By Lukas Brinkerhoff
I learned to ride a bike on one that was a bit too big for me. My dad picked it up at a yard sale somewhere and put some training wheels on it so I could ride. I couldn’t touch the ground and pedaling was a bit of a stretch. After a while, he decided it was time for me to learn to ride. I didn’t want anything to do with it. So we compromised, like good human beings do, and he removed one of the training wheels. I rode around leaning off to one side for a good chunk of my childhood.
And then he had had enough.
He removed the second training wheel and taught me how to ride. I can remember that feeling of freedom as he let go of my seat and I found that perfect equilibrium that we all know and love so much. I then turned, with the wind blowing in my hair and a giant smile on my face, and found the steepest hill to climb and began to pedal until my legs felt like they would fall off and my lungs were about to burst. I can remember how amazing that first climb was. I just didn’t want it to stop. I pedaled all the way to the top and then fell over because I still couldn’t reach the ground.
I’m guessing that every single one of you had a similar experience, remembering that freedom, the thrill of cranking up a hill with everything you’ve got and not wanting to ever have the pain stop. Am I right?
No, of course I’m not right. No one remembers their first bike ride and wanting to crank up a hill with the burn in their legs getting bigger and bigger with each pedal stroke. No, we remember the freedom of that moment when we realized that with a little balance we can maneuver the most amazing machine ever invented and coast. We can get something more for our effort, it’s not free. No, there’s no free ride, but we do get a bonus. Not like walking, which is the first sense of freedom we enjoy, riding allows us to stop putting forth effort and reap the benefits of our last push. We can coast.
One of the most succinct reasons I have ever heard for riding was thrown out during a class at Specialized Bicycle Component University. I don’t recall the class discussion or why it was said or even who said it, but the words have stuck with me. Someone said, “I pedal half the time so I can coast the other half.” And then everyone laughed. It dawned on me that this person had nailed the reason I love riding singlespeeds so much. The hills suck, there’s no denying that, but without any taller gears you only have the option of coasting down the other side.
There is an inherent amount of suffering involved in riding a bicycle. So much so that we learn to revel in it and even romanticize it. Just look at the Paris-Roubaix, we wait for that race, it shows us what can be endured on a bicycle for the pure sake of enduring it. We do, in some sense have to be masochists to want to ride our bikes for hundreds of miles or to race all summer long dedicating our weekends to cranking around a dusty course passing and being passed and at the end, for what, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Suffering is part of the deal and there is nothing wrong with that.
After one of my recent group rides around a southern Utah mesa, a few of us were sitting around talking about the ride, the weekend, bikes and enjoying some frothy beverages. One of the people who had just pedaled around this sandstone paradise mentioned how fun the ride had been. Nothing unusual there, we were all thinking the same thing. The stoke had been running high all day despite the strong winds and cooler than normal temperatures. We had all had fun, but what came next made me stop and think. This same rider, who had just had a blast riding his bike said the he didn’t usually get to have fun rides. No, those were few and far between.
As cyclists, we catch a bug when we learn to ride and it’s one that isn’t easily shaken. I worry that many of us forget that there is a yin to the yang of suffering in cycling and that yin is coasting. We are masochists enjoying every ounce of burning sweat as it drips into our eyes, but we often forget that, at the same time, we are all hedonists. We forget that there is nothing quite like ripping down a flowy section of singletrack with the brakes wide open praying that the trail doesn’t stop going down or the joy at the crest of a hill where you just gave every ounce of energy you had left to make it and then letting gravity pull you downward as you gain momentum and coast as far as you possibly can.
I do remember my first moments on a bike without training wheels. It happened much as described above. My father let go of my saddle and I wobbled, but somehow I found that spot where my brain realized that all it had to do was adjust my body from one side to another and I would be fine. I gave a kicking pedal stroke and off I went. I pedaled and then coasted. And then repeated. And then, seeing that the bike was too big for me, I wobbled out of control and ran into the retaining wall in front of our neighbor’s house. I left the bike where it laid and ran crying back home.
It wasn’t an entire success, but I never forgot how awesome it felt to pedal and then be able to coast.