I ride my bike a lot. I train all around Chicago, I race in events throughout the country, I commute to work. I ride with people. I ride solo. I ride when it’s beautiful out, but I also ride when it’s wretchedly crappy out. A common, recurrent (and I might add, completely reasonable) question that I get from friends, family, and acquaintances is, “Oooh, did you have fun?” The short answer, generally, is, “Well, no. Not really.” And it’s this that tends to lead to confused looks and follow-ups like, “Then why the hell do you do it?”
I don’t mean to mislead. There are almost innumerable elements associated with cycling — the community and camaraderie, the atmosphere at events and races, the snazzy pants kits and accessories and the bikes themselves — that are truly enjoyable. But, when pushed on the physical element that brings together all these facets . . . well, ‘fun’ is not how I would describe it. It hurts.
More often than not, efforts and obstacles and people physically and mentally defeat you. On the few occasions when you do beat a competitor or defeat a course or distance that’s previously stood as a wall before you, the ‘after’ of these experiences tends to feel great. Yet, those moments are few and far between, and the ‘during’ of these wins and accomplishments? No, that part still doesn’t feel good.
In fact, most of the people I know didn’t get into endurance sport — whether they be cyclists or xterra runners or marathoners — to have fun. Likewise, (almost) no one thinks they’re going to turn pro in these endeavors. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to about this started because they wanted an outlet, or a ‘break’ from something else (jobs, school, relationships, family). They wanted a pursuit that would let them relax, an escape that could be accessed on a regular basis. Yet, in all honesty, none of these activities — all of which require a fairly continual acceptance of physical discomfort — seem like obvious frontrunners for escape. They certainly aren’t restful, nor are they low-stress, physically or mentally. In the context of the already stress-filled, overly scheduled lives that endurance sport adherents lead, there’s something puzzling at play. Why add more stress? Why add more tasks to your daily to-do list? Why not wind down with a book, or a lazy vacation on the beach? 1
What I think is going on here is that we lack the words to describe what such fundamental, physical experiences provide to our modern lives. These activities don’t provide relaxation or a vacation from our stressors; instead, they provide solace and space for our physical selves to exist in the world. They act as a conduit through which we are able to experience a base physicality that is fundamental to the human condition.
Endurance training doesn’t feel good when you start — hell, it doesn’t feel good when you actually begin to get decent at it. The workouts and events and races and competition simply get harder. The summer I started training in earnest, I was in a constant state of exhaustion and always hungry. It took at least a year (or three, if I’m being honest) to truly understand and accurately assess just what my body needed in order to function under these demands. The lifestyle changes required by this new normal have lead many of my friends to (jokingly?) compare my endurance training as akin to joining a cult. While I think that’s a tad extreme, I will readily admit that it has required me to reevaluate my relationship with my body: its needs, its weaknesses, its strengths, and how it’s fueled.
Despite the rigorous daily workouts, and the reengineering of sleeping and eating schedules (and the amounts of each required), you might say that it’s a pretty big leap from “why I ride my bike” to “channeling fundamental human experience.” To those skeptics, I would ask: “When is the last time you encountered your physical limit?” Outside of grave medical conditions, childbirth, and physical disability or rehabilitation, the vast majority of us experience ourselves in the world as a means to an end. I need to get to work, so I walk or drive to get there. Once there, I sit or think or type for hours on end. I need to eat, so I cook or order food to nourish myself. I need a social outlet, so I go out (and then stay stationary) with friends at a home, a restaurant, a sports venue. Barring the professional athlete whose job it is to stretch her abilities to its limits or someone who is physically disabled and therefore experiences the limitations of his physicality with each task set before him, the rest of us don’t need to test where our limits lay; it is a part of life that is simply no longer required.
However, it seems to me like the disconnect from that experience isn’t so much an emancipation from physical labor, as it is from knowing and understanding an encounter with our limits and fragility. That we don’t have to hunt and gather our own food any more, or outrun predators? Great. No argument about the value of technology or progress on that front. But to lose a tangible or accessible way to understand what we’re capable of, when experiencing our physical and mental limits? That strikes me as a real misfortune. We’re now able to sidestep those experiences that make us deeply aware of what it’s like to feel alive and absolutely embodied in ourselves.
This isn’t to say that the experiences garnered in endurance sport are solely individual — indeed, I find the opposite to be true. When I ride, I’m not just in my head, aware of my body, my pedal stroke, my breath. To a certain extent, these are each true — but what I think really draws people to this type of sport is the connection that you feel with others in the same state. There’s a transformative moment, early on in training, when you start to recognize that what you’re feeling during a given moment is shared, physically, by those around you. It’s a sensation wholly unlike ‘teamwork’ in the corporate sense, or being with someone and knowing them so well that you can anticipate their gesture or tone. It doesn’t require verbalization. It’s communicated by movement — the cadence of one’s breath, the appearance of exertion and fatigue. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a moment of collectivity, everyone doing their part in the pursuit of a common goal, or of simple familiarity and comfort with another person. It’s something more basic. It’s the recognition of a shared condition and space. A being together that transcends proximity or friendship and instead simply focuses on the ‘we-are-physically-here.’
I’ve always been amazed at how quickly most social norms and habits disintegrate when you’re surrounded by people during these moments. Sometimes there’s humor, and sometimes there’s catharsis. I’ve dropped-bibs for a group pee break 15 feet off the Pacific Coast Highway with 15 women I’d known for all of three hours. I’ve also spent hours upon hours stretched to my absolute limit in silent pain, trying not to puke or cry, or let the group down — and in the course of the same day screamed at the top of my lungs in frustration at myself, the terrain, and nature itself.
There’s something about the sheer acceptance of everyone’s physical primacy or bodily needs that just comes with the territory of riding a bike with those that treat experiences like these as regular, given occurrences. Some of the most harrowing efforts — 125 miles with three teammates, severe dehydration in a 111 degree desert, and (at least) four individually triggered mental walls — end up being remembered not only as the best days on the bike, but the best days in general. Your mind can (and does) forget the in-the-moment pain, and what resonates instead is that intangible feeling of what you experienced with others. It’s unlike anything else.
Stranger still is the sense of determination that experiences like this can bring to you when you’re alone and struggling apart from the presence of others. This past July I found myself alone for the last 20 miles of a race, hyperventilating from the altitude and angered by the sheer disappointment in myself that my body simply failed me in what I wanted to do that day. Yet, even when alone under circumstances like this, you’re really not alone. Something in you taps into that shared experience that this discomfort is fleeting, that it’s not unique to you, that you can only accept it, and keep going. I wouldn’t refer to the endurance experiences as social in any traditional sense, but they also aren’t purely solitary. There’s a recognition, a shared sensation, an acceptance that physically this is what it’s like for each of us when we’re pushed past what’s comfortable, what’s known.
I ride to reach that catharsis. I ride to connect with people, as well as to disconnect from the demands normally placed on our social interactions. I ride because it allows one part of me to completely shut off so that another part of me may become completely engaged. I ride to discover where my limits lay, and to take it from there.
- Side note: ‘Vacation’ in the world of endurance athletes does not equal ‘fun in the sun’ or carefree frolicking. Most of my ‘vacations’ revolve around riding and racing bikes. My weekends are generally structured around events where I get physically pummeled and defeated. I have gotten altitude sickness and heat stroke on a number of occasions. It’s been grand. ↩