The White Line

01.10.2012 | 7:24 am

When I am mountain biking, I am — unfortunately — easily distracted from the task at hand. When I should be paying attention to the fifteen to fifty feet ahead of me (depending on visibility of what’s ahead as well as how technical the trail is), I will sometimes make the crucial and possibly unforgivable error of looking off to one side or another.

I will, instead of attending to the trail, look at the mountain. Or at a pretty tree. Or the sky. Or at animals and bugs.

Sometimes, I will completely lose my head, stop altogether, and start talking with the people on the ride.

I should know better. Eyes on the trail, man; feet on the pedals. Focus. Focus! This ain’t no time for jibber-jabber!

I can’t help myself. When I’m mountain biking, I want to look around.

Fortunately, I generally am much better-behaved when I ride my road bike. When I’m riding on the road, I pay attention to the thing I ought to be paying attention to.

IMG_0446 - Version 2.jpgThe white line.

What’s Strange

When I am off the road bike, I sometimes wonder what is so special about that white line. All it signifies, when I’m off the bike, is where the shoulder begins. When I’m in a car, for example, I will glance at it and think nothing more than, “I should probably not cross that line, since I don’t like the sounds of rumble strips, and The Hammer will think I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel again.”

And then I won’t think about it again until I fall asleep at the wheel (again).

Indeed, when I am not riding my road bike, hours and hours and hours might elapse with me giving the white line nary a thought. And I’ll bet that you’re no different. I’ll bet, in fact, that if you haven’t been out road riding today, you haven’t dwelt on the white line for more than 0.2 seconds (excluding, of course, the time you’ve been thinking about it while reading this post).

But if you have been riding today, I’ll bet you’ve spent a considerable amount of quality time with the white line. As in, I’ll bet you’ve spent more time looking at the white line than any other object today.

Which is, when you think about it, quite weird.

Now, don’t get your hackles up. I’m not saying you’re weird. No. I’m saying we’re weird, because I don’t even know how much time I’ve spent staring at that white line in my road-riding, cycling lifetime. I am, however, happy to make a number up out of thin air. Over fifteen years of riding, I’ll bet more than two thousand hours. Conservatively.

Yes, that’s right. Having made this number up, I’m now quite confident that I’ve spent more than two thousand hours staring at the white line painted on a road.

What’s Even Stranger

What’s even stranger than how much time I’ve spent staring at the white line, though, is what I’ve been staring at the white line instead of.

When, for example, last year Kenny, Heather, The Hammer and I relay raced from Moab to St. George — 500 miles in one day, across some of the most stunning desert landscape you could ever hope to take in — guess what my predominant memory of the course is?

The white line.

Or how about my most vivid memory of Mt. Nebo, my favorite local training century ride, due to the obscene amount of climbing, the staggering mountain vistas, and the intense paceline return trip?

The white line.

Or — and this hurts me to say it, because it’s pretty embarrassing — what about that trip-of-a-lifetime cycling vacation The Hammer and I took to France last summer? My very first biking trip in Europe?

Well, I saw a lot of beautiful things, that’s for sure. But when I was on the bike, I saw more white line than everything else put together.

If you want to blow the minds of a roomful of cyclists sometime, pose the question: “How much time, in the history of modern cycling, do you think the sum total of cyclists have spent staring at a white line?”

The number, I assure you, is staggering, and probably has “to the power of” in it somewhere.

The Strangest Thing of All

But you know what’s really, truly strange? This: I am not even a tiny bit ashamed or regretful of all that time I’ve spent staring at the white line.

Really. I’m not.

Because I think that staring at the white line is indicative of the biggest difference between road and mountain biking. And, in fact, it’s part of why I love road biking.

See, when you’re staring at the white line, your eyes are fully occupied. And since you’re on a road bike with your body performing a demanding-but-repetitive action, your body is fully occupied, too.

This leaves your mind free to wander a bit.

While staring at the white line, I’ve had my best blog post ideas just pop into my head (in fact, a good road ride is the one surefire way I can be guaranteed to come up with a usable post idea; ask The Hammer how many times I’ve said, while we’re riding together, “Hey, I just realized what I’m writing about tomorrow.”). I’ve resolved difficult work problems, without being aware that I was even thinking of them.

And, occasionally, while staring at the white line, I’ve experienced tranquility. I’ve been riding along, pedaling away, trying to turn less squarey circles, and then . . . something happens.

Or maybe it’s more honest to say something stops happening. Regardless, time (I don’t know how much) passes, and I become aware again. I’ve gone some distance, but I don’t really remember it. I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I do know I feel good. Peaceful. Happy.

And all I was doing was riding my bike and staring at the white line.


  1. Comment by James Z | 01.10.2012 | 8:04 am

    This is why I no longer own a road bike. The sad part is: familiar single track now, occasionally, becomes my white line. :( Must…Find…Some place…NEW…o7o…

  2. Comment by Trailer Park Cyclist | 01.10.2012 | 8:04 am

    Actually, Fatty, it is an easily explained phenomenon

  3. Comment by Gunnstein | 01.10.2012 | 8:10 am

    One of the many things I like about my recumbent is that I can enjoy the scenery around and above me without breaking my neck (provided I occasionally do glance down at the white line, of course). Sure, it weighs nearly twice as much as your fancy carbon wedgie bikes, but that, you know, builds character. ‘bent riders have a lot of character, though it’s not easy to tell with all the beard in the way.

  4. Comment by Britt at Large | 01.10.2012 | 8:22 am

    Thoroughly appreciating your A-Team reference in there!

  5. Comment by KM | 01.10.2012 | 8:26 am

    You should come ride the backroads of Kentucky. There’s no white line on the side of the roads to worry about, just the overwhelming hypervigilance/anxiety that comes with watching out for inattentive drivers. BTW, I’m back on the road bike after my accident in August. Even though I didn’t have a white line, I still found my mind wandering on my first solo venture, it went something like this…”My wife thinks I’m crazy to start riding w/o teamates….she may have something there. If more than one cyclist is hit by a car, I guess your odds go up for lesser injuries….unless you’re the first hit that is….” The internal dialogue went downhill from there and I cut my ride short by 5-7 miles and finished the remainder on the local trails MTB’ing. I’ll be riding with a group from here on out…on the road at least. Great post though, I can truly relate, although I find myself breaking into a cold sweat thinking about the while line at the moment.

  6. Comment by Brian in VA | 01.10.2012 | 8:32 am

    My wife passed me in a car on Sunday. She was going in the other direction, no more than 400 yards from our house, headed to the grocery store. I was just finishing a 40 mile road ride, coming down a long hill before the last climb to our house. She told me later I looked very focused and was really flying; I never even saw her, don’t even remember a car passing me at that spot. I only remember the white line….

  7. Comment by Rich | 01.10.2012 | 9:08 am

    Am I the only one concerned with how often Fatty is falling asleep at the wheel?

  8. Comment by Randy | 01.10.2012 | 9:20 am

    Echoing what KM said, Sunday I was riding and realized: “There’s not a whole lot of room on the other side of the White Line here; I’d better be EXTRA careful”

  9. Comment by Moishe | 01.10.2012 | 9:28 am

    As Neil Young put it, “That old white line is a friend of mine.”

  10. Comment by rich | 01.10.2012 | 9:35 am

    Ah….the white line….also known as “mental floss”

    Great post!

  11. Comment by TK | 01.10.2012 | 10:08 am

    @rich, I’ve never heard it called mental floss, but that is a perfect description of it. I’m using that from now on.

  12. Comment by Obstinate Roadie | 01.10.2012 | 10:19 am

    There are few white lines around here, but I know that I often see interesting things for the first time while driving on roads I’ve ridden dozens if not hundreds of times. I can tell you the exact location of every pothole and stray piece of gravel in the county, though!

  13. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 01.10.2012 | 10:32 am

    Apparently I’m a mtb’r on a road bike. I’m always looking around. On a Summer Century ride, going uphill (a favorite time to look around) I asked my buddy later “Hey! did you see that huge dead cow we passed?” His answer; “was it 10feet in front of me?” I guess he’s line watcher.

    The white lines around here often randomly end, or take you off into the gravel. Fatty can attest the white lines on the Levis Gran Fondo (if there were any) were definitely something to stay LEFT of!

  14. Comment by SteveinNC | 01.10.2012 | 10:48 am

    “Whiiiiiite liiiine fever!” Merle Haggard.

  15. Comment by Pipebaum | 01.10.2012 | 10:52 am

    Rule #6

  16. Comment by Liz | 01.10.2012 | 12:05 pm

    @Rich, I am also concerned about Fatty falling asleep at the wheel. Elden, you need more sleep! Or a driver.

    I know the sensation referred to in the last 2-3 paragraphs — I experienced that more when I used to run, but still do at times on the bike.

  17. Comment by TimD | 01.10.2012 | 12:36 pm

    we tend not to have white lines by the side of the road here either,not unless there is a hazard like a ditch right alongside the road. As a consequence I gaze about. It is the highlight of my ride to work to see hares, owls, herons etc.

  18. Comment by leroy | 01.10.2012 | 12:43 pm

    Oh thank goodness it’s not weird to focus on the white line.

    I like them so much, I painted them all over the apartment.

    I feel so vindicated.


  19. Comment by Mary | 01.10.2012 | 1:35 pm

    I, too, watch the white line. Very sad considering I ride the beaches (Clearwater, Sand Key, Indian Rocks,etc…..–Florida, for those non-familiar)…But I also ride before the sun comes up so it’s easy to justify.

    @Rich & Kim, I agree with you about the sleepy factor but then hoped he was just exaggerating…

  20. Comment by aussie kev | 01.10.2012 | 1:59 pm

    very thoughtfull post – hadn’t thought of it before, but i would have spent a fairly big potion of my life “watching the line”.

    Oh i recieved a second “comedian mastermind” book today – with the inscription
    “ride far
    ride fast
    ride lots
    and have fun !
    stay awesome

    if you can track down the correct shipping address for that inscription i will ship it on for you


  21. Comment by George | 01.10.2012 | 2:08 pm

    When the TV/DVD player in the basement died last winter, I thought about painting a white line across the floor and up the wall. After reading this I know what I will be doing tonight for a better, more focused ride tomorrow morning.

  22. Comment by Mark in Ottawa | 01.10.2012 | 3:06 pm

    Until now, I hadn’t realized how many hours (and vistas) have gone by with me staring at that white line.

    Kinda sad when you think about all the better things you could be looking at while out riding…but then I risk drifting or swerving getting run over. Heh. :-)

    Mark (in Ottawa, Canada)

  23. Comment by Eric L | 01.10.2012 | 3:48 pm

    White lines on my road rides usually represent the traffic-side line of a bike lane. I also stare at the white line for a couple of reasons. I like to see how fast I can go and still stay on the line – this is my pretending what it might be like in a peloton. The other reason is that there’s always way more rocks, glass and 1/2 inch drive sockets on the bike lane so I ride the line or keep left of it to avoid punctures and having to change a flat Fatty style.

  24. Comment by MtlDan | 01.10.2012 | 4:24 pm

    You made me think of a new revenue stream for hard pressed state governments: ads for bike stuff stenciled into the white lines. Although personally I’d rather pay taxes than have to read “Park Tools and Patch Kits” thousands of times on a two hour ride.

  25. Comment by dude | 01.10.2012 | 4:45 pm

    Are we talking coke here or… maybe you should try to ride backwards?

  26. Comment by Dale | 01.10.2012 | 6:08 pm

    Am I wrong, but in Europe aren’t the line colors reversed? White in the middle, yellow on the side? I’ve never been myself, but when watching the tour, that’s what I thought I remember seeing.

  27. Comment by Joe in San Diego | 01.10.2012 | 6:29 pm

    I followed my first “white lines” when I was eight. They were actually silver. I received slot cars for Christmas. You don’t have to steer. You just go as fast as you can without crashing.

  28. Comment by patchy | 01.10.2012 | 11:44 pm

    Can’t say I’ve ever focused that much on the white line on the side of the road (like others, being more interested in what’s around me or, more often, in chewing the handlebar clamp on the stem)….

    But after reading this, I’m sure I will fixate on the white line a damn sight more. Thanks, Elden. :S

  29. Comment by Andrew | 01.11.2012 | 8:20 am

    Spoken (written?) like a true triathlete.

  30. Comment by Paul-SimiValley | 01.11.2012 | 8:55 am

    Love the white line! In SoCal, the white line is dry, smooth, clean and the fastest surface. But…when I see the well-defined debris field in the bike lane starts to shift to the right while coming around a right sweeper, that’s a danger sign which I respond to. It means that countless cars have swept the debris away with their tires, and I don’t want to be in their path!

    No one in the comments said the white line meant safety. Just a thought.

  31. Comment by Anonymous | 01.11.2012 | 10:33 am

    I almost never ride on roads with lines, white or otherwise. Too much traffic.

  32. Comment by Ben | 01.11.2012 | 10:58 am

    Ok, odd question… was the white line photo taken coming out of Calf Creek Falls heading to the Hogsback? I saw it and was instantly taken there as I thought about coming up that 14% grade hoping not to get clipped by an RV.

  33. Comment by TimD | 01.11.2012 | 12:54 pm

    Dale, in the UK there are usually white lines down the centre of the road. Yellow lines at the side of the road are parking restrictions of various types and only in certain places. There are white lines at the side of the road in some places, but generally where there is some sort of hazard, ditch by the side of the road, single track road etc, but there doesn’t seem to be a rule about where they should be. Similar lines exist in France and most of the rest of europe that I’ve been to (Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands)

  34. Comment by MattC | 01.11.2012 | 2:01 pm

    I see my new job! Coming up with a bar-code style of white road line paint system (that every brain can comprehend w/out any problem) so I can put in subliminal messages (advertisements actually).

    This way you won’t even recognize that you are reading ads as you ride, but immediatly after your ride you’d run right over to Burger King and buy a whopper combo (in case you already don’t). Or maybe even you’d stop DURING your ride if my subliminal white bar-code ads were powerful enough.

    I’ll be a zillionaire!

  35. Comment by Anonymous | 01.11.2012 | 5:22 pm

    Paul-SimiValley mentioned it above: when there’s near zero/light traffic, not just staring at it but riding ON it is the path of least resisitance. Very smooth and fast. On very hot days I think of it as a cooling break for my tires too…depending how long I can hold it for or course.

  36. Comment by postrideburrito | 01.13.2012 | 2:40 pm


    Friends of the non-road-biking variety sometimes say things like “I don’t know how you can ride on a road for 6 hours, I’d run out of things to think about”. To which I reply “Exactly!”

  37. Comment by Jody Prummer | 01.13.2012 | 11:37 pm

    A few weeks ago I was head down staring at the white line when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman lying in the ditch. When I went back to see if she was alright I noticed she was deceased. I guess she had been missing for a few weeks.

    I find myself looking in the ditches now and not the white line. It seems my rides are longer now and I have a lack of concentration.

  38. Comment by Tara Glaze | 01.14.2012 | 4:24 pm

    I think this is a real great blog post.Really thank you! Awesome.

  39. Comment by Jeremy | 01.15.2012 | 1:16 am

    So I need to take a few hours of video of the white line, turn it into a series of DVD’s differing only in length of time, and sell them for $30 each as indoor training aids? This could be my ticket to millions!

  40. Comment by Augustus | 01.15.2012 | 3:55 am

    The attitude of “feet on the pedals” is the jock attitude a lot of mountain bikers have. I am, and always have been, a “stop and smell the flowers” cyclist. I do not compete, formally nor informally, I ride purely for pleasure. I have no problem with this attitude, so long as it does not involve me. Call me a sissy for not riding over that cliff, I do not care. Each to their own. As to the white line, My road rides are long and slow, I average less than 15 MPH for around fifty miles. That is down from seventy a few years ago.

  41. Comment by domotion2011 | 01.15.2012 | 8:39 am

    Towing the line is more like it. One mans’ pain is another mans’ pleasure. Urban bike riding which is neither road or MTB is hazard with both those that tow the line and those that cross over the line. Put me in the column “Cross over the Line”

  42. Comment by Mike in AZ | 01.16.2012 | 2:22 am

    With a small business to run and 3 young daughters. I find myself alone in the desert in the dark after the kids are in bed with the white line as my only riding partner.

  43. Comment by Salman | 02.8.2012 | 8:14 am

    This blog made me laugh. and laugh and laugh. I kind of feel uelucturnd looking at these photos because I had no idea this kind of thing existed!

  44. Comment by Asa Luke | 02.21.2012 | 6:56 am

    I really like and appreciate your blog article.Much thanks again. Keep writing.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.