Last Friday I talked about the obvious physical changes ten years of biking has made in me. Most of the changes I talked about — and most of the comments that came after — were about scars and other injuries.
Which brings up the question: So why do we bike?
Well, I bike because what’s happened in my head more than offsets anything that’s happened to my body.
I’ve Learned I’m an Athlete
In high school, I actually did “letter” — in debate and humor interpretation (yes, reading funny stories to audiences is actually a competitive event in the US, and I took it very seriously). But not in sports. Oh no, not in sports. In fact, I took some kind of cockeyed pride in not being a “jock.”
This is a tragedy, because I went to high school in Fruita, CO, which any mountain biker worth his salt knows is one of the best mountain biking destinations in the world.
As I got older, I rollerbladed (I can admit it without shame) to keep in shape, and played quite a bit of racquetball.
But I was never an athlete until I tried endurance mountain biking at age 30. The discovery that I have a gift for staying on my bike and turning the cranks long after most people would fall over exhausted was incredibly gratifying. It made me wonder: what else have I not discovered about myself?
And who wouldn’t want to find out, three decades into their life, that you’re an athlete — you just needed to find out what kind.
I’ve Learned I Can Suffer Well
I have ridden through the night, I have ridden in the cold, I have ridden when I am completely bonked out of my mind. I have ridden uphill for twenty miles with a jagged seatpost where my seat used to be. I have finished a race with a separated shoulder. I have ridden six hours after falling six feet right onto my chest, forearms, and face. And while part of me despairs (or even screams), I have never quit a race. Even while I am suffering, there’s a part of me that’s grimly amused at what a fool I am. That sarcastic guy has goaded me through a lot, and I now know that I can make it through circumstances that would shut a lot of people down. That’s a pretty cool thing to know about yourself.
I’ve Learned How to Be Smart
Kevin Millecam, a manager of mine back in the old days at Novell, used to give me challenging assignments — he’d tell me he wanted a database that could act as a back end to a shopping cart he wanted created using Java. And he would ask for those things knowing full well I was still just learning Java, and didn’t have database programming experience.
Then he would send me off on a mountain bike ride, during work hours, telling me to come back in three hours or so.
I’d take off, totally freaked out, knowing I was doomed. Within a half hour on the bike, though, I’d have forgotten all about what Kevin had asked for. And then, within an hour, little things would start popping into my head. By the time I got back, I’d have a working plan for how to get started.
Any time I’ve talked with a cyclist — road or mountain — I’ve heard similar stories. You get out on the bike and somehow your difficult problems get pushed into the background. Then, when they’re ready, they come popping back to the foreground…but they’re not as difficult as before.
I’ve Learned to Lose Myself
Every once in a while on a nice long ride, there will come a few miles where I go completely blank. I’m never aware of going into that state, but I’m always aware of coming out of it. And I realize, wow, I haven’t thought about anything for…well…I don’t know how long. Was it a minute? Five? How far did I go? What did I see? What was going on in my head? I never have answers to any of those questions, but I always feel great afterward.
I don’t know anything about Zen, but I’m pretty sure this blankness is a state they strive toward. I know Schopenhauer called it “the sublime,” but he went after it in all the wrong ways. Schopenhauer should have bought a bike.
I’ve Learned I Love the Outdoors
My dad is an avid hunter and fisherman. I — to his dismay — am not. I don’t have anything against either, I just couldn’t get into them as a kid (and believe me, I tried). Somehow, I got that all monkeyed up in my head and thought this meant that I didn’t like the outdoors.
Once I started mountain biking, I discovered I love the outdoors. And I have seen a lot of it. I’ve seen banana slugs as big as bananas. I’ve seen stars while out in the desert; there are a lot more of them than I had realized. I’ve seen wildflowers high up in the Uintas. I’ve seen moose and elk and mountain lions and foxes and raccoons and porcupines and skunks and rabbits and bears and deer (countless deer).
So, yeah. Biking comes with its bumps and bruises. And scars and occasional permanent debilitating injuries and death. But hey. Lots of upside, right?
Bonus Halloweenage: My eldest is going as one of the “greasers” from The Outsiders, which everyone in his class is reading right now. That stage makeup class my wife took back in college comes in mighty handy when it’s time to make a realistic-looking bruise, no? Second eldest is taking the easy way out: a cap and a pipe can be whipped out at a moment’s notice to make a Sherlock. And the twins (yes, they’re identical) are, naturally, princesses.