclo-computers distracting and discouraging to the point of annoyance. And I probably never would have gotten a GPS unit…
Until I learned that I could chart a course through each of these little trail systems using one. In fact, many of the big mapping sites have even the really obscure trails marked, no doubt the work of my enterprising and technology-loving fellow cyclists. So now, I can wend and wind through all my regular stomping grounds, but on terrain I haven’t ridden before.
It’s like my whole cycling world made new, and I AM PSYCHED.
So this week’s Group Ride asks, what’s YOUR new thing? Or, if you don’t have one, what was the last new thing that had you really excited about throwing your leg over your bike and heading out the door? Maybe you’re just eying a new thing. What is it? And why do you think it might just be the key to unlocking a new suitcase full of courage?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
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 drove out in a rain storm, eyes tilted skyward, half in fear, half in silent prayer, but the sky cleared as we rolled into the meadow, the white registration tent like a beacon in a stormy sea. The field where we parked our car was fresh cut and the smell of earth and of farming hung in the air. We padded across to the tent, got our packets, and then returned to the car to pin numbers and pull on kits, mostly in silence.
As usual, the start of D2R2 is soft, which is to say, no gun goes off, no pack of riders spills into the road. What happens is you leave.
And not so long after you leave, you begin asking questions. There are obvious questions like, “Where is the next turn?” Some combination of GPS technology, cue sheet scrutiny and just following a rider in front of you will provide an answer. Other questions like, “Is this the top?” and “Are you sure this is the way?” and “Is that even a road?” come up also. Quick answers: “No. This is not the top. No, I am not sure this is the way, but it is a dirt path between two trees and the cue sheet says…and no, this is not a road,” but sometimes the way is not a road, but it is all beautiful, so keep your head up and keep pedaling.
And even if you have ridden D2R2 before, at some point not too far along you will ask: “Why am I doing this?”
Holy shit! What a question?!?!
Because on the face of it, it makes no sense. There you are grinding your way up a wet dirt track in the woods. Your lungs hollow out as you labor up and up and up. Sweat burns at the corner of your eyes and your quads scream up at you, and you wonder if you will make it to a place where the road no longer goes up, or at the very least stops going up like a kid’s party balloon, carelessly held.
Of course, even in your abject state there are many answers to the question. First, you are doing this because you have never ridden your bike in such beautiful places, places you will never go by car or by foot. Every time you lift your eyes from your front wheel you are struck by your surroundings, narrow lanes through primeval forest, farms perched on the edge of sky top meadows, old tracks that ribbon along rivers and brooks. It is high and low and various and sundry but also uniformly gorgeous and always worth the effort of getting there.
Second, you are doing it, because all year you think of doing a ride like this, an epic (yes, epic) assault on the hinterlands, a gravel-grinding, soul-chewing exploit of a ride. In reality, however, very few humans have the will to force themselves to do anything so hard. Few of us have the clarity of purpose to scout, map and execute such a thing, so we pay our money and ride out with our friends and wonder at the suffering and beauty that greet us along the way.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we ride this ride to know ourselves better. At RKP we say ‘to suffer is to learn,’ and D2R2 affords us that suffering in large and creative doses. D2R2 will tell you how good a climber you are. It will tell you how good a bike handler you are. It will break you down into your component parts and lay bare the truth of your riding.
It will teach you that you need to have an awful lot of food in your jersey pocket when lunch is 65 miles away. It will teach you that, though you feel strong and fast, it is best to keep your powder dry, because every ounce of that strength can be wrung out of your bones in a ten-minute struggle against a hill that has no name. You will find out that it is best to stick together and take care of your friends, because in ten miles they will be taking care of you. You, who normally eschew too-sweet sodas, will find that swilling a cold Coke at the top of a rise, with a smiling volunteer asking you how your day is going, will restore a humanity you didn’t even know you’d lost on that last dusty stretch of road.
Finally, you ride D2R2 to show yourself that you can. What a whopping large dose of self-doubt you can swallow after you do a thing like this. If you can ride D2R2, what can’t you ride? You are unstoppable.
We had a good day, my friends and I. Despite an early crash, one of our number soldiered bravely on to the finish, through double leg cramps and the creeping ache that comes from hitting the ground hard and then putting your body on permanent shake and grind for 60 miles. I felt as happy for him as I did for myself as the white tent hove back into sight after a full day on the course.
And, we met a lot of cool people as you will on a randonnee, riding together, helping with mechanicals, group-sourcing navigational duties. Next year I will look for the guys from New Hampshire whose buddy broke a spoke up on a nowhere hill in Southern Vermont, the young guys from Brooklyn who ground out the longest, hardest, meanest hill of the day with us, and all the volunteers who smilingly packed our faces with calories at each of the stops.
Safely back under the tent in the evening, the smell of pulled pork in the air, someone’s voice on a PA competing with the general din, I looked around the table at my friends and I felt happy, and I almost never wanted to move from that place. The air grew cool and the mosquitoes went away, and I sunk a Rice Krispies treat and washed it down with a ginger ale.
Finally, we stood before our legs seized and the plastic chairs ruined our backs. And then we drove home in the quiet car.
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