Wednesday, August 6, 2008

It’s All About the Bike

Lately, while riding and pondering (as velosophers are wont to do), I’ve had the phrase, It’s all about the bike jump up at me on a few different occasions. I’m not sure what it means, but it comes to me fiercely, almost like a declaration. In the moment, it makes perfect sense, on a kind of bodily level – I feel it in my muscles and bones. But sitting here hoping to share that insight with you, I’m drawing a blank. So, if you’ll indulge, I’ll try to wend my way back to what it meant during those fervent moments.

Of course, it’s originates with el Señor Armstrong’s famous dictum, “It’s not about the bike.” It’s even the title of one of his books. I haven’t read that volume (or any of his), but I know his philosophy, and I’m guessing he was saying that your performance is more directly related to your level of mental focus and the quality of your physical training than to the relatively small differences between a costly bike and a breathtakingly expensive one. “Clarity of mind, singularity of purpose, and faithfulness in execution will trump a few less ounces or a fancy Italian name every time.” Something to that effect, right?

Well, my version – It’s all about the bike – is decidedly not intended to contradict that idea. Generally, I agree with Lance on that subject (if on very little else).

I think the point of It’s all about the bike is instead to point out to myself the apparently obvious fact that I am riding a bike. How lucky I am! And yet, how far I have to go! How much work there is to be done – training, tuning the bike, learning about nutrition and technique. How wonderful it is to have that work ahead of me. And how marvelous it is to have two working legs to move the pedals around today – right this moment. The breeze, rich with the scent of mown grass or pine trees. The sun beating on the skin of my arms. The effort in my body.

In one way of looking at it, I sit on my bike like I sit on my meditation seat. Rain or shine, good mood or bad, I ride. I reach for ideals and goals on the bike, and often learn about myself in the process. If those goals turn out unattainable, I learn about acceptance and flexibility – or, persistence in the face of obstacles. If it turns out I attain a goal, I learn either a) how to thoroughly enjoy the delectable taste of success without latching on to it (because who knows if injury or busy-ness will allow me to achieve this same level tomorrow?), or b) that the goal didn’t fulfill me as I thought it would, life can be bittersweet, and I need to re-arrange my goals.

And if I can’t ride that day or that week, I’m still in relationship with the bike – wanting to ride. That’s a meditation in itself.

You’ll notice that this approach doesn't mention my training regimen. It’s not about the numbers my cyclocomputer spits back at me after a ride, reducing a vivid, complex experience to a few digits that prove either my worth or worthlessness. It’s not about that lethally cool jersey that all my friends would wet their chamois pads over (if I could afford it). It’s not about whether I look like too much like a Fred and not enough like a racer. It’s not about whether I get dropped by someone I thought I could beat.

I won’t insult you by pretending I don’t care about these things -- some days way too much. But even on those days, some part of me knows they’re not the most important thing.

Not for me, anyway.

For me, It’s all about the bike means just what it says. Perhaps this phrase arose in my consciousness now because I’m finally (mostly) injury-free after nine months of infuriatingly up-and-down recovery from a nagging injury. Perhaps my whole being is simply rejoicing that I can ride pain- and worry-free right now. If you can, too, please -- for crying out loud, please -- remember to enjoy every hour on your bike.

As the great Belgian oracle Eddy Merckx famously quoth, what matters is that you “ride lots.” That man vibrated with hunger for saddle-time; it was his life; it’s been said he was never right with the world unless he was on the bike. For Merckx, as for many of us, it was all about the bike.

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