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The Loneliness of the Solo Rider

August 8, 2011

The days typically start the same way. Scrambled eggs, cold bacon, and tea (usually Earl Grey—black). Through winter and spring—and now summer—breakfast is eaten at the front window. I’ll look out over the front garden and the road: the first few meters of the day’s ride. Or I’ll briefly read over the latest cycling news, editorials, and blogs online. Both serve the purpose of quietly waking and focusing on the ride to follow. As I finish my tea, I consult google maps to plot my ride, imagining which direction and what kind of climbing I aim to do.

Breakfast done, back to the bedroom to select cycling kit for the morning’s ride. Then helmet, glasses, gloves, and shoes are carried out to the garage, along with a bidon full of sports drink and an energy bar in my jersey pocket. A quick inspection of the bike and then pumping up the tires. I slip out of my beaten up sandals and put on my cycling shoes. Then I clip in, roll down our short driveway and onto our quiet road. It’s almost 400 meters to the top before I need to make a decision as to whether I will continue left or right. The decision has already been made and I roll into the route I have already planned.

Invariably, the first few kilometers are done at a lazy pace. Not so much a warm-up, but a wake-up. And also the notion that any ride out of the valley will start with some fairly hefty climbing, which starts soon. Breaking through that first physical wall happens somewhere in that first climb. After that, the legs are stronger and the lungs are looser. After that, I feel like I can ride forever. My breathing calms quickly after the climbing and I settle into a smooth rhythm, usually in a fairly relaxed position. The pace varies, but I don’t know how to dawdle on the bike. My pace is a good one. Not full on racing or training speed, but comfortable and fast. Instead of dropping down gears at the bottom of a small hill, I jump out of the saddle and will the bike to the top, swaying it this way and that underneath me. Lighter hills: my feet dance in the pedals and I sprint to the top. Steeper/longer ones: I realize my gearing might not be ideal and force the bike up, pulling as much on the upswing of the pedal stroke with my hamstrings as I’m stomping the pedal down with my quads.

The loops vary. In a week, I’ll frequently try variants of the same ride, but then will point myself in a different direction the following week. I’m always looking for new routes, new options, new strips of road that help to shape the ride. I have my favorites, and I fall back on them. And there are roads I avoid. Others that challenge me. As the ride progresses, I lean into turns a little more aggressively. My hands shift more frequently from the hoods to the drops and back again. I watch the cadence of legs pistoning up and down, the bike’s top tube between them. Sometimes, I concentrate on my form; other times, it just happens. Occasionally, I notice that fatigue or distraction has me pedaling slower than I would like and I kickstart my pace. From time to time, I also notice that my fatigue is illusory and that I can push a lot harder than I have been. Some rides, I jumping between gears, unable to find a suitable resistance. Other rides, I might as well be riding a single speed.

Toward the end of the ride, I look for an excuse to ride past Café Domestique. An espresso and a quick chat—or the end of a bike race on the big screen if I have timed my ride well—is a nice way to end the proceedings. The rest of the day may involve any manner of adventures—family or work—but the coffee serves as a bridge between the private time and my reintegration to the rest of the world.

I do little to hide the fact that I ride. I talk about cycling too much. I shave my legs. I have a series of cycling-related t-shirts. I ride all over town on one bike or another. But the practice of cycling is still a very private exercise. Very rarely do I ride in the company of others. My preference is to ride alone. Part of it may have to do with the freedom of being able to determine for myself when I ride, what routes to take, and not wanting to be slowed by others or slow others down. Another part likely involves the solitude and the freedom to let my mind wander.

But also to focus. Going hard, punishing mind and body, is a private conversation between your mind, your legs, and your heart. Can you go that little bit farther? Can you push that little bit harder? It’s a conversation borne out exclusively in the inner recesses of your own soul. It’s how you embrace the pain and solitude of riding that shapes your relationship with the bicycle and the road. It’s also the very purest and truest expression of the spirit of cycling, which I think is eloquently and articulately stated on the Velominati Keepers’ page, as “our agony—our badge of honor—our sin.” And it’s worn only on the inside of the jersey.

For me, cycling is not about brashness or bravado. It’s not about chest-thumping or accolades or being able to proclaim oneself the hardest of them all. It’s not about race wins or getting up after crashes and wearing the rashes with pride. It’s not the teammate’s praise that you were really mashing it. There’s only one valuation of hardness or success or enjoyment or felicity or endurance or power that matters; your own. Riding yourself to the limit is always just out of reach, but tantalizingly close enough for one to keep reaching for it. It doesn’t involve going out looking for pain, but it’s there in the quiet and private satisfaction of the self.

When asked how he defined beauty, Ernest Hemingway replied: grace under pressure. I’ve never heard a better definition. And I think riding solo offers a similar application. Through the silent, painstaking practice of striving for the unattainable and drinking in the sorrows, riding a quiet stretch of road alone echoes Hemingway in quiet reverence. There’s a monkish vow of silence implicit in the true meaning of the soloist’s craft. It’s getting up early to fit in a ride and thrilling at the awe-full crispness of the pre-dawn air as you click into the pedals. And the light whizz of the chain as you roll up your street (not to be heard often thereafter) and the tightness across your chest and lungs when you’re in the thick of it. And then going harder. I ride for me, for fitness, for pleasure. The more I ride, the more I appreciate the nature of cycling aestheticism (I’ve always been deeply drawn to its history and heritage). But that’s not why I ride. It’s a state of being and there is only one judge.

As a teenager, I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a short story about a Borstal boy who finds solace in running. His story is not dissimilar from a number of accounts—true and fictional—of talented endurance athletes—cyclists and runners—who lose themselves in their discipline as a means of escape. The harder they run/ride, the more they are very evidently running/riding away from something. (In that context, it might be worth noting that my rides are always loops and I am intent on returning. But the ride—alone—is a kind of solace.) The tragedy of Sillitoe’s story, though, is that his protagonist is presented with an opportunity to get out of detention if he wins a race. He speeds away from the others, but stops just short of the line—to the shock and disappointment of his wardens. Running—and running quickly—is his lone escape and he will not exchange it for his freedom. In his running he is free.

Cycling, I am free. I may race, but I do not need to. The time, the exertion, the thoughts are mine. They don’t haunt me into riding faster as they might for some. I have no ghosts and see none on my rides. But, alone with my thoughts, I do see deeper into myself and ride harder for it. I enjoy the company of other riders, but I don’t yearn for it. My perfect ride is one that scratches close to achieving la volupté—that perfect rhythm. It’s not something you can share and something that disappears as quickly as it comes, especially if you should need to shout to your colleague: “It’s here! I’m doing it!” La volupté is private. There is no one to tell, no one with whom to share it. Other than replying to the query “good ride?” with a smile and a “yes.”

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