Risk, Not Danger

Risk, Not Danger

“Oh, so you like danger.”

Dating in the Internet age means that first dates are often a gauntlet of likes, dislikes, values and weaknesses. It’s the romantic equivalent to kicking the tires on a car. I knew that if I was serious about a relationship that might result in marriage and a family I was going to need to be straight with any potential partner that A) I was a cyclist and B) that wouldn’t be changing. I knew that they deserved to know that cycling was more than a hobby; it was a drive, as imperative as sleep or sex.

I’m not opposed to a lazy Sunday morning that evolves into Belgian waffles, maple syrup, a second cup of chai and the radio tuned to “Weekend Edition.” That’s a good time, full stop. It is not, however, the way I wish to spend most Sunday mornings. And to back up, I had to make clear that my Saturday mornings weren’t spent trying to wash away (by whatever means was at hand) Friday night’s dubiously earned hangover.

Here, I can do better than that for perspective. Prior to the evening in which my date volleyed the danger statement my way, there was a training ride one Sunday morning in which our group had been whittled down to fewer than a dozen—small enough to sustain real conversation for the first time in an hour or two. We were on a frontage road that overlooked the ocean off the coast of Los Angeles. Whatever anyone may think of cycling, riding a bike at the edge of the ocean on a weekend morning is tough to beat.

A buddy turned to me and after noting that I was seemingly intelligent, educated, gainfully employed and had reasonable social skills, asked me, “Why are you single?”

Without the faintest trace of humor, I looked back at him and said, “Because my social life is over by 9:00 am.”

Which is why Internet dating.

For non-cyclists, the possibility that they might die in a car crash is one of those odds that, like winning the lottery, seems so unlikely as to be unworthy of worry. However, tell someone you like to plummet down canyon roads that would send a car through a guardrail, and they will conclude that you don’t court danger, you order it from Amazon.

No one needs to be a current member of the dating pool to comprehend that having a potential romantic partner conclude that you were either inadvertently or accidentally suicidal was antithetical to future dates. At least not with women who wanted that whole marriage/family package.

And that was my problem, I wanted future dates.

It’s this disconnect—how people see what we do as dangerous—that find to be one of the primary misconceptions about what cycling is. And that misunderstanding is, I believe, a fair piece of the lack of respect that cycling is afforded. For so many non-cyclists, riding a bike is seen as frivolity, something you should only do either for transportation or if every item on your t0-do is buttoned up. What they miss is that so many of us need cycling the way we all need time off from work.

Here I reach back to another time, another discipline. It was the era of the first Bush and I was sitting in a workshop with Pulitzer prize winner Donald Justice, one of the great teachers of poets. Someone asked, “How do you know if you are a writer?” He looked up, and with the patience of a father telling his children why the sky is blue, “You’re a writer if it’s what you need to do.”

We are cyclists because we need to ride. The risk, the danger, all those be damned. More and more research is showing that people involved in both endurance and extreme sports share something in common: a brain low on dopamine. Riding in a pack, filtering through holes, taking a hard pull at the front, drifting back and looking for shelter, or plunging down a descent so difficult you can’t look more than a bike length ahead, it gives us something imperative to our well-being.

And yes, from where everyone else sits, that seems ironic—courting danger to brighten your head. It sounds crazy, and most of us walk away from anything wildly irrational. So it’s easy to dismiss those who dismiss us. If someone can’t understand us, our drives, then they miss the value in our lives, and when someone doesn’t value you, there’s little else to do than sign off.

The saddest dimension of this is how those who don’t ride can’t appreciate the skills a rider has developed, how it sharpens reaction time, focuses attention and fine-tunes eye-hand coordination. What looks like certain death to them is easier to navigate than social media.

In cycling, I’ve found something that has helped me order my world, connect with people, discover my own values, discover my value. The danger would have been to play it safe.


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  1. Sebastian

    After having gone to work for the umpteenth time bearing fresh wounds from my weekend cycling adventures, I’ve been told more than once that I should perhaps “try a new hobby”. I chuckle at the notion that cycling is considered a hobby, but for those that don’t ride, i understand how it could be perceived that way. Having quit watching television and smoking cigarettes while at the same time taking up mountain biking and drinking beer, i have to concur with your diagnosis doctor. To not ride would simply far more dangerous.

  2. thelastbard

    Thanks for sharing this. It was always a challenge to explain cycling to prospective mates during that sometimes-awkward courtship dance.

    Also, seriously jealous of your time with Donald Justice. I had the rare honor of having the late Mark Strand critique an essay I wrote about his poem, Eating Poetry. I got a wink and a shrug from him.

  3. Lyford

    When I’ve done so-called “extreme” sports I’ve been accused of being a thrill-seeker. I’d always respond that it wasn’t about the danger, it was about the fun of flying/paddling/riding/skiing/etc.
    But the truth is, if all those things were perfectly safe they wouldn’t be as much fun.
    The fact that screwing up has real and immediate consequences is what brings the focus and clarity that we enjoy in the moment. If missing your line on a turn means a violent introduction to a tree, you aren’t worrying about the leaky dishwasher or overdue car payment. You have to do it right, right there, right now, and there’s no room for anything else in your head. Blowing out the everyday clutter that way is one of the things that makes excitement so relaxing.
    There’s also the joy of hard work paying off. If you’ve worked hard to build skills, to get good, there is enormous satisfaction in doing a difficult thing well.
    And there’s a bit of ego stoke in knowing that not everyone can do what you can.
    The consequences don’t have to be fatal. I can find that state of relaxed heightened awareness on a Sunfish in whitecap conditions, when the only real danger is a dunking, but I do have to risk something for the reward.
    My partner, bless her heart, has seen me before and after enough times to understand how all this works. She isn’t thrilled about some of the things I go do but she likes who I am when I come home.

    1. Author

      Perfect description of what occurs in a flow state: an activity that roots you in the now and a challenge matched by commensurate skill. That is what makes the experience worthwhile. A hallmark of flow is the autotelic experience: that the act of doing is so satisfying the reward is intrinsic and no extrinsic reward is necessary or even effective.

  4. John OConnell

    I whole wholeheartedly agree: “riding a bike at the edge of the ocean on a weekend morning is tough to beat”
    7:30AM Saturday morning, Monterey CA

  5. Gary

    My personal statistics (YMMV) show it’s not nearly as “dangerous” as it’s perceived to be. I fell 2 weeks ago on a group ride with only mild injuries. It’s been 11 years since my previous crash but that time frame has over 1800 separate rides in it, of many, many hours. If the risk was truly high, those statistics just couldn’t be true.
    Things can certainly happen, including death. My best friend died from injuries in a criterium crash in 1978 but that’s definitely not the midpoint of possibility.

    1. Neil Winkelmann

      I crash my road bike about once every 10 years. Thousand of rides between crashes, but I hate every one. For me, road biking is done in spite of the risk, not because of it. I would enjoy it more if it was closer to 100% risk free. I’m an OK bike handler and I leave myself a decent safety factor on high-speed descents. It is the traffic risk that I feel less in control of, but perhaps ironically, I have only been crashed by a car once in my life (low speed – minimal consequence).

      The risks of crashing are the reason I no longer mountain bike (much). I don’t get a thrill or any satisfaction (let alone “flow”) taking from those risks, just terror.

      The risks I take when solo hiking into the wild are somehow different. Managed by experience, knowledge and caution, rather than by skill and reflexes. The risk somehow enhances that experience (up to a point). Being alone in wild places is profound.

  6. Tominalbany

    I’ve had a life filled with risky behaviors and actions. By far, the most fulfilling, and safest, are the risks I took while climbing, skiing, biking. The other risks I took were purely thrill-seeking, no skill involved except to see if I could get through without seriously negative consequences. Granted, I didn’t do illegal drugs, but I did some less than savory things because of the risk. The upside to the athletic version of risk? It would make people shake their heads but, I was free to discuss without incriminations… So, that athletic risk probably saved my lifestyle, reputation, and perhaps, my life in a very real sense.

  7. John Kopp

    My wife (#2) was an avid cyclist that I met in a cross country ski club over 35 years ago. #1 was a disaster! Helps to meet someone at an event that you share an interest in. Now I’m stuck trying to become a potter, but that’s another story.

  8. Algae

    As a long time cyclist, married for 20+ years, I fully appreciate your situation. So one night while still a relative newlywed, hanging out at a party with a good cycling buddy, we were talking about how crazy “they” are, the guys who were riding 1200k’s. His wife, who was talking with my wife, said, “from where we’re standing you’re a lot closer to them than you are to us.”

    So yeah, I’m one of them… one of those guys who rides 1200’s and other crazy endurance stuff. It’s part of who I am. Thankfully my wife knows that. If I haven’t ridden in 2 days she basically forces me to go out, weather be damned, for my (and her) sanity.

    But everyone has their limits. For my wife, no RAAM. That was the 3rd rail for our marriage.

  9. Gummee!

    I promise that the only other females I’m going to run around with are my bicycles (and moto) and they were here 1st

    I’m a cyclist. Have been for 30+ years. Not going to change. I’ll make sure there’s enough insurance for that golden BB, but till that day, I’m going to go ride my bicycle(s)…


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