Why I Ride
WHY I RIDE
Recently a friend asked me why I ride my bike, a question all longtime cyclists have been asked more than a few times. I have been cycling for about 40 years now and have been asked about my curious passion so many times that I have a few uninspired truisms I can rattle-out about health or physical fitness, then step on to the next topic like an artful dodger. Any attempt at a serious answer only results in the questioner adopting a furrowed-brow look of utter bafflement, like the stunned visage of the hapless dullard stepping out of a port-o-john after accidentally looking down. A person who doesn’t ride or who has never engaged in an endurance activity on a regular basis is incapable of grasping the sheer joy and exhilaration, the sense of accomplishment, and the feeling of well-being that riding a bike can gift a person. Not to mention, both modern scientists and ancient scribes have recognized that not every aspect of existence can be sufficiently expressed or explained by arranging letters and words in a certain order no matter how gifted one is as a wordsmith or raconteur, and this truth also applies to any attempt to describe the magic experienced by pedaling around on a piece of lightweight metal, so I usually avoid going too deep with an answer. But when my friend, a fellow cyclist, asked the question and I responded with a tired cliché, he pressed me: “No, I am serious, why do you ride?”
It had been a long time since I’d thought about, much less articulated, a thoughtful reason to such a simple question. “Lots of reasons,” I said, grasping for one. “I like to be fit,” I added, falling back on a dog-eared standard. Later, riding my bike home, I began to think about why I love to ride and the reasons piled up. Wanting to make sure that I am always at the ready, that I’m not caught unprepared again, and even though it conflicts with what I mentioned above about the inability of words to adequately express the sublime, I decided to jot down a few of the reasons I keep riding my bike year after year. And though the reasons listed overlap in some particulars, each remains separate and distinct from the others. The next time you are harassed by loafers, idlers, cynics or layabouts, feel free to borrow any of the reasons in this list.
I like being fit: True, I wrote above this was one of my handy stock answers, but it’s also true: I like the feeling of being physically fit, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by other endurance enthusiasts. Being fit gives me a spring in my step and makes life off the bike more enjoyable because I feel stronger, more invigorated, I have more energy. I think physical fitness enhances my quality of life and seems to make me more productive in other areas. Riding consistently and suffering occasionally sometimes ignites a fire within me, like a shot of adrenaline, as it does with all endurance enthusiasts, and provides the motivation needed for consistency. Any type of extended aerobic activity can keep a person fit, but cycling, for me, especially as I age, checks all the boxes. It’s a low impact activity I can pursue to a ripe old age…as long as I can avoid bouncing off the blacktop. Physical fitness also seems to promote mental health, and I am sure I have heard or read somewhere that medical studies have even proven that beneficial endorphins are released because of endurance activities, but I’ve never paid much attention because these papers simply confirm what I already know to be true. There’s certainly a selfish aspect to cycling and the pursuit of fitness for the sheer pleasure of it—it takes time away from family and work—but other positive factors mentioned below act as a counterbalance, and I hope, even enhance these other areas of my life. Cycling has taught me to make my time count instead of merely counting time.
Social Bonds and Friendships: As I mentioned, I have been riding a bike for 40 years now and during many of those first years I raced and traveled around and had different teammates and met a lot of other riders from all over the U.S. and abroad and forged lifelong friendships, even though many of us are now scattered to the winds. Cycling bonds run deep and are cemented by hundreds and hundreds of miles spent pedaling together over the roadway in pursuit of a common goal, often in physical distress and occasionally in dire conditions. And though I haven’t raced in a long time and now stick mostly to riding the roads around Athens, I’ve always been able to ride in a group of like-minded friends that share my enthusiasm for the bike, so the brotherhood and sisterhood created by pedaling long distances together is still a reality. My closest friends are my fellow cyclists, my brothers and sisters of the blacktop with whom I pedal the open road—the ties that bind in cycling are like a constrictor knot, one of the most effective binding knots because it’s simple and secure and impossible to untie once cinched. I’ve even heard somewhere that strong social connections are also one of the four keys to a happier, more meaningful life, but that’s another study that simply confirms the obvious.
Adventure: I love to explore, it can be a great adventure. Even as a wee lad, I secretly rode my banana-seat bike several miles outside the established perimeter my mom set for me and which under no circumstances I should breach—I remember I was amazed how far from home I could make it on my bike, and though I was only 3-4 miles away, as a 7-year-old, I might as well have traveled to another country. It was my first taste of real freedom and independence, and the seeds of wanderlust were sewn. I had the same childlike wonderment the first time I completed a 100-mile ride—I was amazed I could ride 100 miles on a bike and see rural areas I would not otherwise have seen while on a (mostly) noiseless two-wheeled machine and it struck a chord deep within me. The urge to explore, even as an old man, has never left me. When I raced and traveled to other cities, after any road race no matter the length, my original cycling partner, Greg Morocco, and I would hop on our bikes and take an exploratory ride around the city for an hour or so checking out the lay of the land. My hometown of Athens is also a great town for a cyclist to use as a base for exploration because we can ride in any direction and the number of routes and roads to choose from is countless—we can always stitch a route together in a way we’ve never ridden before, which helps prevent rides from becoming stale and uninspiring—we never step in the same river twice. In Athens, there is always an adventure waiting just outside my door.
Thrill of a Long Ride with a Strong Group: The thrill of riding, and the reward of having finished, a long ride of four hours or more with a strong group of cyclists working together is one of those remarkable facets of cycling that is difficult to explain, only one who takes part in the action can truly understand. The “thrill” probably comes from the fact that a long ride with a strong group encapsulates nearly all the reasons I love to ride: the fitness gained from working hard, the sense of adventure, the tangible connection with others, immersion in the natural environment, the competition that naturally breaks out at times, and the sense of the sublime I sometimes feel. When a strong group is rolling along in an efficient single file line or smoothly rotating paceline, it can be a beautiful sight to behold and an amazing experience to be a part of. A group working together efficiently over the course of several hours and over all sorts of varying terrain is no less awe inspiring than a finely tuned chamber orchestra that is nailing all its notes. The speed which an organized group of experienced cyclists can average over the course of 80 or 100 miles is astounding to one unfamiliar with our sport, as it should be, but focusing too much on average speed can numb one to the reality of the suffering involved when one spends 4 to 5 hours (or more) in the saddle. To hunker down and hang in and finish with the group is the payoff, the communal feelings of exhaustion and satisfaction at having completed a demanding task. And though I’m tired after a long, hard group ride, I always know I’m alive, I’m locked and loaded and linked-in, I’m taking part in the great cosmic dance, not sitting on the sidelines while the big world spins, and it’s both thrilling and rewarding every time.
Immersed in the Natural Environment: A more elegant way of stating this is: I like being outside. As a kid I could look out my bedroom window and look down into the woods and see the Oconee River as it waters flowed south. I was drawn to the river and the woods and spent countless hours in them exploring the natural world and following the river on the bank as far as I could—I liked being outside. Of course, my generation didn’t have the distraction of the internet, video games and cell phones, which seems to pull kids indoors these days. My job is an indoor one so maybe that’s another reason I still feel the tug of the outdoors. In Athens, I’m spoiled because I can ride out my front door and be in rural areas within 30 minutes, sometimes less, and the woods and forests a short time later. Being in the unspoiled natural environment is therapeutic and I don’t need to read a peer- reviewed study to confirm it, I know it to be true. It’s peaceful, serene, relaxing, and provides a good setting to think or meditate or work issues out. Or sometimes it’s an opportunity to shut the brain off, to relax and focus solely on the moment. The Japanese believe “forest bathing” can provide emotional healing, decrease blood pressure, improve a person's general sleep-wake cycle, improve relationship skills, reduces stress, and reduce both aggression and depression. I’m certain all this is true, but as I said, I just like being outside.
Sense of the Sublime: I think most cyclists have those rare “magic moments” on a bike, whether it be a day when one’s legs are as light as feathers yet as strong as a bull’s, or one has a moving day on an incredibly scenic ride in the mountains, or simply that one is deeply satisfied with the simple joy of being surrounded by friends while taking part in an arduous task which doubles as a shared passion. And during some of those golden moments, if I keep my eyes open, it seems I can reach across the void and touch the sublime. Perhaps it’s only that I’m only delirious after a tough ride, worn to a nub and seeing stars; either way, I’m still dazzled by the light.
These are just a few of the reasons I ride my bike but the list continues and includes the fact that the environmental impact of cycling is minimal, and because I am a cyclist and a lawyer I can be an advocate in the courts, and cycling is also a way to scratch the slight competitive itch I sometimes have, and on and on and on, and I would continue to add to the list but I have to run or I’ll miss the ride.