What is it that compels a rider to don decidedly un-gay apparel and venture out into the somber cold of a winter day? Why does one risk dehydration, fatigue, muscle cramps, oxygen deficit, and injury or death at the hands of Type-A bullies wielding 4000 lb. internal combustion machines? There’s probably no real answer to this, or any other, recreational obsession. The obsessed find a pleasure deeper than the superficial pain. But a correspondent recently suggested that I “should either become a full time cyclist or go back to teaching full time” because I criticize only “the organic and not the intellect” when I write these blogs. And that got me thinking as I went on my ride today, wearing bib shorts in 58° sunshine.
Cycling is not an intellectual activity. It demands intelligence and constant attention, but those attributes are evoked in the service of the body. I have written before about the binary attitudes I generate while riding. On the one hand I love being in control of my bicycle and yet apart from it. It is a machine and I am operating it efficiently. On the other hand I discover “zen” states when I and the bike are one. It is an extension of my body and my will; I think and it responds.
Cycling can have its spiritual moments, times when my concentration narrows and my awareness of forces around me becomes consuming. But narrowed concentration is dangerous on a bike; awareness needs to be broad enough to perceive the car running the stop sign into my path, or to avoid the veering toddler with the oblivious parent. Cycling can also have its absent-minded moments, when one gets lulled into complacency by a long, straight stretch of empty trail and begins to think about the Red Sox’ problems in right field or the talented student who refuses to take assignments seriously. The other end of the spectrum from narrowed concentration, but vulnerable to the same kinds of dangers.
What I have found in cycling is an awareness and understanding of my physical self on a level more complete than I have ever found in other life experience. Endurance activities force one to be aware of the body and the psychological states that both feed into and evolve out of physical activity. Certain attributes apply especially in endurance: strength, power, fatigue, pain, repetitive action. I have learned my limits, I have learned how to expand those limits, I have learned the nature and quality of pain in several forms, I have learned how to trick myself into pressing on when I “can’t do it any more.” Needless to say, all this occurs for me on a low level compared to elite athletes. But it’s valid for me, being as I am of a certain age and definitely never a prime physical specimen, but just a tall ectomorphic competitor. I now know when I am getting dehydrated; I can tell the difference between the feeling of a tired muscle and an injured one. I can tell how far to push it without getting too far over my lactate threshold, a point from which there is indeed no recovery other than shutting down.
The trick is to know how to expand my limits by, paradoxically, not pushing my body too hard. My tendency is to always want to go as fast as I can without overcooking it on a given ride. The wisdom I embrace, however, is that not every bike ride is an Individual Time Trial. The Socratic dictum “know thyself” applies equally to the physical life, to listening to the messages from my own body. On the other hand, new studies show that when cyclists had their speeds under-reported to them, they were able to go 15% faster, at a speed they “thought” was their usual. So the mind does enter into this. A healthy optimism about one’s potential is a definite asset.
Essentially, what cycling does for me is to put me in touch with a side of myself that I otherwise would not think much about in my cerebral, verbal, literary, cultural professional and social life. And I will continue to venture into that world of my organic being often and intentionally to become more of a whole person. I will also continue to write about my cycling experience as it is, and not to make for it pretentious or fraudulent claims in pretentious or fraudulent language. Cycling is authentic as it truly is. To make something other of it would be ridiculous.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.