I think one of the greatest gifts cycling can give you—outside of fabulous calves and farcical tan lines—is the opportunity to transcend. You can put almost any direct object with that verb. Cycling lets you transcend hills, mountains, terrible weather, bad drivers, bad pavement, urban claustrophobia, anything. Swift wheels and a strong chain will get you up and over almost any obstacle. But in terms of real value, even a few minutes on a bike can help you get up and out of yourself, and that’s maybe the best thing riding has to offer.
The thing about cycling, though, is that before it even gives you a chance to transcend those hills, cars, and the rest, you’ve got to get over a raft of more mundane obstacles. There are meetings to attend. Laundry that needs doing. That thing for work that you should definitely be working on right now. Day to day business that somehow comes to seem more formidable than whatever elevation gain your ride might offer. A nonstop barrage of routine mucky-muck that can drag all of your best intentions to a stop.
But if you can somehow get on the road, get a few pedal strokes in, that stuff quickly falls away. It doesn’t take many miles to realize that the laundry will get just as clean tomorrow afternoon, and a few lung-fulls of fresh air lets you realize that the thing you’re supposed to do for work will get done a lot better if you’re not about to jump out a window. Banging against your lactate threshold a few times reminds just how mundane most of the average day’s mundane bullshit really is—and how much of the bullshit surrounding it is self-generated. Get out. Get outside of your head. Transcend. By the time you get back, you won’t remember why you resisted going in the first place.
And that’s just if you manage to get the bike out on a Tuesday afternoon. The longer the ride, the bigger the challenge, the greater the possibility for transcendence. There are a lot of clichés out there about cycling as meditation and the ways in which a set of 32-spoke Open Pros can function as prayer wheels, but sometimes things get repeated because they keep striking folks as true. Riding 200 miles in a single day lets you transcend what you think yourself capable of. Getting away for a week of uninterrupted riding can give your perspective a healthy shift. Stringing together six weeks of riding can reboot your entire psyche. Regardless of a cue sheet that brings you back to the place you started from, pedaling a bike takes you away from the headspace you’re in when you set out.
But I have a confession to make. In the middle of a ride, in the middle of a really hard ride, I have a tendency not to transcend but to collapse inwards. In hour nine of a fifteen-hour day, when I’m out of gears on a climb that keeps getting steeper, if I’m riding with guys who flog the pace upwards even after my heartrate has maxed out, transcendence becomes an impossibility. In these moments I am acutely located within the walls of my body, at one not with the universe but with my own agony. I know this has the ring of the sublime, of being acutely in the moment, but when the moment consists almost entirely of frantic time/distance calculations to figure out when the ride will end, I find very little Zen to celebrate. These moments inevitably consist of self-loathing and disappointment, maybe a little regret over the top. I’ve never quit yet, but I’m tired of fighting the urge.
To that end, I’ve bought a trainer for the rapidly approaching winter. Getting on the damn thing is going to be a persistent hurdle; no open road or fresh breeze will reward those first pedal strokes. No coasting, no downhills, none of the little bribes that reward persistence out in the world. Just a terrible little machine designed to lock me inside my head with my body’s frailties. I’ve entered a scenario that gives me every opportunity to quit; the thought of going inside and opening a bag of potato chips will dog roughly every other minute of my time on the trainer. (Not a ride—it’s not riding—just time. Just enduring a series of minutes.) I don’t expect to experience transcendence in my garage in the depths of January. Memories of transcendence, maybe, of moments and rides in the past when I was strong or light or lucky, memories to help me through another hour of labor. Reminders of what I’m chasing while I spin my way to nowhere.
And then, perhaps, next year, somewhere on the side of a mountain, I’ll find the road, the lungs, and the legs all opening up at the same time. I’ll find myself somewhere outside my own suffering. I’ll find myself not in the way of my own achievements. . . .