By Lukas Brinkerhoff
I take a quick look down at the Garmin attached to my handlebars. I know the mileage is correct because I’ve been here before and I’ve been watching those numbers slowly tick by for a couple of hours. The only thing out of the ordinary is that I feel like I should have already finished the ride. My barely 20 pound bike feels like I’m pedaling through mush and my entire neck and shoulders have decided to stop working leaving me gazing mere feet in front of my wheel. I’d probably bail if I could, but where I am there is no cell service and there are no quick ways out. I can turn around but it won’t be any faster than just continuing.
I continue stomping on the pedals wishing there were some gears somewhere that I could use to make it easier, but alas my singlespeed’s derailleurs have ceased to function. I pedal until my legs say no and I fall off the bike to walk until my brain overrides the messages coming from my limbs and I remount to try this monstrosity of a climb once again. My riding partners have left me behind. My wife is rocking her newly acquired singlespeed like a champ and Kenny and Heather are already at the top aboard their tandem. I’m the slow guy trying to somehow figure out how to get to the top of this hill.
And this is just the midpoint of our ride.
As humans I believe we have an innate need to progress, to continue to learn or improve whatever it is that we are doing. At least that’s how I explain the midlife crisis or people getting “burned out” on things like cycling. When you do the same thing over and over again without making any progress towards an end goal, we become complacent, apathetic and find it hard to continue. This can be anything from getting up in the morning to go to work or pedaling around your local mountain bike trail. If you are doing it just to do it, it is boring.
I believe that we cyclists need to be aware of this need and to feed it. We need rides that destroy us, big rides. These rides may leave us trembling at the very thought of beginning them with a bit of anxiety and possibly the need to excuse yourself to the restroom. These can be a shuttle run on some gnarly downhill trail or maybe your big ride is ripping yourself apart at the local crit or maybe pedaling the Continental Divide Trail fixed. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just big. Big rides don’t have to be long, they don’t have to be Red Bull Rampage level, they just need to challenge you in a way that brings you to the end of your wits, muscles cramped and a giant smile on your face.
Part of the anxiety of big rides is the unknown. Everyone fears the unknown and pushing yourself to your limits means there is a chance that you are not going to make it. For some people, this may actually mean not making it out alive. If you’re idea of a challenge is riding your bike across the Iditarod course in the dead of winter, for example, not making it is pretty serious. For most of us, it means that we may have a broken limb or suffer the embarrassment of calling your mom to pick you up at mile 20 of the biggest ride of the year because, well, you blew up.
And that’s the point. If there isn’t a pretty good chance that you will want to not finish your big ride, it’s not big enough. When you roll up to that drop for your chango charge, there should be a level of anxiety that can only be conquered by surrendering to the unknown and flailing yourself into space with hopes that you will land safely on the ground, that or surrendering back to where you are. It’s important to get to that point where it’s either success or failure and failure doesn’t necessarily look all that bad.
To be completely honest, I found myself at that point where continuing is what was needed but throwing in the towel seemed so much better. I knew the hill well, I’d climbed it before and it always hurt, but for whatever reason that day was different. The sweat was dripping off my head and my legs weren’t even burning, they were just dead. Keep moving was my mantra. Pedal, dismount, walk, pedal, dismount, walk, pedal, dismount, walk. Slowly and surely I began to make progress toward the others waiting at the top.
I was ready to quit. I didn’t care. Fortunately, this wasn’t a place that you could quit. I was on a road that is sandwiched by two wilderness areas meaning no other way in or out, and as I mentioned no cell service to call for that mom driven taxi. Strictly out of necessity I made it to the top breathing hard I collapse onto my handlebars and rest for a few minutes. And then we headed down the other side.
By the time I hit cell service and an easy pickup location, I have no desire to quit. We are finally on the fun part almost nothing but scenic singletrack all the way home. The reprieve provided by the descent is enough for me to refocus and remember that this is in reality fun. We finished out the loop and rolled up to the Mooseknuckler Cycling Alliance Social Lounge. There were ice-cold frothy beverages awaiting and the four of us collapsed onto the porch and enjoyed the warmth of the sun as it dropped behind the horizon.
Having just finished my first big ride of the year, all I can talk and think about is the next one. The elation of pushing throw that point of suffering is addictive and I can’t wait to find it again.
Lukas Brinkerhoff blogs about mountain biking and life at mooseknuckleralliance.org.