I’m just working backwards from this starting point, in the saddle, on the road, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing, legs pumping, sweating. I leap out of the saddle three-quarters of the way up a climb to push a too big gear over the top, my chest heaving to catch up. And then free-wheeling down the backside, giving myself a few seconds before I stoke the big ring again.
These are the particulars though. There is more, right? Beneath that veneer of sweat? Beyond arriving at my destination? Why am I doing this? What is cycling?
In broadest strokes a cycle is just a rising and falling, a repetition, a thing that comes and goes, a pattern from which we might infer any number of meanings. To every thing, turn, turn, turn, and all that. We can settle into a cycle or be trapped in it, a meditative trance or a downward spiral.
Attach two wheels and find a way to power them. Harness your mind to the task of the rising and falling, of coming and going. Bury your needle in speed or comfort yourself with aimless meandering. Leave and come back. Create a journey where none existed before. Pour your soul into the effort.
In Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1968 novel His Master’s Voice a transmission is received from space, a clear, repeating pattern, a cycle. Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are put on the job of understanding what it might mean. Various theories are developed. The transmission, inscrutable on its face, inspires fear, awe, creativity, doubt and curiosity. No one cracks the code despite millions of dollars being thrown at the problem, despite teams of multi-disciplinary experts working at it full tilt. The cycle goes on and on, and ends up saying more about the humans reacting to it than it yields in meaning about itself.
Let’s factor out the bike. I love the bike, and the bike is a hobby of its own, but the bike is not cycling. The bike is a tool with which to cycle, an instrument for absorbing effort and feeding back meaning.
The act of cycling is the act of simultaneously creating and trying to extract meaning from that creation, an overwhelmingly positive process. This is the emotional afterglow of a hard ride, sitting at the kitchen table, peeling off arm warmers, replaying the grinding climbs in your mind, the wicked descents. In this light, cycling is art, true art. Its simplicity belies its depth, ephemeral and vanishing, impressionistic.
Riding a bike is a mundane task. It is transport, and it is recreation. But the practicality of it, the very ordinariness of it, is its real genius. Cycling is a blank canvas, all potential ready to become kinetic.
For the most part, you don’t change cycling. You go round and round, and it changes you, the story written across your body in hardness or your mind in its suppleness. It is through riding that we create ourselves. We are the meaning. We are cycling.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Photo: © Matt O’Keefe