I am no one and nothing. This is as much a statistical expression of my importance as it is an exercise in humility. One of roughly four billion of my species, alive for a picosecond of geologic time, my individual identity, diluted still further by a pseudonym and the ephemeral nature of this pixelated medium, is vague and fleeting to the point of comedy. The ‘I’ I refer to may not really exist, may just be a whorl of dust in infinity, is at the very most a product, a projection, of all those other whorls around me, all of us sheltering under an angry sky, capering across our lives in flight from predators both real and imagined.
I sometimes get all caught up in what people think of me, as if that matters, as if I know what they really think, and if I knew, as if I could change myself. I am, in no small measure, what I’ve been made by everyone else. Put me in a line of cyclists, and I will pedal. Put me in the grocery store, and I will shop.
Identity is a funny thing, how we perceive ourselves, how we define our “true selves.” I have mostly ceased to believe in such a thing. And while that may seem sad, the idea that there is no true me, nothing unique or special or abiding about my existence, it is also enormously freeing. It gives me less to maintain, less ego to coddle and stroke.
In looking at myself, I can break down almost completely what I am trying to express by putting on these shoes, this shirt, getting my hair cut just this way. It’s fun to paint that picture. It’s what we do, as humans. In fact, it may even be a reaction to our insignificance that we set so much store by our individual identities, tilting at the windmill of our comical sameness.
We love constructing identities so much that we even anthropomorphize objects. We name our cars, our bikes. We ascribe them genders and describe their personalities.
And while I’m not one to name my bikes, if I squint, I can just about see who they are. My road bike is a Frenchman, more of a swashbuckler than I am, a little more buttoned up, a little more confident. My mountain bike is a harried surgeon, very particular about his lines, very deliberate in all his decisions. I wish sometimes he’d let loose, but it’s not in his nature. I have another road bike who is clearly a college student with tastes which surpass his means. He’s that guy who will never properly grow up, but will wrinkle pre-maturely, maybe even color his hair and then pretend he hasn’t. He’s vain, with no real cause to be.
It is ridiculous to talk about bikes this way, but for me, it seems no more ridiculous than to talk about myself this way, and it’s more fun, less freighted, less (un)important.
This week’s Group Ride asks not who you are, but who is your bike? How did he/she/it get that way? Do bike identities change? How? Who do you wish your bike really was? I suspect my bike is better than me. Is yours better than you?
We’ve all heard the statement at work, at family gatherings, among friends, at parties: He’s a cyclist. It’s the same sort of explanation that you’d give if you showed up to a Super Bowl party with E.T. You’d introduce him around and then say, He’s from another planet.
For a lot of folks, that little explanation is actually an apology. In three short words they’ve told everyone gathered, He’s a little weird. He won’t eat your pie. Don’t expect him to touch the mashed potatoes. Your beer is safe. He spends more time on a torture device than I do in my car.
Your mere presence has upset the equilibrium of the room and the explanation is an effort to keep things on an even keel.
And while your dedication to something that doesn’t make you pantloads of money may arouse the sort of suspicion usually reserved for felons, what non-cyclists miss are the dividends that cycling pays. Sure, they can guess that you’ve got a rigorous diet if you’re lean, but that’s the least relevant of the lessons cycling teaches us.
Hanging onto a pack screaming down a country road at 28 mph will teach you unquantifiable lessons about endurance. Each time you dig deep to close a gap, move to the front or maybe even attack the leaders, you make a big statement about reserves, not just that you have them, but that you have faith you’re not at the end of your rope.
Outsiders only see fatigue, expense and deprivation when they look at cycling. We know otherwise. When you or I look at a bike, what we see is fun waiting to happen, maybe the key to a greater performance. When we see an open road, the exhilaration centers in our brains fire. When we see a hill we imagine deep suffering followed by childlike fun. The world thinks we eat like refugees, but we know that 5000 calories burned means a mammoth dinner with no guilt. Fatigue? As if. Cycling renews us, gives us strength to tackle the rest of life.
Outsiders don’t see how those lessons can inform other parts of our lives. A baby that cries for 20 minutes is much easier to deal with than a climb that lasts for an hour. Examining posturing by coworkers in a meeting is much easier to do if you’ve had to size up the competition when your legs burn so bad you want to sit up and stop pedaling. A bad day or even a bad week can be endured when you’ve dealt with months of bad form.
The point is less that we can do these things because we are cyclists than because we are cyclists we can bring more to these other parts of our lives; thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from cycling, we’re more complete. After all, if we needed to drop one part of our lives, as much as it would hurt, cycling would go long before we’d give up our careers or our families.
So while we recognize one another as fellow cyclists, and therefore friends, we understand a greater truth. Cycling helps to define each of our lives, enriching our days and giving us an outlet of expression that makes the mundane easier to endure and the high points that much more joyful. But it isn’t the whole of our identities is it? When in the peloton we identify each other not as cyclists—that denominator that unites us—but as doctor, lawyer or father of five girls. After all, your identity is written by those to whom you matter most.