I realized with a start tonight that I've been back in the saddle -- the bike saddle, that is -- for six years now.
I spent two passionate years as a teen cyclotouring through early '80s America and tearing up the Central Park bike path. Then, college and adulthood distracted me and I let my royal purple Austro-Daimler SE with gold Fiamme rims gather dust in a variety of apartments.
In my mid-40s, turning stale at retail desks and grad school library tables, I finally heard the tiny, receding echo of the beauty of those high school days. I climbed back on a road bike and haven't gotten off since.
For the first few years, those glory days kept tugging at the back of my mind. Somewhere in my unconscious, I was trying to return to form, to be as strong and knowledgeable a rider as I once was. At some indefinable point, I crossed that line and kept going.
In the last couple weeks, I've found myself in my garage fixing three different bikes -- one of my mine, a bike belonging to a friend's son, and my son's 20-incher. All of them needed non-trivial repairs, yet I blew through the work while chatting with folks, listening to music, enjoying the fall sunshine.
Then last weekend, I was out for a taper ride before the challenging metric century I have planned for this Sunday. My season has gone well, I've avoided sickness and injury for the second year in a row, and the resulting cumulative fitness meant that my legs were carrying me faster than I could get used to. It was like riding in someone else's body -- a frequent feeling at the end of a healthy season. As I flew down a dirt road descent on my skinnyish-tired road bike, I felt confidence flow through me like a river. On impulse, I death-gripped the rear brake lever, threw my weight onto my outside pedal, and short-skidded for just a second before momentum jerked me back into my straight-arrow, rocket-sled descent. Hey! I did something new! Felt so good, I did it again. And again. And again.
I'm there. I'm the rider I've been wanting to be. And the feeling is delectable.
Below, in no particular order, is a scant sampling of personal wisdom I've gleaned along the way--mostly the hard way. All maxims, aphorisms, adages, axioms, and epigrams are strictly intended for my own reference. If they help you, I'd truly be glad to know about it. If they don't, please don't argue with me. This wisdom was born of the sweat of my brow and the stink of my chamois. You want different wisdom, go find someone whose chamois smells more like yours.
- Always pee just before you walk out the door for roll out.
- Let the ride become what it needs to be. Making plans is good, and being flexible is good.
- Learn to listen to your body; it knows infinitely more than your head.
- Learning to listen to your body takes a long time. It took me years, and I'm still learning.
- The foods that work on the bike have nothing to do with what I eat the rest of the time, and that's fine.
- Caffeine works, and it's legal. Yippee!
- Happiness is not about the bike. It's about the ride and the rider.
- A dude I know who rides 30,000 miles a year (yes, you read that right) told me that the longer you ride a bike, the better it fits you. I used to buy or trade for a new bike about every 18 months, but now, I'm beginning to agree.
- He also said, "The way to get better at riding your bike is to ride your bike." He rides solo centures on a racing bike with 25 mm tires over gravel and trails that would scare off most cyclocross riders.
- Any dirt road is usually better than any paved road.
- You don't need a fancy bike to ride dirt roads, or even trails.
- Pavement is good, too.
- The fewer cars, the better. The more trees, the better. The higher you ride, the better. The farther the view, the better.
- More distance is not necessarily better. Adventure can be found three miles from your door. Get on your bike and go find it, before work, after work, between chores. Do it.
- Average speed isn't just meaningless, it's a pernicious, non-existent lie, perpetrated by bike tech companies and insecure wannabe racers. Throw away your bike computer. (I have no idea where mine is, haven't used it in two years. I manually record my rides on ridewithgps.com, an excellent way of finding out distance and altitude, the only stats I sometimes care about.)
- If you're not having fun on your bike, you need to seek professional help. I'm a therapist, and I'm not joking -- you need help. Bikes are fun.
- Bike blogs are addictive but dangerous. Beware of comparing your fun with anyone else's.
- A real maxim now: "Fitness follows fun." If you're having real fun, you're going to want to have more. That means more and more riding, which means you get stronger, more skilled, and have yet more fun. That's called a positive feedback loop.
When I think about it, the hardest and longest lesson of all has been weaning myself off of the racing mindset. I'm not fast, never will be, and competition brings out the worst in me. And still, some vestigial part of my brain clings to the pissing contest involved in beating somebody up a hill. When I win, I feel good for a few days, then go back to worrying about the next time I ride with him or her.
Now, the rides that have made me so happy that I swore heaven could not be any better were those in which competition played absolutely no part. The exhilaration of the effort, the thrill of the descents, and the supernal beauty of the surroundings were my all and everything. Strong riders who can vibe with that are rare as hen's teeth, and I do all I can to cultivate friendships with those few.
The rest of the time, I ride alone.
Like my (unwitting) mentor, Paul Fournel, I've found that biking is life in so many ways. Today, I say thanks to God and humankind for creating the best machine on earth. It's ecologically friendly, it's beautiful to look at, it's easy to fix, it's affordable transport, it's healthy, and -- most of all -- it's more fun than a roomful of ice cream.
Whatever you ride, however you ride, for the love of everything real, PLEASE: Ride for your own reasons, ride to your own standards, and if you don't know what they are for all the screaming out there about what's important to others, just keep riding and keep thinking, and it will come to you, slowly, in increments.
Wisdom on the bike is gained just the same way as wisdom off of it.
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