I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. I didn’t take it up to get fit, to prove that I was faster, stronger or smarter than anyone else, that I was special. I didn’t take it up as a means of self-expression.
I took it up because it was fun. Oh, and I dig bikes.
It’s true; I like the mechanical-ness of bikes. If we are stored energy, they are the expression of it, a noun to our verb. They move as if they are equations describing the very action of human potential, gravity, the laws of physics.
I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. But learn I did.
At first, the lessons revolved around equipment and learning that being a cyclist meant more than having a bike. There were the shorts, the pump, the shoes, the seat bag, jersey, water bottle, computer, even the non-dorky helmet. Next came the education in how to care for the bike and all that gear.
I read magazines by the pound. At first, I read them because they took me places that I couldn’t go on my own rides: the Rocky Mountains, California, France. As I read more I began to decode the language of the dedicated. I learned about sew-ups, intervals, the wonder of titanium. References to a guy with a misspelled first name (who spells Eddie with a “y”?) peppered talk of the great races, greatest racers.
I was no student, yet I learned.
There were other lessons that came unbidden, lessons for which there was no guide. My first bonk was an event of such supreme impact on my body I could have confused it with a mystical experience. I arrived back at my dorm room and gradually pieced together my state, a drunk fitting the house key in the tumbler.
There came a turn. Just when, just where, I’ve no idea. However, I began to understand that I, like Plato, knew nothing. All the knowledge I’d collected didn’t add up to an understanding of the sport. I didn’t understand what fast really was. I rode everywhere at the hardest pace I could sustain. I arrived anywhere I went by bike leaking sweat. I was as unaware of what fast really was as what slow meant.
I began riding with a group. They showed me pacelines, drafting, how to hold my line. They taught me how and when to eat. I’d arrive home as tired from from absorbing all the skills as from the riding.
I became a student of speed. I entered races. Glued tubulars. Pinned numbers on. Learned to pin them on the right way—out of the wind and so you can get to your food.
Yet even once I chose to learn, became a student, I continued to learn lessons that were unexpected, surprising. Some, like road rash, were unwanted. Others, like being second into the final turn of a crit only to get 10th, were mystifying. At some point I experienced an epiphany. My entire conception of cycling had changed. When I started, riding a bike was fun. Nothing more and certainly not less. But in my application of self to the body of knowledge that is cycling, riding a bike had taken on a personality. The sport had moods.
Suffering dominated my days. There was the pain of the interval, but I came to understand how legs can hurt following a ride, sometimes waking you up from sleep. There was the calm of the recovery ride, a serene meditation of the pedal stroke. Once I moved to a land with mountains, ecstasy entered the sport. Icarus had it wrong; the drop held life itself.
As the years river their way through my life, the desire to learn continues, an appetite that can never be sated. What surprised me is how what cycling now gives me isn’t cycling, it’s the world.
I’d never have studied French were it not for cycling. I’d never have wanted to visit the country. I’d never have discovered lavender or the way a ton of any fresh-cut herb will fog the air with a perfume to beguile your consciousness, drugging you with reality itself.
In a twist of irony only a cyclist could appreciate, cycling gave me wine. As a racer, I’d all but sworn off alcohol. I drank alcohol less often than Sean Kelly had sex. I’d turned my back on micro-brewed beers and never considered what I was missing. That is, until I was touring through Provence and my glass was graced with a single ounce of Chateauneuf du Pape. That one sip contained within it more tones than an orchestra, more words than a Pynchon novel.
I faced a choice: reject wine, or surrender some speed. I chose wine. As a result, I’ve traveled from Napa to Nice and ridden the roads between the rows.
Cycling was making my world bigger.
The strangest, most unexpected lesson is the one now unfolding before me, how to age, how to slow down, how to share the sport with others. I won’t be the guy winning national championships in the masters races, and I’m more than okay with that. For me, the prize is striking that balance between fit, fun and family. I haven’t learned how to do it just yet, but if cycling has taught my anything it is faith, that an answer, like fitness, comes when I do the work, and I trust the sport holds a lesson or two more.
Sometimes, when I feel weak, when my muscles hurt, when the sweat is stinging my eyes, I stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It is, I think, a fairly common-sensical question. You put your hand on the stove. It burns. You pull it back. Why, when you throw your leg over the bicycle, and your quads go leaden, and your body gives up its salt, do you keep pedaling?
It’s not because you’re a moron, though to be fair, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe another way of asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” is “What is the bike teaching me right now?”
If you’ve read Joyce, or Pynchon, or Shakespeare for that matter, you know what it means to wade into the intellectual deep end, suffer a bit, become confused, glean a few truths and come out the other side a little wiser (if only by knowing you’re not up to the challenge just yet).
I like to think the bicycle is the physical equivalent of that same sort of intellectual challenge. Most days I ride (and read) for entertainment. Most of the miles disappear under my front wheel without attracting much notice or eliciting much response. Sometimes when I am riding, I am merely traveling, point A joined to point B. Sometimes when I am riding, I am actually just looking at the woods/river/pretty girls. The bicycle is only a chair.
And then sometimes when I’m riding, I’m Hamlet, poor tortured Hamlet. Is he crazy? Upon whom is he really visiting his revenge? What is the point of all this violence, of all this pedaling, into the wind, only to return home again, an absurd circle of suffering?
Quickly now, before I torture this metaphor any further, let me put the question to you? What has the bike taught you? What have been its lessons, and what do you tell yourself when the tires stop wanting to roll, your muscles stop wanting to fire and the fun turns to hurt?