In Praise of Just Enjoying The Ride

A couple of years ago I watched the Tour and got totally excited by the Postal team’s victory.  I read the articles about the overweight guy who whipped himself into shape and rode a 24-hour endurance solo, and about the people who raced across the entire United States in record time.  They are incredible.  They acknowledged the pain and just keep going.  They’re obviously driven – maybe by a higher power, maybe by an incredible competitive drive, maybe by some inner demons.

But they’re not me; nor are they like most of the ordinary people who ride bikes.  We don’t do heroics.  We’re not pro’s; not even semi-pro.   Calling us serious amateurs is a compliment. 

The pro’s train every day, maintaining speeds over 35 mph for over 100 miles.  Lance averaged 15 mph climbing up the 8% grade of L’Alpe d’Huez.  I’m proud of myself when I average 15 mph over 20 miles of flat roads when the weather is good.  The books all say that you should try for a cadence of 90 to 100 rpm.  My legs simply die if I do 80 for more than a few minutes.  Because I have trouble bending over, my road bike has hybrid handlebars which means wind resistance gets pretty tough above 22 or 23 mph, even if I’m going down hill.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no couch potato.  When I turned 50 a decade ago I got scared that my life was in danger of falling into the black hole of inertia and infirmity.  I had a stable job.  My kids were on their way to college.  And my body was showing signs of wear – I had to stop running after three years of excruciating back pain and subsequent steroid injections that I finally figured out (duh!) was caused by the stress of the running itself – and it was taking increasingly long to work out my morning stiffness.  Was this it?  Did all I have to look forward to were years of increasing boredom and achy muscles?

So I decided to reinvigorate life by giving myself an annual adventure, a challenge.  A friend and I now annually spend a week backpacking, preferably in remote western areas or scaling 14,000 foot peaks.  I spent a summer learning to hang glide over the White Mountains.  I do kayaking.  I rediscovered cross-country skiing.  I joined a bike club, and started doing annual four day bike trips with my brother and cousin.  In between, I ride my bike to work whenever I can.

The adventures have had their down sides.  In the Rockies my hiking partner and I got caught in a lighting storm at 12,000 feet.  On another mid-summer hike up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire we got caught in a suddenly fog-enclosed freezing rainstorm and were barely able to stay on the path.  When the hang glider got up to about 3,000 feet I suddenly experienced a resurgence of my childhood susceptibility to motion sickness: a very scary thing to discover at that altitude.  Global warming has played havoc with New England snow patterns, leaving the bottoms of my old skis a scratched-up wreck.  I’ve been brushed off the road by crazy drivers and I have my share of road rash scars.

But, overall, it’s been grand!  While it still takes 15 minutes to get my joints loosened after I get out of bed (I should buy stock in whomever makes Ibuprophen), my back hasn’t gone out even once.   And I’ve become energized enough to once again re-invent my career and start something new.

The year I restarted cycling I decided on a self-imposed challenge of completing a Century: a one-day, hundred-mile bike ride – a distance I’d never yet done.  My riding partner and I chose the Transportation Alternative’s New York Century, partly as research for the “Hub On Wheels” Bike Festival” we were planning to start in Boston.

So I started training — 15 or 20 miles a few times a week, pushing as hard as I can.   I expanded my weekend runs by 10 miles each week:  35, 45, 55, 65, and then a couple weeks at 75 or more.  I pushed for speed on flat areas and repeatedly drove up hills.  It would often take up all of a precious weekend day, but I pressed on.

But in the middle of training something changed.  It was my wife – whose own preferred form of exercise is cooking enough food for a family reunion – who first noticed.  “You used to enjoy bike riding.  Now it feels like something you’re working at.”   She was right.  (I have found, with some chagrin, that she almost always is right.)  Bike riding had become a chore, an act of discipline done for the sake of an extrinsic purpose.  Getting on my bike was no longer a way to have fun, to relax, to get out.  I didn’t have the old tingle of pleasure as my legs loosened, the fresh air filled my lungs, and the scenery floated by.  Instead, it was something I felt I had to do.  It was training.  It was work.

Still, I had set myself a serious challenge.  There was no way I was going to do 100 miles unless I worked up to it.  And I know the mantra:  no pain, no gain.

And then I realized that adding unpleasant stress to my life was exactly the opposite of why I started treating myself to adventures in the first place.

So I decided to follow my wife’s typically good advice.  I decided to follow a scenic route I’d never explored.  I decided to stop at several interesting sites along the way.  My destination would be a museum, which I would take the time to see.  I wouldn’t race.  And while I knew the museum was a distance away, I wouldn’t worry about the exact number of miles covered.

That day, the weather was wonderful.  The sun was hot, but the air along the Rhode Island coast where I rode was cool.  I had two ice cream cones and a large lemonade.  I stopped at several parks and read all the road-side historical markers.  The museum wasn’t all that interesting, but I did the tour nonetheless.  It took a bit over seven hours and I only averaged 13.5 mph – which meant I passed all the little kids on cruisers while the twenty-somethings with dropped handlebars all passed me.

Most important, I enjoyed myself.  I saw new neighborhoods.  I sat on a bench overlooking a sailboat race in Narragansett Bay and watched the seagulls.  I learned a bit of local history.  I had interesting conversations with several people.  I discovered two restaurants that I think I’ll want to try with my wife.

And, as it turned out, I actually hit my originally hoped-for target of 80 miles.  (Ok, I confess:  it was actually 78.5 so I went around the block an extra time until the odometer turned over.)  Maybe, for all of us who aren’t professionals, and who don’t really think we’ll ever get to anything approaching that level, the best way to improve is not to work at it so hard.

Maybe the best thing for us to do is just enjoy the ride.

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