Peloton; fuel for the ride

Jan/Feb 2012 Edition 08 Photo Annual - Article by Michael Crook

Act 1: Fun

Think back to the first time you rode a bicycle. Not the first time you rode with training wheels or the first time someone held you up as you half pedalled, half coasted, but the first time you pedalled away under your own steam. It was a magical moment, wasn’t it?

The world zipped by as you held the handlebar in your hands and did a little dance with your feet. You, probably for the first time in your life, were in command of a piece of machinery as large as you were, and somehow this machine, that when at rest could only remain upright with the aid of a kickstand, was bearing you through the world, mysteriously balanced on two wheels that didn’t share a single flat surface between them.

What made the bicycle different from all the other great devices in our lives back then such as cars, washing machines and refrigerators, was that we had the ability to control a bicycle in its full range of use. If we pedalled like the electric motor of a toy car, we went fast. If we leaned at an angle that would cause a standing person to fall, we would turn. If we stood up, we got a view of the world that even a stool couldn’t offer. We could enjoy all it had to offer us, and yet, it contained something hidden in its operation, something we could taste but not yet chew that made a bicycle more than just a device.

It was an adventure.

That you ride a bicycle today is a testament to how powerful that first experience was. And each time we go for a ride and see other cyclists on the road, we are united less by the fact that we are sharing an activity than the way the activity tells a story of our childhood. That first ride was a ‘Eureka!’ moment, a Joycean epiphany, an electrified thrill of such undeniable power we are desperate to give it a suitable name.

The proof that this is true is easy enough to locate. Unless you are Greg LeMond, George Hincapie or one of those other, rare cyclists who took up cycling in childhood, raced through your teens and continued straight into adulthood, your riding probably suffered a lapse that coincided with the day you passed your driving test. When you’re 16, car beats bicycle every day of the week, twice on Saturday night. You needn’t feel guilty. This is the natural order. Because more speed is better, the bicycle hardly stands a chance.

But you’re riding today, and that means you have found your way back. That first ride as an emancipated adult had a certain slap-your-forehead quality, too-a moment of realization that had you asking, ‘Why on earth did I ever stop riding a bike?’

It’s ok, we are all prodigal sons and daughters of the sport. Finding our way to the bike for each daily ride is a triumph. It’s a victory for pure pleasure, for doing something that the duties of our life – work, family, cleaning house, paying bills – doesn’t require. It’s a salute to our senses, practicing otherwise lapsed skills that we, as predators, once needed just to survive. It’s a tribute to good sense, for without the pressure release of elevating our heart rate to a point that burns off frustration and anger like kindling in a fire, we simmer – a pot left on a long forgotten stove. It’s a reminder that we are here once (that we know of) on this spinning rock called Earth and that we owe it to ourselves and those we love to engage the world in a playful way again and again if we are to keep our souls.

Why the bicycle? We could run; its cheaper. But there’s no mystery to the act. We kick off and spend a fraction of a second airborne before kicking off once again for another fraction of a second as if in flight.

It sounds better on paper than in real life. There’s no coasting, turns don’t feature the tickle of gravity pulling at you and the world passes with such a lazy turn a watch’s minute hand seems more on the ball.

We could do the gym rat thing. You’ve seen news shows discuss the merits of consistent exercise and hear the suggestion that 45 minutes three times a week can do you good. And as a cyclist, you probably thought, ‘Sheesh, I did more than that on Saturday morning.’

We could surf, but most of us don’t live near a beach and frankly the rides are shorter than the decent off a freeway overpass. We could go inline skating or downhill skiing or even cross-country skiing, and while all of those activities are great, we turn to cycling instead of other sports for some pretty compelling reasons.

You can ride from your front door more days than not. The roads are always there. Always. It’s not like the wind can die down one day and the roads evaporate. Freezing temperatures may not make for our favourite riding, but even a ride in the cold has the power to brighten an otherwise dreary day. Unlike waves of downhill ski runs, its easy to share the road with other riders; hell, it’s more fun. And the road is free, too.

The synergy we experience when we share a ride with another cyclist has no easy parallel in sport. We can ride inches from one another and carry on a conversation of true intellectual depth. We can chat about the most ordinary topics and discover that 60 miles have rolled by. When the mood strikes, we can combine our efforts, trading pulls and hiding in drafts and in that coordinated effort we can discover all the elements of bicycle racing, from the safety of the pack to the timing necessary in a team time trial, to the acceleration that can deliver a lone rider to the finish line first. With two riders you have all that’s necessary for a complete bike race.

Cycling goes other sports one better in another important regard. It increases our potential range of aerobic expression. There aren’t many speeds in running. Indeed, most sports have a minimum workload just to participate. With cycling, we can pedal with ease, putting out less energy than is required to walk, while moving at the pace of a decent job; not a bad bargain. Coasting requires little more effort than sitting on a couch. When it comes to maximum power output, the bicycle is a machine of superlative torture. We can go until we literally can’t burn another calorie and unlike most sports, going until muscle failure doesn’t result in crash-and-burn fall over the finish like we’ve seen in some marathons. We simply sit down and coast. That ability to allow us to operate at the full range of human ability is what makes the bike more than just a tool. It becomes an extensive of ourselves, like longer arms or legs, allowing us to experience an unfettered athleticism because we aren’t bound by some fear of falling. The bicycle is us, without restriction.

As a means to see the world it not only beats jogging thanks to the quicker passage through the landscape, it beats cars as well. The view from a bike is almost unrestricted. Not only is your view from left to right and ground to sky uninterrupted, turning around for a look back, either at scenery or at the traffic for self-preservations sack, is far easier than when on foot. From a car, the world is as intimate as a photograph and offers as many sounds and smells. But when in the saddle, we get the full complement of the environment – the full view, all the sounds and smells that help tell the story of a place. Fields of lavender, groves of lemons, or occasionally the poop of a thousand cows, a bike lets you know what commerce is conducted with the land.

Riding a bike means being engaged in the world on a visceral level. As a cyclist, you’re a one-person weather report, a thumb in the eye to routine and drudgery. A ride is a celebration of the sun, even when the sun does not appear. Riding a bike is to retain youth like an ember tended in an ancient fire.

Let’s be honest, cycling is just better. }p{