Perhaps like you, I kicked off January 1 with a ride. Perhaps auspiciously, I chose a hilly route to start off 2024.
As I turn into the shadowed canyon, the already-brisk temperature drops at least another 10°F, and I regret my preemptive hat removal a minute ago. Up the north-facing lane, its frozen dirt dappled with ice and snow, through a flock of wild turkeys who lazily open a path.
It’s not a big loop by any stretch, more a modest downpayment of earnest money on the new year. It may also be the only ride I take this week. That’s a simple truth of my life these days. Riding lots is far easier in summer, when I’m a devotee of the dawn patrol. But the nadir of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, its cold mornings and late sunrises, are made for skis, not bikes, and even living close to a ski area, the 40-minute drive is not a luxury of time I can permit myself more than once a week.
Even a lunch ride is a challenge; a promise to myself to be on the bike at noon curdles to a lie by 12:30 as edits and e-mails pile up, or the interruptions of work-at-home – however welcome (wet dog noses) or important (wet dog noses) – push in. The light lengthens and flattens, the window closes. Festive 500? Some weeks it’s a fight for a Frantic 50.
If you haven’t gathered, the fact that I work for a cycling web site doesn’t offer me much more separation from being “time poor” than would most jobs. So you’d think I’d want to maximize every moment on the bike, to have a plan for every pedal stroke. X minutes warmup, Y intervals, and Z cooldown. Lather, rinse, and repeat my way to fitness. And inside, if necessary.
But I don’t. I mean, I do maximize, but mostly in the sense of trying to capitalize on opportunity. My kit closet is almost always organized enough that I can be on the bike in less than 10 minutes. I am fortunate enough to have a number of loops for most kinds of weather, and as short as 40 minutes (yes, it feels a touch silly to kit up to ride just over a half hour, but it beats chafing). That, however, is where my optimization largely stops, and I still avoid indoor riding at nearly all costs.
My road and gravel bikes have power meters, but mostly for curiosity and background tracking. I have no coach and follow no training plan except to let the terrain of the day’s ride shape its intensity. I don’t race anymore, haven’t had a major event goal in years, and my riding lacks “structure” in any reasonable sense of the term. In other words: all my miles are junk miles.
We make a big deal about fitness in even recreational cycling, with so much focus on improvement. I don’t tie my self-worth to my fitness, but I can’t deny I have more fun when I’m going fast. So why would I not make more effort? The nearest I can come to an answer is a question, posed honestly and curiously: what is the intrinsic value of that goal, to be fit? (Fitness is, to me, a related but separate concept to health.) And why is cycling our vehicle to achieve it?
From a strictly rational perspective, there are other paths to fitness, many of which cost far less than cycling, are far safer, and provide arguably more rounded fitness and better overall health, even. Striving for a personal best, in an event or just on Strava, is a perfectly fine and worthy goal. But what does a personal best signify; why does it matter to us that our time or placing in a contrived contest with arbitrary rules – formal or just in our head – is better than someone else’s, or better than our own in the past? Those goals are themselves means to another goal. The foundational question is simple: why do we ride?
I’ve spent decades pondering that question, and the answers change by the decade, sometimes the day. I think about it when I ride. I think about it when I don’t or when I can’t. I think about it when I read yet another, seemingly inevitable, report of another cyclist hit and killed by a driver.
I thought about it on the second short climb of the day, because it was January 1 and I, a non-racing cyclist with no event goals near or even far, was still for some reason slowly suffering uphill in my off-riding season form. The second climb is an out-and-back, no less, a dead-end; it doesn’t even go anywhere! Why was I here at all?
I was on this climb because I hadn’t done this particular ride in a few weeks. Because in contrast to the cold canyon ascent on the other side, the south-facing slope of this one is warmed by the winter sun, and my favorite way to reach it is via the canyon. Because I like to climb, whether fit or not, to feel the pressure of resistance through the pedals, the hot tingle in my chest that tells me I’m alive.
And I’m here because, as an out-and-back, the road is quiet, a place where for a few short minutes the world is reduced to just the bike and the quiet hills folded in close around me. Up the few switchbacks to the saddle, then left as the road narrows. A short, steep pitch flattens out slightly to the last hairpin, and then tilts up sharply again, to the end of the pavement and beyond.
Finally, I unclip and come to a shaky halt. The hillside falls away at my feet, the gathered geologic wave of the Rocky Mountains crashing abruptly on the high plains rolling away in the distance as the world spreads out before me. It’s a world that, as of January 1, looks increasingly fragile. Two hot wars grab headlines from the smoldering conflicts we have long ignored. A climate made hostile by our own hand threatens to burn the rest, if fascism doesn’t first. And all around, people seem to lead increasingly strained lives – scarred by stress and pain; embrittled by event and emotion; made smaller, sharper, meaner.
But where I stand now is a place big enough, strong enough, and high enough to both flee it and confront it at the same time. A fortress not of solitude but solace. A place to make, if not resolution, a prayer of sorts: for peace, for goodwill, for us to see the light of the world and perhaps, from time to time in such small way as any single person can, to be it for a moment, as a gifted poet said not long ago.
Speaking of poetry, when I first rode this climb, tentatively winding my way to the top to discover this refuge at its summit, there was a wooden bench up here, and on one of the back slats someone had carved a line from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Come, my friends; ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It’s a motto, a reminder, a reset.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find it, but if I do, it’ll be on a bike.
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