A Cycling Manifesto

10 Mar

Americans like to suffer. Just ask us. We place value on those jobs which are hard and applaud those who give up creature comforts, because our national identity is this weird Puritanical belief in the virtues of hard work and suffering. In order for the suffering to matter to us, however, there can be no enjoyment of one’s “work” – work is purely an exercise in pain and if you happen to like your job, then you aren’t a “real” American and it’s not “real” work.

I think it’s a combination of the above phenomenon, and a mean jingoistic streak (the sport of cycling isn’t American – it’s EURO), that keeps hostility towards cyclists alive. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This is a sport for strong, tough, working people – not for those who fret about breaking a nail. It’s like recess for those of us who spend most of our day indoors. It is hard work and suffering, but because it looks like we’re having fun on a kid’s toy, people in cars get testy and rude and often cease to see us as human beings because we’re at play and they aren’t. How dare we.

I don’t know of another individual sport than can give you the same sense of frontier conquest that cycling can. You are limited solely by your legs and the number of drops left in your bottle – that’s it. You can cover 200 miles in a day if you really want to – you could do that from a car in 3 hours, but you wouldn’t hear the wind and the birds and smell cattle from miles away, and you wouldn’t have the satisfaction of staring down one of these notorious Kansas headwinds (Kansas comes from the word Kanza, which means “People of the South Wind”).

You wouldn’t get to eat sticky goo out of a tube for “lunch,” and you wouldn’t get to choke down 80-degree tap water from plastic bottles that turn into little greenhouses on the road. You definitely wouldn’t get to experience the transcendent joy that comes from cresting a monster climb 30 seconds faster than the time before, and you wouldn’t get to spend hours talking to yourself, telling your legs, back, wrists, etc. to shut up.

I went out for a casual ride today. I warmed up for about 30 minutes in town, then grabbed a snack at Wheatfields Bakery. Invigorated by my baguette snack, I decided to ride north (on the country road that 6th St. turns into once you leave Lawrence). There were two guys from a local team at the stoplight in front of me as we prepared to cross the river. Fully kitted out with carbon bikes that cost more than my car. One of the guys had a PowerTap.

The light turned green and they took off. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t a recovery ride. I was riding my steel Canopus, a boutique bike from the 1980s that we scrounged off eBay a few years ago. Steel weighs more than carbon, but it handles better and is more comfortable. My bike has a 6-speed cluster in the back – that’s it. It is a true 80s race bike in nearly every way, right down to the white bar tape. I’m just trying to make it clear that I was riding a vintage steel bike with very limited gearing. Got that part? Cool.

I decided to try and gap these two guys before they got to I-70, and then I would just let them go. Maybe it was the amazing baguette I had just eaten, but I was able to chase them down on my little clunker bike with barely a gear to my name. They never knew I was there, because as soon as I caught up to them, I sat up and off they went.

There is a place you reach after enough time spent pedaling. It’s a place that resembles the nonchalant euphoria you can obtain when you meditate. The repetition of the pedals, spinning the same cadence after miles and miles, is a form of meditation unto itself. You must remain intense and focused on turning the pedals consistently, or you will lose speed and energy. But this focus must stay balanced – too much intensity and you will tighten up. On the bicycle, tension is one of your worst enemies, second only to dogs and aggressive motorists.

The best time trialists in the world are masters at this Zen of cadence and power. They are so tuned in to the messages sent by their body that they know exactly where their redline is, and they know to hover just below this redline. Basically, they find the spot where it hurts the most and they hold their pace just shy of this spot. Imagine if you gave nearly everything you had to a sport, to a job, to a relationship, whatever – you find where you suffer the most and you flirt with that place.

That’s where we get to go when we ride. And we get to go there and discover the true mental powers that we all possess, and we get to do it on wide country roads with chirpy birds and the wind rustling the corn, and those are the only sounds you may hear for an hour. Unless you’re doing it right, and then your heart should be pounding in your throat and your ears.

I am chasing the Zen on every ride, where actions become automatic responses to stimuli and sweat makes my eyebrows crunchy and the wind feels like an unbeatable opponent, because it is.

I think the reason I like this sport is that it provides license to suffer; it is a study in coping with pain and mental toughness. Who among us couldn’t benefit from a little more mental toughness? And I get to push these personal limits while having a true “Wheee!” moment on a fast, windy descent or the summit of a big climb that yields a spectacular view of the world below. On that note, I really miss riding where there are actual mountains. But I’m a true Midwestern power rider, and not built for climbing.

Watch out, though – I’m pretty dangerous over short distances.

So maybe people are hostile because we look too Euro. Or because we look like we’re at play. Please don’t run me over – if you can have your whiskey and cigarettes to make life bearable, then I can have my pedaling Zen. I’m not hurting anyone but myself, and only good things can come from this pain.

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