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Cogito Ergo Sunk

February 24, 2011

I rode into work today for the first time this year. Typically, it’s less the snow and ice that keeps me off the roads, and more the vast amounts of salt the city puts down absolutely everywhere. With a fresh blanket of snow and warming temperatures, I thought that might be less of an issue. And I was right until I got to campus, where maintenance crews seemed to have removed all the salt from the Dead Sea and sprinkled it liberally over every road, path, ramp, and step around the university.

Because I don’t ride on snow as much as I might, the first kilometer along the Rail Trail took a bit of getting used to. Snow on packed snow on ice made for a bumpy and uneven ride. And with the higher seat on my mountain bike—to replicate my position on the road bike—I seemed to have less weight over the back wheel, which seemed to bump and skid at every opportunity. It didn’t take long to find a rhythm and to ride more confidently, but I was reminded of a lovely section in Jean Bobet’s beautiful book, Tomorrow, We Ride. Bobet, the younger brother of the great French cyclist, Louison Bobet—who was the first to win the Tour de France three years in a row in the early 1950s—was an accomplished professional cyclist in his own right with some impressive palmares. He was also something of an intellectual, and felt out of place in the pro peloton full of men escaping work in the mines, factories, and farms of post-World War II Europe. He might have been more successful, he mused in the book, if he could just stop thinking. His wife coined the wonderful phrase: “Cogito ergo sunk” (I think, therefore I’m sunk) to describe his plight. As I bumped and worried and squeezed the handlebars too tightly, I was reminded of this line, and also the extent to which I relate to Jean Bobet and being a thinker before a cyclist.

And it’s true. The methodical flow of a good cycling stroke is at once simple and impossible. On the one hand, it’s a matter of just rotating your legs. It’s not an accident that “it’s just like riding a bicycle” has entered the popular lexicon. But the mind plays tricks on the rider, and an active mind can be disastrous. Overthinking a descent or the length or grade of a climb or a difficult patch of road breeds timidity and is tantamount to surrendering. Your cadence drops or becomes uneven, and the longer the ride, the harder it is to recover the smooth form. It’s also in this mindset that accidents do occur. In my experience, in spite of needing to ride myself into shape at the beginning of the cycling season, it’s the confidence that seems to require the most time and work to recover. As I descended last weekend after agonizing up three nasty hills, I noticed that I was feathering the brakes a good bit more than I had the last time I had descended this particular road. I wasn’t leaning into the turns as aggressively to cut the best lines down the hill, and I was sitting up more rather than trying to make myself as aerodynamic as possible. Part of this was common sense: I hadn’t been this way in a couple of months and wanted ample time to anticipate new potholes in the road (of which there were plenty, incidentally) and to keep an eye out for gravel, which seems to get swept on and off the roads on a fairly random basis. But there I was thinking and rationalizing all this at the same time! Tentative. Not a bad thing, but it inhibited the ride just as much as a noisy chain or gummed-up gears might have. I don’t time my rides, but I expect that by June, I’ll be tackling that same 20km loop with a lot more confidence and completing it in much less time than it took on Sunday. But I’ll try not to think about it…

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