Why I Started Riding
I have no idea why I started riding but I can tell you this – I am in my mid-forties and some of my earliest memories of being a kid involve bicycles. I can remember riding a bike outside my grandmother’s house when I was 5. I remember riding to/from school from about 5th grade all the way through high school. I have many scars and each one has a story about a different wipe out:
- Foot in front spokes when my brother was giving me a ride home from school and I was on the handle bars
- First day with new BMX bike, taking a big jump, landing with knee on pedal, many stiches
- Half pipe side landing destroyed ankle;
Even though the scars tell the stories of all the things that did not go right, the rest of me, and the fact that I love riding to this day, tells the story of all the stuff that did go right.
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa (close to Zambia – relatively) in a place and time that no longer exists (mostly for the good). As a kid I had an incredible amount of freedom. There were no grownups out there keeping tabs on me and so my best friend and I would spend our days riding. When I think back about those days I can honestly say that our bikes were as much a part of us as our arms or legs. We rode until it was too dark to see and then we rode a little more. There were no cell phones so no one would call us home. We rode until we kept crashing into things and general y this told us it was time to head home. I knew the roads and dirt trails so well from my friend’s house that I had no problem riding them home in the dark. I rode because, to me, it was total freedom.
Then a whole lot of life happened between the ages of 17 and 35 with only brief periods of riding. I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. I rode a bike as I had no car and didn’t care for the bus. This was great in the summer but in winter it rains all the time, so riding was only available for a third of the year. Then I moved to Portland, OR, then Seattle , WA with much the same riding pattern. Some riding in the summer and very little the rest of the year. With kids arriving while in Seattle, riding faded into the background and stayed there for some time.
Then, about 8 years ago, we moved to Southern California and abundant sunshine. I had an old mountain bike that I had ridden in college. Wasn’t much, but it was a bike. I remember sitting around one morning wallowing in my mid-life rotundness and wondering how I had let myself become so out of shape. I got on my bike and rode up the river trail, a total trip length of 7 miles round trip and completely flat to boot. Liberation! I was so excited. Not because I had gotten off my rear-end and done something, but because I felt like I was a kid again. Everything that I remember about loving bikes as a kid came back to me in this short ride:
- The freedom that comes with cycling
- The fun of going really fast under your own steam
- The wind and the sun and the sound of cycling
- Knowing that if, given the time and if you wanted to, you could ride to just about anywhere.
I knew at that moment that I wanted to ride again and keep riding. I got rid of the old bike and got a new one. I rode that one for a year then upgraded to the carbon world and spent 5 years racing triathlon. Recently I sold the tri bike and bought a Specialized Stumpjumper 29’er and took to the hills. Soon I will buy another road bike and split my riding time between dirt and road. I have a single speed road bike that I love riding. It is a pure steel frame and has the setup for the old suicide sticks, but mine is just a single. I ride it to work once or twice a week and love the simplicity of pure riding without worrying about gears. Hills are harder and my cadence is up on the flat but really all I need to do is point it in the right direction and pedal. I can’t keep up with my buddies on the Cervelo P3’s or other fancy bikes, but I have ridden this thing from Seattle to Portland (STP for those who have not done this I would highly recommend it). This is over 200 miles and I did the first 150mi on day one. I ride it because I love riding and this bike is riding at its purest.
Here is a poem that I imagine Dr. Seuss would have written if he had liked bikes and riding as much as I do:
I ride it here, I ride it there, I ride my bike everywhere.
I love the hills, both up and down
I’m always happy, never frown
My bike is me and I am it
I love my bike, every bit.
I rode a really hard mtb event this weekend (Conquer the Mountain – Lite). There were times on the trail (after 4,200ft in 18miles) where daemons were all around me. Telling me I was fat and weak and old and foolish. And still I was on a bike in the mountains. And the sun was shining and the breeze was cool. So I rode past the daemons. Again, and again, and again. And when I got to the top of the climb and the descent was straight down with loose shale and rocks and cliffs (way beyond my ability), I pointed my wheel straight down and rode. And I loved every minute of it (some in retrospect but mostly while I was there).
I may not remember why I started riding when I was a kid, but I certainly know why I keep riding. Riding a bicycle is a spiritual experience for me. Wind. Sun. Rain. Hills (up and down). Dirt. Chip seal. Bike path. Sweat. Speed. Pain. All of these are part of the ride and all of them make me feel alive. I love and hate each one of these at different times on different rides, but each one is there in some form and each of them combine to remind me that sitting in an office most of the week is a means to an end and not the end itself.
I ride because my bicycles are part of me. Part of who I am. I feel a little silly being 43 years old and talking about bicycles this way, but I love what a bicycles allow me to be. I love where bicycles take me (both figuratively and literally). I love how riding makes me feel. To sum it all up I just plain love riding.
Thanks for letting me tell you my riding story. I wish you all well and hope your days (and mine) are filled with many more wonderful rides.
Well, there was this cool bike under the Christmas tree about 50 or so years ago. The timeline is vague, the memory vivid. My brother woke me up at 5 am and together we roused “Santa Claus” and his wife for that early morning surprise.
OK, OK, I know you mean “why I started riding seriously in my present life”. I’ve always had a bike. I even rode my bike from Denver to home, about 250 miles through the mountains, on a whim after my first year of college. That was three days of wonderful pain. But that’s another story, I digress. My serious riding began 13 years ago.
At that time I was commuting by bike in the summer – when the weather was nice, which was about 11 miles one way. I thought I was in good shape. The bike was a 1978 Schwinn Super Le Tour 10-speed (that’s 5 x 2) with down tube shifters. What a sweet ride – I am the original owner. Yeah, another story for later, sorry.
My mom had mentioned one time that one of my childhood friends that I had lost touch with was doing a lot of cycling. OK, that’s cool. But when he, John, and I reconnected at my (ouch) 30th high school class reunion I realized that her statement was really an under statement. He was riding over 5000 miles a year, doing rides like the Tour of Colorado, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, and 24 hours of Moab. It was then that the seed of “serious” cycling was planted. It slowly began to grow into my psyche.
That reunion was a life changing event for me. Getting reacquainted with those “kids” again made me realize what an opportunity I had let slip by. John and I easily reestablished the friendship we had way back then, and the new relationship is based around cycling (although the recalling of all those old hijinks is right up there too, believe me).
Since we live about 1000 miles apart, we started emailing, and still do, several times a week. His cycling adventures became my research projects and it led me into a new world that seemed foreign and alluring at the same time. Our old friendship was rekindled with a new common interest and I was determined to keep it alive this time. Thirty years; what a regret! But I wasn’t going to dwell on that. I made a commitment to keep this cherished friendship going until one of us dies. Cycling is the “fuel”.
In the ensuing years, my metamorphosis into an accomplished cyclist (John was already there) has provided me with all those things that anyone who has been through that knows. I have raced and won (and crashed), ridden centuries, double centuries, joined a team, and wear my sunglasses outside of the helmet straps.
Those were all fun and improved my life. Well, except for the crashing.
The best part of this process, though, was reforging a friendship with a childhood buddy I never should have let go. (We were born two days apart. Our parents were close friends, too). Each of us has made the long drive one way or the other several times to do some epic rides together.
We have worked through some difficult times on our own home fronts, but now with the support of a true friend. We have gone on to do other fun things together as well. But cycling is still the glue holding it all together. When we can’t physically ride together, we share the stories of our rides. We are creating the memories that we’ll laugh over years from now when we’re pushing walkers.
That is why I started riding.
Like most kids that grew up in the suburbs in the Brady Bunch era, I rode a bike all over the neighborhood all weekend and all summer long. And like most teenagers in the suburbs in the post-Brady Bunch era, I bought a car as soon as I could and left that bike to rust.
I did not ride a bicycle again until the very end of 2009.
In the 25 years between rides, I was constantly fighting a tendency to gain weight if I was not being active. I tried to keep it in check by doing fun things like snowboarding, tennis, and going to punk shows.
Turns out punk shows are more dangerous than snowboarding. I tore out my ACL at a show in 2006. Long story short, I was misdiagnosed at first and I did not push hard enough for a proper diagnosis. This meant I had an untreated injured knee that would fail on me when doing pretty much any physical activity. Things like mowing the lawn, walking across a dance floor, and this one time when I just turned to answer the phone and ended up lying on the floor.
My weight increased while my overall health declined as I got more and more sedentary, since there was not much left for me to do to stay active. In 2008, I went in for a checkup and had the following test results:
Resting heart rate 95
My weight at this appointment was 260, and it continued to climb through the year to a peak of around 265-270 pounds.
Finally in 2009 I decided to have the troublesome knee looked at again, where after just a couple of wiggles the doctor said “We need an MRI to verify it, but you seem to have a torn ACL.” Fast forward a few months past the confirming MRI, through the reconstructive surgery, and on to the physical therapy.
The therapist said riding a bike was great for rebuilding strength in my legs without putting too much strain on the knee. I was hesitant to start riding, because of a combination of fear of death by car and death by embarrassment of silly clothes. But being fat really sucked, so I figured I could wear normal clothes and keep to off-road paths and put my fears aside. I bought a cheap old hardtail mtb through Craigslist and headed out.
My first ride lasted about 10 minutes. But what an awesome 10 minutes. Every day I would go out on my lunch break and ride a little further, pretty soon I was riding for the whole lunch break and cutting into my afternoon’s productivity.
At the time I lived in San Francisco’s East Bay area. Way out in the far East Bay, where there are lots of multi-use paths and easy access to fire roads and trails right in my backyard. The funny thing is, I never saw any of it until I started riding.
It was like a whole world opened up right in front of me. The miles started to add up and the pounds started to melt away. Fast forward again past some more healthful dietary changes and a move to San Francisco, where I ride my bike for any errand and I ride as long as I can get away with on the weekends.
And now I do it surrounded by cars while wearing silly clothes, something that was unthinkable to me just a couple of years ago.
Between my last checkup last fall and the weight loss challenge last month, my current numbers look like this:
Resting heart rate 47
I weigh 193 pounds now, just about a pound and a half over where I bottomed out during Fatty’s weight loss challenge this spring. I know I have a bit more to go to reach my ideal weight, but I have not been trying too hard to lose while adding miles every week preparing for my first century- this year’s 100MoN.
In just about two and a half years I have gone from that awesome 10 minute slog to easy 50 mile weekends to gearing up for my first 100 mile ride. In the process I have lost over 70 pounds and managed to get my blood pressure and other health metrics all in check.
And it all started as therapy for an ACL reconstruction following too much fun at the punk rock show.
Surprise Part II, “How I Got Someone Else To Start Riding”
I told my wife if she ever wanted to see me on the weekends again, she needed to get on a bike and keep up. Luckily, she likes me and did.
My dad is a loon. A nut. Not in the “step away slowly, and don’t turn your back to him” way, but more of a “He’s really going to do that? Really?” sort of way.
When I was in college my sophomore year, he called me, and mentioned a friend of his showed up at his door with a mountain-y bike. It was 1990, so they weren’t as mountain-y as they are now, but it was what they had. He asked my dad if he wanted to ride. My dad said yes. He told me about this on the phone, and mentioned he wanted to do a ride when I got back for the summer. He was going to try to find someone he could borrow a bike from, so that I could ride. At that point, I hadn’t really ridden a bike since I was a kid.
My dad picked me up from the airport, and as we were leaving, he said, “I couldn’t find a bike for you to borrow. We’re going to stop by the bike shop on the way home.” I haven’t even dropped in to see my mom, and my dad is taking me to look at bikes.
I left with a Trek 950 Singletrack. We went home, and gave hugs to mom. The plan was to go up to my parents’ small cabin in Frazier Park, elevation ~5000 feet, for the weekend. This was also the starting point for the ride. From the cabin we rode up to the top of Mt. Pinos, elevation ~9000 feet.
Note: if you look up the word “rode” in my dictionary, this is definition 4: “To ride some, walk a lot, and grumble that you haven’t actually test rode the bike so the resultant shifting is totally messed up.”
From the top of Mt. Pinos, we rode to the top of Mt. Abel, after descending into a valley. In the snow. In June.
Did I mention I’m from southern California?
We made it home. My dad was hooked. I was interested. My dad needed a riding partner, and I was willing. We’ve both been riding ever since.
When I got married, I asked if there were days he preferred for the wedding. He casually mentioned he wanted to do a race on August 18, so the wedding was the week before. On August 18, my dad won the 65+ XC Mountain Bike Nationals, by 0.25 seconds.
That was 10 years ago. He still rides.
I need to stay in shape, because I’d rather not be dropped by a 75 year old man. Of course, it isn’t that awe-inspiring to beat a 75 year old man, so we both enjoy the ride. Now, if the road is flat, we bring along Hudson, my 7 year old son.
I suppose you could say that both my son and I have the same riding starts; we started because our dad dragged us out there, but we keep at it, because we both love to spend the time with our fathers.
A year ago I was a runner. Training was going well. My body was holding up (no injuries), my track workouts were consistent, I was running doubles and my mileage was starting to get up where I wanted it. I ran a see-where-I-am half-marathon in July in 1:35:20 and learned a lot (for example, don’t run a 6:08 split for the first mile). Running was my passion and I was excited to take the lessons I had learned in that half and apply myself to become the absolute best runner that I was genetically capable of becoming.
Then, I woke up one morning in August and noticed that it hurt to breathe. I went on my normal run, and it seemed okay, but over the next few days it got worse. It hurt to talk and even to take shallow breaths, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t eating. Being a runner I am used to ignoring twinges until they really become a problem, and by the third day I was forced to admit that this was a problem, and if it was a strained chest muscle (my suspicion) maybe at least I could get some stronger pain killers because the Ibuprofen was not cutting it.
I got an x-ray and, after finding fluid in my lungs, the doctor sent me to a clinic 30 minutes away to get a CT scan. I knew I was in trouble when the scan lady came back with oxygen and told me that they had called an ambulance. Apparently I had multiple blood clots in both of my lungs, a potentially fatal condition.
I had just turned 26. I made good life decisions. I hadn’t been in a hospital since I was born. The next two weeks were probably the worst of my life. I couldn’t lay down and breathe at the same time, everything hurt more than I had ever known anything could hurt, and the doctor told me that the blood clots had cut off circulation to parts of my lungs which resulted in “infarctions” or basically that parts of my lungs had died as a result of lack of oxygenation. He said I would have to wait and see how much lung function I recovered and that because there was no discernable reason for the clots, I would be on blood thinners for the rest of my life.
I started trying to recover my fitness immediately. I was told to do very VERY minimal activity because a side effect of the antibiotic they had me on for pneumonia was tendon ruptures, and also there could still be clots between my heart and lungs (as it takes around six months for clots to dissipate) and they didn’t want me to further damage my heart. Walking was hard. Running was impossible. I was really stressed, and the way that I usually deal with stress (running) was entirely inaccessible to me.
And that’s when I remembered my bike. I started riding inside on a spin bike. There were no hills that way so I could keep close tabs on my heart rate, and I could stop whenever I needed to stop without being stuck miles from home. And then, a couple of weeks later, I started riding my real bike, a Kona Honky Tonk named Lydia. We had spent time together before. I liked to bike commute when it was convenient. But my bike had always been merely an inexpensive, but slower and wetter, way of getting somewhere.
Running was soul-killing. Because of the lung damage, etc. my heart rate jumped up FAST whenever I tried to run. I was jogging at 12-minute mile pace with walking breaks. Whereas before, running was the highlight of every day, relieving stress and helping me to gain perspective, at that moment in my life, running, or more accurately trying to run was torture.
But cycling was a different story. On my bike I was free. I could exercise. I could get places fast and feel like an athlete again. And most importantly, with biking, I didn’t have a constant comparison of before the clots and after. It was new and exciting and I fell in love.
At the start I had to walk my bike up hills because my heart rate would get too high. But as the weeks and months continued these breaks disappeared. I started riding to work. I made a rule that if a destination was within 6 miles of my home I had to bike there regardless of the weather. I bought a Honey Stinger waffle and biked to Gresham (a little over 18 miles), ate it (it was great), and biked home. I crashed my bike for the first time and got over the fear that because I am on blood thinners all bike crashes will be fatal. I got banged up a bit. Lydia got banged up a bit, but we both emerged stronger and more confident on the other side (well I did anyway, she needed some brake adjustments).
Running has come back slowly. I am not the same runner I was, and I don’t know if I will ever PR again (though I have definitely not given up hope and am going to work my ass off to run a sub-3 hour marathon some day). But this whole ordeal has introduced me to a new love. Last week I biked all of the way to work and all of the way home all five days (over 14 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing one way, which is significant for me). I live on a main bikeway in Portland, and I went from being passed by everyone, to breathing deep and racing my way home. My mantra is light and strong and I smile so much I am always fishing bugs out of my mouth.
Right now my bike is a symbol of strength and flexibility. It reminds me that my life isn’t under my control, but there are no dead ends. Life is hard. The last year has been hard for me and it’s been hard for many of the people I love. But in the midst of struggles there is still joy. And that joy is worth pursuing and worth working for. I love running. I love my bike. And if someday I can neither run nor ride, I will find something else to do.
PS from Fatty: Don’t forget, the contest to win a trip and a bike, all while fighting cancer, is still on. Click here for info on the trip, then click here for information on the bikes, and click here to donate. Thanks!
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