Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why I ride bicycles: the short story long

The inevitable question asked of a cyclist is "Why do you ride?" I've had a difficult time forming an answer. I had wanted to ride a bicycle for almost as long as I can remember. My first bike was a silver Schwinn Stingray. I was so enthralled with it that I was excited to get out of bed every morning the summer I learned to ride. Since age 6 I've rarely gone more than a few weeks without a bike. Why I rode bicycles when I was a boy is different than the reason I ride now, but not as much as you might suppose.

Then and now, I ride for adventure. When I was 7 the adventure was simple; it was the fresh freedom of discovering the next neighborhood down the street. The flight of moving twice as fast as I could run was an awesome thrill. The unrestrained ability to travel around my small town meant I could (and did) explore each field & corner. Discovery is the basic aim of any adventure. I still find new places on my bike. In fact, since I've transitioned from road racer to a dirt road brevet rider & mtb/cyclocross racer, I find new places regularly. Even in riding familiar roads I find new vistas, people, & oddities. Riding at a pace one third as fast as a car with no filter to the view lends a radically different perspective. Much is overlooked when traveling behind a windshield that is revealed on a bicycle.

Adventures are not only the discovery of new geography. Adventures often require attaining new skills. No one calls a journey an "adventure" if it is routine. Whether going to uncharted places or attempting a route in a new way, an adventure is defined by the challenges of the endeavor. Those challenges can be technical, mental, or emotional. Cycling adventures have presented me with all of those, sometimes at once. The technical challenges of cycling may be obvious: the bike itself, repairs, tire selection, the proper kit, or route finding. The less obvious challenge is learning to ride well; not the simple act of balancing on two wheels, but to learn the subtle skills of holding a line, riding in a close pack, standing to climb without throwing your bike backwards, or flowing through a corner takes time & attention. In a tense situation such as a race you draw on all your experience & discover what more you have yet to learn.

The mental & emotional challenges come from the attempt to go farther &/or faster. Whether its just to keep up with the fast kids on the group ride or to win races, cyclists push to extend their limits. This is where the suffering comes in, this is where cycling gets hard. I maintain that the suffering in cycling is more emotional & mental than physical. We all hurt sometimes on the bike, the challenge is to follow Jens Voight's method & say "Shut up legs". The physical pain on the bike is never difficult to stop, just quit pedaling hard. But then comes the anguish of falling behind. Pushing through pain to a next level is about mental focus & conquering emotions. This is the internal adventure; discovering your emotional peaks & valleys on the bike and through a season. As I ride farther I find whole new sources of mental & emotional strength.

In truth though, the adventure of cycling, whether it is new vistas, new skills, or new accomplishments, is secondary to why I ride now. I ride my bike to ride my bike. Most of my rides are routine. They are varied, but they fall in a fairly predictable pattern from the early spring to start of winter based on what I'm training for & when I'm recovering. Each year I seek a new challenge of some sort, but most of my cycling goes in a familiar direction. I am a cyclist because I must ride my bike, I ride my bike because I am a cyclist.

An old Zen question asks "why do you wash the dishes?". The answers differ, "to have clean dishes" or "to serve others" or "to do my chores", but the ultimate Zen answer is always "wash the dishes to wash the dishes". I am blessed to have good roads, nice trails, & beautiful bikes to ride. A good ride is relaxing, cleansing, healing as often as it is a challenge. For many years as a boy I only wanted to ride nice bikes, as a young man I only wanted to ride fast, later I only want to be a good cyclist, now I just want to keep riding.

I ride my bike because I ride my bike

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