In general, exercise in this culture is viewed strictly as a means to an end. Lose weight. Strengthen your heart and lungs. Look better in your swimsuit. Prove you’re better than the person in front of you at the race on Saturday.
There’s also mood elevation. As a counselor, I suggest exercise to clients all the time for this purpose. Even more abstract is the quest for self-knowledge – meeting challenges, facing down fears, stretching physical limits, to better understand yourself. I’m a huge fan of this side of life, and lately, this has been the main reason that I ride.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches. However, until I had the ability to exercise almost completely taken away for the better part of two solid months by illness, I didn’t realize the most important reason I ride. Now that I've been nearly in tears from the ache for a simple 20-minute ride down a ribbon of clear road, what I value most about the bike has come into sharp focus:
* * *
I’m a boy of nine, living twelve stories above 1970s Manhattan, a gritty city in dire straits. My childhood is not storybook; too many things have been too wrong at home for too long. But what is on my mind is that it’s a sunny spring day. I roll my candy-apple red two-wheeler into the elevator and out the front door. I ride west, toward Riverside Park, because, after hours of stuffy classrooms, I want to feel the earthy spring air rush over my skin. I want to feel free for once, want to spin and dart where my whim takes me.
I approach the 83nd Street entrance to the park, which consists of a sharp downhill. My heart beats a little faster. 70 yards, perhaps, at maybe nine per cent, with a slight curve. My heart goes into my throat as I tuck and shoot it like an Olympic skier, daring myself not to brake even a little to take the edge off the fear. I manage a razor-thin line, straight as possible, through the moms pushing carriages uphill. I can still feel the the slight whump in my stomach at the bottom of the slope, as the bike hits level ground at speed and takes the run-out: I’ve successfully conquered the fear and achieved the rush, and now I get the bonus of sailing all the way past the playground just to see how far I can go without pedaling -- a measure of how fast I must have been going.
Gone is the tension at home, gone the clueless, overbearing teachers, the ammonia-smelling hallways. I’m free.
* * *
These days, my riding is inspired more by the desire to increase my performance. And it is often fun and good for me. But it can go too far. If I freewheel for more than a minute now (can’t call it coasting; that’s kids’ stuff, right?) there’s often a slight feeling of guilt in the back of my mind: I should be pedaling, increasing my fitness, lowering my average speed for the route I’m on.
I can count on one hand the number of times in the last year I’ve swung a leg over a bike just to be outside or feel the amazement of the bicycle – the closest thing there is to flying while still anchored to the ground. Every single mile is part of a work-out, and gets logged in my training chart.
I’ve forgotten the magic. Once I start down that road, it isn’t very long before I’m going out to ride even though my body is telling me not to. And that’s what got me in the over-training hole back in late summer, and probably exacerbated (caused?) the pneumonia. I am quite prone to “overfocusing,” as one ex-boss kindly put it.
So, I’m trying to figure out a way to enjoy myself more on the bike the rest of this season, while still focusing on the performance aspect I love so much. Any thoughts are welcome. And, as always, I'll keep you posted.