While I’ve been away, hunkered down in my warm home and neglecting my bicycle, which sits idle, cold and lonely out in my backyard shed, I have been working steadily on my beer belly.
Yes, it is coming along nicely, thanks for asking.
But the other day I got an email from a regular reader of this column. Beyond being surprised that there actually is a regular reader of this column, the letter got me thinking about riding, generally speaking, and specifically why it is I ride.
Part of it, sure, is for the physical benefits — and the lack thereof is apparent in my current state, as aforementioned.
Mainly, and more subtly, however, is that bicycle riding is an exercise in deliberate control.
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The hill is steep. Really steep. I know this going in, being tipped off by the 27 mph it hurled down me on the way to its bottom. But I’m riding up anyway.
I shove off at the bottom of the hill, which climbs up over a major highway before descending slightly, only to climb another quarter mile or so while twisting around one way and the next, just for good measure. It’s a climb of about 150 feet – not exactly mountain pass, but enough to remind me that I’ve got a heart and it sometimes beats fast.
I did this deliberately, for the challenge, for the exercise, for the same reasons people sail oceans, summit mountains and walk on the moon: To see if I can.
There’s a lot to be said for attempting a feat you’re not sure at the outset that you can accomplish. And it all starts with making a decision.
On a bike, once you make a decision — whether it’s climbing a hill, hitting a slightly faster speed, going a little farther today than yesterday or investigating what’s around that bend — you’ve got to put in the effort. You have to try, because it’s work. Each revolution of the pedals is at once an indication and a test of your commitment to your decision, because you’re completely under your own power.
This is not the case in any other form of transportation, like, say, a car, where you can decide nearly anything you want with little forethought, planning, commitment or effort. Get in your car, step on the go and you’re already nearly there. Nothing to it. Easy.
In a car, you can travel vast distances with zero effort and at great speeds. This is the automobile’s forte. And it’s a good one, frankly.
But it’s passive. It is not incumbent upon the car driver to make any concession in terms of time or terrain, which are scarcely noticed, if at all. And because there is no decision, there is no commitment to a goal and there is no reward for accomplishment. No one ever said: “Wow, I totally made it up that hill in air-conditioned comfort while listening to my favorite tune at 40 mph! Good on me!’’
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As I ascend, slowly, up the hill, trying to keep my cadence steady so I don’t over exert and burn out before I hit the top, I’m thinking about the difference between human powered bicycles and the cars that are passing me at 40 mph to the left.
The most important difference, I think, is that on a bike you can decide to stop putting in the effort at any time. You’re just not going to go anywhere. You’ll stay exactly where you are, until you decide it’s worth it to you to get going again. It’s your ride, after all. And you’re in total control of it.
I think that subtle allegory may be the greatest part of bike riding.
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Speaking of control, hats off to Mike D., Unnamed Bicycle Column reader who quit smoking to ring in the New Year. I know first-hand how difficult that is. And that, too, starts with a decision.
Mike D. says he has climbed on a bike saddle to help him through the detox process and credits this column for pushing him in the right direction.
I couldn’t be happier about that.
Good on you, Mike.