dirt road riding

Anger Management: Coping mechanisms

Riding is life? Sure. But maybe riding is sometimes about death, too.

James Huang
by James Huang 14.02.2024 Photography by
James Huang
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“Do you guys ever think about dying?”

Record scratch. Silence. Uncomfortable stares. An awkward half-explanation. The music restarts. The party carries on. 

Anyone who’s seen the Barbie movie will remember that scene. Barbie’s life is perfect. Her world is perfect. Everything is perfect. Perfectly perfect, in fact. She’s not supposed to be thinking about death. Neither am I, for that matter, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. 

I’m sitting on a plane en route from Taipei to San Francisco. The second of two one-way flights I’ve bought last-minute in the past week. My father has been in the hospital since the holidays, and while nothing is certain, things aren’t looking good. My typically stoic stepmother didn’t think it made sense for me to hop on a plane earlier on since his condition was stable and I’d only be able to see him for half an hour a day while he was in the ICU, anyway. Things were looking better a couple of weeks ago, and it was a huge relief when he finally got moved to a general ward. But when she suggested this past Friday that it might be a good idea to come home, well, I’m guessing more than a few of you reading this know how that goes. One-way flight number one.

Things you normally deem pretty high-priority suddenly seem awfully trivial at times like these. On a normal day, my mind is occupied by bikes. Riding bikes? Even better. Right now, my main concern is breathing – and not my own. 

But even in the middle of Taipei – a dense metropolis of over 2.5 million people – I can’t seem to get away from it. 

I saw a cyclist as I was walking to the train station on my way to the hospital. Instinctually, I checked out what he was on. Late-model Giant TCR or Defy. Advanced-level with the telescoping seatpost. Dressed more warmly for the conditions than I would have, but what I expect for someone who spends their day to day in this lush and tropical climate. 

Outside of another train station, there was a woman dressed for even colder temps on a copper-and-black road bike of some sort. Black tights and a jacket. White helmet, white shoes. Blinking rear DRL (which, like most I see, wasn’t nearly as bright as I think they should be). 

Scooters rule the roost here – and I’ve noticed electric ones slowly gaining in popularity – but there are still plenty of people getting around on bikes. A shaky, elderly man on a rickety mountain bike with bags hanging from the ends of his handlebars (the worst place for them, I should add). Someone else on an e-bike with their little girl riding shotgun. 

Who were these people? Where were they going? What did the two road riders do for a living where they could head out for a casual spin at 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning? Maybe they had flexible schedules like so many people seem to do in my hometown of Boulder? Perhaps. They didn’t seem old enough to be retired, but it’s always hard to tell. Asians don’t raisin and all that. 

As big a part of my life as it’s been, cycling for sport has always struck me as an awfully selfish activity. Sure, you can make an argument that maintaining your mental and physical well-being is beneficial for those close to you, but let’s get real here: we do it for ourselves. 

Standing vigil next to my father in that sad-looking hospital room, bikes should have been the last thing on my mind, but I guess that’s a hard thing to do when it’s nearly all you’ve done for the last 30+ years. 

As I sat there that day holding my father’s hand while he tried to sleep, I found myself thinking about why I ride bikes at all. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, actually. I’ve never done it for the sense of achievement or to feel better about myself. I enjoy a challenge, sure, but ultimately the conclusion I’ve come to is I’m just chasing a state of mind. 

One of the best parts about my wife also being a cyclist is that we’ve never needed to explain to each other when one of us really needed to get out for a spin. It’s easy for non-cyclists to assume we’re just off to have some fun, or maybe to go somewhere. That’s oftentimes true. But sometimes the idea might be to get away from something, too.

As we’re reminded all too often, life is hard. Too much to think about. Too much to do. Too many worries. Too much responsibility. Pulled in too many directions. Too many voices fighting for attention. Too much … everything. 

I love those moments when I come back from a ride – hard ones, especially – and realize that for at least that little while, I thought about nothing at all. I was just doing. Being. When all is said and done, life is anything but hard on a bike; in fact, there’s this glorious simplicity in it. Pedal. Steer. Brake. Shift. Breathe. Push. Eat. Drink. That’s it.

I had a memory flash though my head of one of those rides where everything seemed to go exactly the way you want it to. One of my favorite trails from when I was living in Michigan is hardly the thrill ride: incessantly tight and twisty, sometimes frustratingly slow. I don’t think you’re ever just going straight for more than a second or two, and even when you’re on, you’re not going all that fast. So many opportunities to get it wrong. But it was always one of my favorites, and I remembered how I’d nailed every corner that day so perfectly that I’d just barely grazed every tree with my lower back as I was leaning into the apex of the corners. This was well before Strava, but I’m pretty sure my old Polar HRM and my handwritten ride log told me I’d PRed that day.

It was a typically hot and muggy summer day. The black leather seats of my old VW GTI should have been super sticky and gross in the mugginess as I climbed back in, but they probably could have been on fire and I’m not sure I would’ve noticed. I don’t recall anything else from that day before or after, but I remember those 78 minutes so vividly. Such a good afternoon. 

I’m on my way back home now. Last-minute one-way flight number two. My dad is still here, but his paths to recovery are growing increasingly narrow. Even if he miraculously manages to recover, the stark reality is that as a person in his late 80s battling a severe illness, the door to this world will shut sooner than later. There are lots of things about adulting that I’d rather do without, but this part is particularly shitty.

I’m emotionally exhausted. My nerves are shot. My body feels like you’d expect if you’d spent the majority of the previous five days straight either sitting on a plane or sitting on a chair in a hospital room.

The worst part is the uncertainty of it all. Part of me feels guilty for leaving when I did, but the reality is I couldn’t stay indefinitely, and I’ve got a family of my own who need me at home, too. I was already scheduled to be back in Taiwan for a work trip in a couple of weeks, anyway. My dad thanked me for coming to see him, and told me he loved me. I’m hoping he’s still there later this month.

It’s so incredibly cruel how randomly life can be snatched away from us, the inherently transient nature of the whole thing. It’s the universal truth whether we like it or not, and I wonder if in one way or another, we all make the conscious decision to pretend like it isn’t – often while riding bikes.

I’m looking forward to some big hugs from my wife and kid. Some sloppy kisses from two stinky dogs. My own bed. And a good, long, hard pedal. I know riding doesn’t actually fix anything. But my god, do I so desperately want to think about nothing for a little while. 

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