Think back on the first time you got on a bike and rode off to points unknown. The first time I did that, I was on my Raleigh Chopper (my mom was too counter-culture to buy me a Schwinn Stingray) and I began threading through the neighborhood to the east of my home, which was a warren of narrow, sidewalk-less roads carving rolling hills into clusters of half-acre lots. I made new friends, met a few dogs and waved to the fathers mowing emerald lawns that Saturday afternoon.

When I was given my first 10 speed, I refreshed that experience, riding farther afield, seeing parts of my city previously unknown to me. So it went with my first good road bike, my first mountain bike, the first time I rode in Massachusetts and my first rides in each of the towns I’ve lived since then.

Those less purposeful rides introduced me to towns I adopted, restaurants I regulared, trails I memorized. They literally made my world bigger and introduced me to things I’d not have encountered otherwise.

In a cyclist’s life, the Where does that go? excursions probably total fewer than a single percent of our rides. But as a metaphor, they say much about our cycling lives. There are the stretches where we can see 100 yards ahead, but not around that turn at the end of the block. There are the roads we’ve ridden east but not west and lo how the view changes. How many times did we pass something while riding with friends that we returned to investigate later?

Cycling has also introduced me to places of the mind that I don’t think I’d have found otherwise. The bike delivered me to a spirituality that centered me when Catholicism stopped working. Simply pedaling a bike for two hours could restore my sense of wonder about the world and bring me an inner calm that church couldn’t match.

Group riding taught me about the social contract in a way that no civics course ever could. Share your food. Give your friends shelter when they need it. Point out the obstacles. Tend to the fallen. Don’t leave anyone for dead.

The most remarkable part of my journey is how cycling enabled me to enter a state of optimal performance—a flow state.

And in learning about flow, I learned things about the brain I’d never understood. We are wired for mystical experiences; those times I arrived at the bottom of a descent and felt like I’d touched something deep in the universe, that I’d entered a realm bigger than me, helped me to understand my depression, how the bike sustained me even as I edged near despair.

The wonder to me is how my best experiences on the bike led me to read about the mysteries of the brain and how that delivered me to Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind,” which helped me to find the treatment that restored color to my life. I hadn’t been able to see how my emotional terrain had faded like an old photograph.

I never considered where cycling would take me on the inside as I became increasingly devoted to it. I never considered that it could lead somewhere within that was much further from home than any place I went outside, that it could do as much for my mental fitness as it did for my physical fitness.

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  1. johnrom719 says

    Patrick, I’m a sucker for these introspective paeans to the bike-mind-life connection. Great stuff; you say what many of us feel. Thank you.

    Isn’t it interesting how people find different (external) routes to their inner life? Some people hunt, some quilt, some play chess. And some ride bikes. Some of us also find great meaning in the traditional spiritual disciplines, but also mix in some cycling. Its not syncretism, not a violation of the first commandment; more like fusion in cooking. Some of my favorite cuisines mix ideas from different continents. Like Bahn Mi: Vietnamese spicy pork and marinated vegetables on a French baguette and mayonnaise. Yum!

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